Having crossed the Pacific the previous year we were keen to discover what the Indian Ocean held in store. We had spent two exciting months exploring the Queensland coast from Bundaberg to Cape York, and now in Darwin we looked forward to ocean passages again after all that day-sailing. Although we were leaving mainland Australia, three of her territories lay before us like stepping stones across the Indian Ocean to Africa.
Dolphins swam alongside Stella Maris as we sailed away from Darwin en route to the first of these, an uninhabited nature reserve some 520 miles to the west called Ashmore Reef. Their joyful send-off brought us good luck during the three day trip in the form of perfect weather and excellent fishing. The dolphins eventually turned back to Darwin, but a short while later an unidentifiable Mohican-haired seabird arrived to hitch a ride. He found a comfortable spot on the aft deck and was happy to indulge in the freshly caught tuna we offered him. In return for our hospitality, our stowaway took leisurely turns around Stella Maris’ deck, leaving copious quantities of fresh guano to show his appreciation. He kept us company all through the first night’s watches and then some time the next morning decided to fly away. With his favourite perch on the aft deck now vacated, we were able to troll the lure once again. It wasn’t long before we’d caught another fish, but our spiky-haired friend didn’t return to share it.
As we made our way westwards, the southeast trade winds were steady in strength but fickle in direction. They insisted on dancing over the deck in a narrow band around 120 degrees, first above it and then below. This meant that we got plenty of practice poling and unpoling the genoa, a chore that continued throughout our night watches, interrupting our sleep. We found it difficult to get into a comfortable rhythm on short passages at the best of times, and this added challenge left us feeling more tired than usual.
Customs Coast Watch planes had kept a close eye on us during our entire journey along Australia’s east coast, and their vigilance continued unabated as we sailed away from the mainland. Now, though, their almost daily surveillance of Australian waters was assisted by the Air Force, whose planes sometimes flew over us at such an impressively low altitude that it seemed they wanted to land on deck to examine our paperwork.
We had been given two glossy flyers about Ashmore Reef by the Customs Officer in Darwin, so we knew that the channel to the anchorage at West Island was marked. Although every single buoy was helpfully shown superimposed on a satellite image, one of the flyers stated that the channel was “for use solely by the Australian Customs Service and the Department of the Environment and Heritage” and “should not be transited by others”. Even though the numerous scattered coral patches were perfectly visible in the bright midday sun when we arrived we weren’t about to chart our own unique course to the anchorage, so of course we did transit the channel, and were suitably grateful for its existence.
There were no other boats in the anchorage, so we had our pick of the ten moorings that had been installed to protect coral and seagrass (turtle and dugong food). With 25 knot southeasterly winds whipping up chop across more than four miles of lagoon, picking up our chosen mooring proved to be quite a challenge. Our reward was the opportunity to explore one of the world’s most remote and inaccessible reefs. The price we had to pay for this privilege were some stressful times during the night when Stella Maris began to buck alarmingly and we were keenly aware of the coral patches that waited for her downwind. Thankfully these nightmares ended as soon as low tide exposed those coral patches which, as if by magic, they would turn from treacherous to protective. It was like a spell had been cast over the lagoon, and transformed it into a blissfully calm millpond.
Only a small area of Ashmore is open to the public: effectively the channel, the anchorage, and the eastern beach of West Island which lies beside the anchorage. The rest is left to birds, marine life, and Indonesian fishing boats, three of which were anchored in calmer waters towards the southeast when we arrived. (The closest Indonesian island is just 80 miles to the north.) Their presence attracted a ship from the Australian Navy, which patrolled the area to prevent illegal fishing, shelling, and sea cucumber harvesting, and the following day a launch was dispatched into the lagoon to check us all out.
Safe from Australia’s salties and great whites we relished the chance to snorkel in this protected reserve. We could only explore the coral patches at high tide when they became submerged, and unfortunately the lively chop then reduced visibility. We were disappointed to find a lack of fish and coral that was surprisingly unspectacular. Hopefully life was flourishing in the closed areas.
