“If there is a paradise on this earth, it is Keeling." ... Joshua Slocum, 1897
It's hard having a true appreciation for a place until you learn a little more about its history. In Joshua Slocum's classic tale of his solo circumnavigation, Sailing Alone Around the World, he recounts his visit to Cocos Keeling back 1897. His writing remains relevant and a most enjoyable read more than a century later.
The atoll was discovered in 1609 by Captain William Keeling (East India Company) and named by a British hydrographer in 1805. A Scottish trader, John Clunies-Ross, visited the islands in 1814 and returned with his family and eight “sailor-artisans” in 1825, dug wells and planted coconut palms. Alexander Hare had actually arrived just shortly before Ross with a harem of 40 Malay women, but the women sought Ross' protection and Hare was soon driven out. Clunies-Ross imported more Malay workers, built up his coconut plantations for copra production and prospered. Queen Victoria granted the islands to the Clunies-Ross descendants in perpetuity until they were purchased from the family by Australia in 1978.
Our 10-day passage from Geraldton, Western Australia to the Cocos Keeling Islands in the Indian Ocean was idyllic. We could not have asked for better weather, better winds nor better conditions. (Okay, the 10th day sucked, but the good days were really good! ) See a photo journal of the passage here or to read the daily blog posts of the passage, search "Cocos" on the blog page.
Planned miles: 1422 Actual Miles: 1468
Days at sea: 10.5 / Average speed: 5.8 kts
Flying fish: 14 Squid: 4 Birds: 1 Edible fish: 0
Though the winds and seas were fairly idyllic on our way to the Cocos Keeling Islands, our arrival wasn't as pretty. The wind screamed, the sea was grey and crashed around us and the rain poured down in torrents. To add insult to injury, once inside the atoll, the anchorage was full with ARC rally boats! We were content to anchor in the big ship anchorage until there was more room.
After a day or two of heavy rain, the weather cleared and a couple of boats departed the anchorage, leaving us room to enter. What a delight! We were surrounded by startlingly clear and vibrant turquoise blue water. It almost hurt our eyes, it was that dazzling. We could see zillions of palm trees on Direction Island just in front of us with lots of cruisers milling about. Home Island, the home of the resident Cocos Malay people is about 1.5 miles away and quite clearly seen. West Island, the administrative center, airport and ex-pat Aussie hangout was hazy, about 5 miles away across the lagoon.
Heading ashore after several days at sea is always exciting. We noticed an info sign that showed a small map of the island with the Heritage Trail highlighted. Though Cocos Keeling had been primarily noted for its copra production, during both World Wars, these islands were strategic targets due to their location and the communication cable which operated here. The first stop on the walk was a new gazebo celebrating Australia's first naval victory here when the HMAS Sydney outgunned the German raider Emden, the hulk of which still lies in the waters off North Keeling Island. The well-kept path quickly deteriorated and led us along the rugged northern shore, where the waves were high and the surf was up. We curved round to rejoin the main path back to our starting point and followed another to a viewing platform at the southeast end of the crescent-shaped island. Along the way, we had glimpses of elusive ghost crabs which gave us the once over, then quickly darted back into their holes.
We noticed on our walk that several boats had left boat signs over the years which, of course, prompted David to find some driftwood and carve a sign for Nine of Cups.
The winds were down and the sun was bright as we dinghied across the lagoon to Home Island. We skirted around bommies in a zigzag pattern and finally connected with the channel into Home's little harbor. The shallow waters prevent supply ships from entering. We passed the ferry dock and jetty, beached the dinghy on the foreshore, then climbed up to the main road ... a brick-paved, single lane thoroughfare that was perfect for the quads and motor bikes that everyone seemed to be driving here. As we approached the jetty, we saw the Welcome to Home Island sign and an info kiosk with an island map.
We wandered around awhile, taking stock of our new surroundings then headed to the Shire Office to gain entrance to the tiny island museum. It was pretty informal ... "here's the key, please return it when you're through". The museum is housed in an old white-washed brick copra storage building. It's small, only one large room, in fact, but it held some interesting items and provided some background information on the Cocos Malay population. I was particularly intrigued with shadow puppetry which is an entertainment art they're working to revive here. The Clunies-Ross family, the owners of the old copra plantation, did everything possible to maintain the isolation of their workers, forbidding fraternization with visitors or even use of communications. Having left their homeland generations before, much of their culture, including their language, has morphed into a unique Cocos Island culture and only recently, with the advent of modern communications and especially the Internet, have they had the opportunity to explore their roots.
We always have a tendency to visit the local cemeteries. They speak of the culture and the history of the people. The setting was serene and beautiful. Cocos Malay grave markers incorporate an Islamic motif on each grave. Many were draped with the traditional head scarf worn by the women. Some had umbrellas or tiny canopies to protect the graves from the sun and elements. We also located the family graves of the original Clunies-Ross family, dating from the mid-19th century.
The Clunies-Ross family had built Oceania House during the heyday of the copra industry. The walls of the old estate are crumbling and little is left, but it was interesting to explore.
We dinghied over to Prison Island one day, within close proximity to Home Island. It was here that Alexander Hare and his seraglio of women were once relegated. Though beautiful, it's tiny and would certainly have been confining. The entrance is extremely shallow and it took quite a bit of maneuvering to reach the shore. There's not much there ... downed palm trees and dried up palm fronds, a few birds and an errant flip-flop or two that have washed up on the beach. It's a peaceful, beautiful place though and we enjoyed the meander ... a great respite from boat repairs and chores.
Living on Island Time
We pretty much planned an “excursion” every other day. One day to Home Island to explore; one day for working on the whisker pole; one day for snorkeling on the reef; one day to take down the jib and repair it and replace it with the yankee; one day to take the ferry to West Island; one day for cleaning the boat and getting her in shape for another long passage; one day for walking the Direction Island Heritage Trail. An excursion might last anywhere from a couple of hours to a whole day and we planned chores around this accordingly. On non-excursion days, we would still dinghy into Direction Island to walk a bit and take a break from our projects. Sometimes we brought our breakfast and insulated mugs with tea or coffee to shore and just sat and enjoyed the day from another vantage point or chatted with fellow cruisers. Sometimes we just walked the beach. One thing about island time ... there are no rules.
Ferry to West Island
West Island is the ex-pat Australian side of the atoll, the Admin Center, the largest supermarket AND the place we needed to visit to check out and get our clearance papers. We consulted the ferry schedule and there were no ferries from Direction Island until Thursday, so we dinghied over to Home Island, tied the dinghy securely to the long pier and caught the ferry from there. We boarded the ferry for the 20 minute ride, bought our tickets for $2.50 each and enjoyed a very old Tom & Jerry cartoon en route.
West Island is large enough to have a bus route and we took advantage of it to ride the 7km to the supermarket. The supermarket wasn't much, and in fact offered little more than the little market on Home Island had. We treated ourselves to lunch at the Tropika restaurant. David's "cheeseburger in Paradise" was just what the doctor ordered and the view was stupendous. West Island is also the location of Australian Customs & Immigration and we were able to check out for our next port of call ... Rodrigues Island. After nearly two weeks in the Cocos Keelings, it was time to head back into the wilds of the Indian Ocean.