Cocos Island Storytelling

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I’ve racked up a fair few frequent flier miles over the past few years and touched down in some interesting places around the world as well as at home. Each trip brings something new and I always try to find something unique to recall about each place I tour when I fly home. In Flores it was baiting Komodo dragons with my tasty looking (to dragons) thighs (‘Enter the Dragon’) and flaying the hide of a colleague in a traditional Caci ceremony (‘Whip it Real Good’). In Egypt I found myself sandboarding the Sahara on my way to the remote, secluded and ancient Siwa Oasis (‘Surprises in the Desert’) Its experiences like these that keep me coming back to sample more of the delights this world has to offer. Today I’m sitting in front of the Cocos Beach Motel on West Island in the Cocos (Keeling) Islands and reflecting on which parts of the trip will become the legend I retell again and again (with ever increasing embellishment) until age rips the memories from me.

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Cocos Islands is a miniscule chain of Islands forming a partial atoll somewhere in the Mid-Indian Ocean (south of Jakarta and West of Christmas Island) The largest Island is scarcely massive enough to fit an airstrip and, in parts, even West Island, the distance between the exposed outer reef and the impressive lagoon it protects is less than 20 metres. In terms of geography, it is memorable – usually referred to as a caldera of an ancient volcano mount, no part of the island belies its history of volcanic activity – instead, it appears to be a coral formation. Despite the ambiguity of its formation and its diminutive size when viewed as a drop in the great expanse of the Indian Ocean, I found little trouble filling a week as a castaway.

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One story I will share in future will be the reparative and relaxing qualities of sitting in a grove of coconut palms (in fact that story is already out there – ‘A Lovely Bunch of Coconuts’), but I’m not sure that will be the pinnacle of my Cocos-related story telling. The snorkelling was fantastic and varied across the island, and fishing was always an entertaining gamble with Giant Trevally and sharks lurking beneath the ferry wharves. Again, however, these will not be the lead stories in my travel chats. Ultimately, and as usual, the best stories from this trip will come from the people and the way they make an outcropping of rock in the middle of the sea their home. Cocos is an annexed territory under the auspices of Australia’s constitutional control – that is, it is the only place I’ve been where you have to exit Australia through International customs, effectively departing Australia for Australia. This, naturally, creates a situation where bureaucratic red tape renders your customs declarations confusing and difficult to explain.

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Things are no less unique on the Islands where a small contingent of Australians (around 700 people stay permanently on the island) go about their business in airline-monopoly enforced isolation. On the largest Island (cleverly named for its location relative to the other islands rather than the background of its inhabitants), West Island, reside around 150 mainly public service personnel who provide the territory’s infrastructure (police, education, quarantine and so on) and tourism services. On Home Island, a larger community (500) of mostly Cocos-Malay Australians go about their business, which on an Island almost completely carpeted with coconut palms might seem self-evident. While the population was seeded as a workforce for the now defunct copra industry, today life is as varied as in mainland Australia (although with a markedly smaller workforce and demand for labour). Home Island is a charming mix of island village and Perth Suburb, which is fitting when you consider that Cocos is a territory of Australia while also being subject to Western Australian statute. Home Island is also one of the few opportunities to view the islands as they may have been seen before the introduction of the coconut palms which now crowd almost every inch of the atoll.

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The jewel in the tourism crown for Cocos is certainly, however, Direction Island. Just a ferry hop from Home Island, DI (as it is known) is a crescent moon shaped island which is a perfect spot to relax and take in the dazzling blue waters of the caldera lagoon.

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Even now, sitting back at my desk in Perth, I’m unsure of which story will be the hero of my week in Cocos (Keeling) Islands, however you can be sure that plenty of people will hear about it as it is one of the most unique and relaxing spots I’ve travelled.

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