West Island is surrounded by extensive sand flats which are also protected, and so we went ashore at high tide. A low-lying bush and grass-covered island it had only two palm trees, but a lovely beach upon which rare nautilus shells lay scattered, and turtle tracks led to recent nesting sites. Australian zoning mandarins had been so keen to precisely delineate the island’s open areas that they’d sharpened their pencils to define an intriguing, narrow strip of land that permitted access towards the island’s centre. We would have needed our handheld GPS to stay within these tight boundaries, and the significance of this land, so carefully defined yet so disappointingly unexplained, remained a mystery to us.
We spent three days moored within Ashmore Reef, exploring its lagoon and the open areas of West Island, before its lively anchorage got the better of us and the open waters of the Indian Ocean beckoned us once again.
We snaked our way back out along the channel, at one point straying a short way towards coral because a crucial green buoy had become snagged on something 3 feet under water. There was an east-southeasterly wind at a pleasant 15 to 20 knots, and with our trade wind rig of the genoa poled to windward teamed with the mainsail we made a pleasant 7 knot start to the 1050 mile passage to Christmas Island.
Unfortunately, the perfect conditions didn’t last. The wind gradually died away, leaving Stella Maris at the mercy of the big swells that rolled towards her unimpeded now that she was beyond the lee of Australia. We were rocked relentlessly from side to side, each abrupt movement accompanied by a dreadful slamming of the sails. Both the noise and the motion drove us to distraction and interrupted our sleep. Eventually we were forced to swap the noise of the slamming sails for that of the engine. At least we were no longer disturbed by Australian Coast Watch planes. Beyond Ashmore Reef, they had finally lost interest in us, and with few ships around we were alone at sea once more.
When the wind returned, Stella Maris made good speeds even with 1 knot of current against her. One day she covered an impressive 187 miles. We remained vigilant for the frequent squalls we encountered, as they often inflicted a wind shift of 20 degrees or more when they passed overhead.
One evening towards sunset, when we were four hundred miles from the nearest land, the silhouette of a stationary boat loomed eerily on the horizon. There was something about its dark shape, and the way it disappeared completely into the deep valleys of the long-period rollers even when it was just 1 mile away that brought thoughts of pirates and ghost ships into our minds. Once we got closer to it, though, we could see that it was a dilapidated longliner with a few crew on deck. These men were a very long way out in a vessel that looked as though it shouldn’t be on the water at all.
Ten miles from Christmas Island boobies, frigates, and elegant tropic birds flew around Stella Maris, making us feel welcome. We’d had mixed conditions during our six day, 1050 mile passage, sailing fast in strong winds with current in our favour, and being rolled by large swells that slammed the sails when winds became light. We looked forward to making landfall, and the lush tropical greenery and rugged volcanic coastline of Christmas Island did not disappoint. It reminded us of Niue, the beautiful coral island we’d visited in the Pacific the previous year, and suddenly we knew that our time here would be just as magical as it had been there.
An isolated sea mountain of volcanic rock interbedded with coral limestone, the island was first sighted by Captain William Mynors of the British East India Ship Company on Christmas Day, 1643. It was only settled in 1888 following the discovery of phosphate, and mining of the mineral (ancient bird guano, modern-day fertilizer) was still the lifeblood of the island. In the 1980s, concerns about the effects of mining on the environment led to the creation of the National Park, which now covers 63% of the island and protects rare and endangered species of flora and fauna. The island’s isolation has resulted in the evolution of endemic species, such as the beautiful Golden Bosun tropic bird and Abbott’s Booby, the largest and rarest booby in the world.
As we rounded North East Point we saw two sailing boats in Flying Fish Cove, the island’s only anchorage, which left us a choice of five remaining moorings. Two were a little close to the large ship being loaded with phosphate for our tastes, so we picked one near the other yachts on the west side of the cove, a comfortable distance from the fringing reef. Beside us was Gipsy Girl, a boat we had last seen more than a year before at the Panama Canal.
