The Cocos Islands
Photos and story by Veda Dante
It takes a lot for me to leave the paradise near Byron Bay I call home but when two of your closest friends invite you to a remote tropical island, “no” is simply not an option.
I won’t go into the fact that my partner and I missed our flight to Perth and had to wait eight hours for the next one. Nor will I regale you with the epic fail of driving to the airport unaware my passport had expired ten months earlier. (Luckily you only need photo ID to board this particular flight from Perth International Airport.)
What I will say is that seeing the classic horseshoe shaped reef from the air made the long journey worth it.
Located in the Indian Ocean, some 2,750kms northwest of Perth in Western Australia, the Cocos Islands (also called Cocos and Keeling Islands) are your quintessential coral atolls. Their remoteness is made even starker by the vast expanse of a deep blue sea that disappears into the horizon in every direction.
The four of us arrive on a hot and humid Friday morning and I instantly feel like I have stepped back in time. We had been told to bring fresh food like fruit, vegetables and meat and when I walked into the island’s only supermarket, I instantly see why. What it does sell – mainly canned food and vegetables locked in storage for months – costs a small fortune.
The drive to our accommodation, The Homestead, literally takes one minute. We have the best of both worlds with sweeping lagoon views on one side and the ocean a few metres walk on the other side. Within an hour of unpacking we have two lines in the water; 15 minutes later we have enough fish for dinner. This is bliss.
The four of us explore the lagoon on motorised outriggers with Cocos Islands Adventure Tours and the majesty of the natural landscape quickly unfolds. Tropical palm trees drape lazily over stark white sand that literally squeaks beneath your feet when you walk on it. Deserted beaches where there isn’t a soul in sight, except for the Australian Customs and Border Protection official who randomly appears to search the horizon with his binoculars.
There are plenty of shallow and protected lagoons for first-time snorkelers to see the atoll’s astonishing array of marine life and coral ecosystem. In fact, there’s roughly 1,550 species of sea creatures to discover in waters that are crystal clear and deliciously warm. Experienced divers can choose from a number of un-crowded dive sites including wrecks, reefs, caves and steep drop-offs.
It’s probably a good time to mention one particular species of marine life you will definitely encounter: the white tipped reef shark. They are everywhere! So much so that you will have several in your sights every time you enter the water.
Of the 27 low-lying islands, only two are inhabited. Home Island is mainly resided by the Cocos Malays while West Island is home to various government employees, a handful of tourist operators, and visitors like us.
Interestingly, one of the first naval battles of World War I took place on the Cocos Islands. The infamous German ship, the SMS Emden was defeated by HMAS Sydney 1 and ran aground on North Keeling Island. It is classified as a historical dive site and protected under the Historical Shipwrecks Act 1976, which means only permit holders are allowed to enter the 500-metre exclusion zone.
Our time is spent fishing, swimming, snorkeling, and enjoying the duty-free beverages at the local bar. And by bar, I mean a cool room with a cash register.
It seems our trip may end the way it started – with a missed flight. Strong winds and pounding tropical rain, which seemed to have come from nowhere the day before, are preventing the plane from landing. And the next one isn’t for another three days. While the idea of being stranded on a tropical island is pretty amusing, we’ve run out of fresh food and ready to go home.
On the third and final attempt, the pilot touches down and all the passengers are quickly ushered onto the plane before the weather turns worse. It’s a bumpy takeoff and before we know it, the Cocos Islands disappear into the deep blue sea.
Location: 2,750kms northwest of Perth, WA
Climate: Tropical with high humidity; year-round temps 24-30°
Currency: Duty-free Australian dollars
Language: English and Malay
Visa: Not required; photo ID mandatory
Getting there: Virgin Australia operate 3 flights per week, departing from Perth International Airport