There was a fee of AU$10/day or AU$50/week for the mooring, but with this came the use of the showers onshore, fresh water, and the satisfaction of not destroying the beautiful coral that provides exquisite snorkelling and diving for yachties and residents alike. Depths there plummet rapidly into the abyss of the Java Trench (the drop-off is a good dive site), so anchoring quickly becomes impossible close to shore anyway.
Many cruisers sail past Christmas Island and head straight for the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, either because the anchorage is exposed to swell and therefore not the most comfortable in the world, or perhaps because they don’t realize what a unique place it is. With fantastic snorkelling in the anchorage itself, numerous dive sites in crystal clear water, picturesque hiking, and 4WD exploration all on offer, Christmas Island was well worth a few rolly nights. Even in the southeast trade wind season the swell does bend in around North East Point, and although some nights were less severe than others, Stella Maris certainly did roll. An additional disturbance came in lighter winds when the hard, plastic mooring buoy nuzzled alongside and knocked insistently against the hull. We were able to remedy the situation by tying a stern line some 50 feet down (so as not to be a hazard) to the mooring behind us because it was unused at the time.
Even though Christmas Island is a territory of Australia we were required to check out when we departed Darwin, and so we needed to be cleared in by Customs and Quarantine. As far as the Immigration Department was concerned, however, we had not left Australia and our visa had to cover the length of our stay (this was also true for Cocos (Keeling) Islands and the law was strictly enforced). The Quarantine officer came to our boat, and after quickly satisfying himself that we were not harbouring corpses, sickness, or unwanted pests onboard he surprised us by handing over a small stack of enticing flyers and useful leaflets filled with all kinds of information about the island. We met the Customs officer under the gazebo onshore, and with our details already faxed to him from Darwin we were soon cleared in.
The island’s population of around 1500 was a harmonious mix of Chinese, Malays, and white Australians, adding a fascinating human dimension to a place rich in natural beauty. The call to prayer drifted to the yachts from the mosque on the foreshore, the Christian church was just down the road, and Chinese temples were scattered around the island. Different faiths are celebrated and respected, and everyone we met was very friendly and welcoming. At a time when people of different religions seemed to sit on opposite sides of a widening gulf, Christmas Island was a heart-warming place to visit.
We walked along the harbour through Kampong, the Malay district, passing the apartment blocks, mosque, and Malay Club (which served delicious rotis for breakfast). Beyond this was the Settlement, which had a well-stocked supermarket, restaurants, several small shops and an excellent Visitors’ Centre. The friendly staff was eager to help, and there was a comfortable sitting room where people could read and watch informative videos about the island whilst enjoying complementary coffee.
At the time of our visit in July 2006, building of the detention centre, or Immigration Reception and Processing Centre as the sign outside the site called it, was in full swing, so we were lucky to get a hire car because most had been rented out to the construction workers. We splashed out an extra AU$20/day for a 4WD (AU$65/day in total) and this was money well spent, as many of the sights would have been difficult, or impossible, to reach otherwise. In two days we explored much of the 135 square kilometre island and certainly its highlights.
The 4WD was delivered to us at the car park in Flying Fish Cove. One sheet of paperwork and we were handed the keys. I was making a bee-line for a shiny new RAV4 when the rental people steered me instead to the highly scratched and well-used one hiding behind it. Still, aside from a passenger seatbelt that needed to be wiggled persistently and in just the right way to coax it to ‘clunk and click’ the car was perfect, and by the end of two days driving along dirt tracks with vegetation scraping along its sides, I was extremely glad that we hadn’t been given the pristine car.
We drove up the hill to Poon Saan, the Chinese district, where we were struck by the sight of countless mops protruding conspicuously from the outer walls of the apartment blocks, drying in the breeze. The architects had thoughtfully incorporated tubular holders into their designs, a seldom-seen attention to hygienic detail. We found the district’s commercial centre and bought a variety of inexpensive and delicious Asian food for breakfast. We ate it in Territory Day Park and watched the frigates and Golden Bosun tropic birds soaring above Flying Fish Cove.
From there we drove into the National Park, and the absence of other cars meant that we only had to share the rugged 4WD tracks with Red Crabs, the island’s famed inhabitants. The reason for this fame is the compulsive behaviour the females exhibit once a year when the rain, tides, and moon come together in just the right mystical crustacean harmony. Then, driven by a burning desire to spawn, the crabs emerge from the rainforest and march down to the ocean to shed their eggs. Nothing stops their quest, and the island becomes awash with millions of small, scarlet bodies. Once satisfied they amble back to the forest en masse. With Robber Crabs (coconut crabs), Blue Crabs, and seventeen more species also living a protected life there, David Attenborough called Christmas Island the Kingdom of the Crabs.
We spotted our first red celebrity the minute we turned off the main road, and stopped the car to gawp at it and take photos. Little did we know that by the end of the day we would have seen thousands of the creatures, and discovered that the only way to make progress without squashing any of them would be to run in front of the car and shepherd them out of the way. In some areas the clawed traffic was so dense that our car moved slower than it did. And this was the dry season. In the wet season they simply close the roads.
Continuing on to East Quarry in the south of the island, we were amazed to find the abandoned building site for the Asia Pacific Space Center. A board announced lift off for 2004, but in 2006 the only thing lifting off was the paint on the sign.
Mining began in 1899 from Phosphate Hill on the northeast corner of the island, and later a railway line was laid to South Point. The ruins of the station could still be seen, a discovery almost as unexpected on such a small island as the rocket launching site. There were a few Chinese temples in this area, one of which had a fabulous view of the ocean to soothe the soul, and an intriguing display of lethal weaponry to alarm the body.
From there we attempted to drive north along a 4WD track that was marked on our map, but it had been reclaimed by impenetrable bushes and trees. We were forced to retreat along the paved road before turning west to reach the Blowholes on the south coast. The last stretch was on a dirt track through a forest crawling with more red crabs.
Having imagined the Blowholes to be a simple display of seawater spouting up into the air, our enthusiasm was kindled as soon as we parked the car. From beyond the lush vegetation that separated us from the ocean came the booming roar of what sounded like a ferocious beast. An elevated boardwalk snaked towards the sound above towering pinnacles of jagged, volcanic rock that formed a barrier along the shoreline that could have been transplanted from the moon. As the waves pounded against the coast, the impact thundered through the cliffs. The water was forced so powerfully through holes in the rock that it soared into the air, diffusing into high misty clouds that looked like smoke from an angry dragon’s nostrils.
Heading for the west coast we reached the Dales, where fresh water flows permanently from the Hugh’s Dale waterfall and the Blue crab makes its home. Another pleasant boardwalk wound its way through the forest, and informative signs describing the flora and fauna were distributed along the way. Exotic syzygium trees rose from lethally sharp and spiky volcanic rocks, their roots trailing along the ground searching for nourishment, their high tops providing the only home in the world for nesting Abbott’s boobies. A delicious aromatic fragrance from the delicate white flowers of the Aidia tree filled the air, and the freshwater blue crabs dragged detritus along the ground. As we were there outside the wet season the waterfall was not dramatic, but the walk through the forest made it worthwhile nonetheless.
The next day we did a fairly strenuous hike to West White Beach on the northern side of the island. Walking through plateau and terrace rainforest, with pretty land snails strewn across the path, we clambered over rocks until we reached a steep section that had to be descended using a rope. At the bottom, the stench of guano warned of possible aerial assault by frigates and boobies, and so we traversed this final section quickly to reach the shore, where surf broke gently against the fringing reef.
As we walked along the beach, hard fossilized rock gave way to a sandy stretch, and there we found an idyllic spot beneath an overhang from where we could admire the view shielded from the burning sun. We found a good spot to venture across the reef so that we could go snorkelling, and timed our plunge through the surf zone to coincide with a lull in wave height. Once safely in the ocean, the clear water revealed a myriad of multicoloured fish and abundant, healthy coral. Planning our exit was not so easy. When the waves pushed us in for a closer inspection of the seemingly wide gap in the reef we’d chosen, it turned out to be narrower and more rocky than expected. But with some luck and a decisiveness borne from a fear of painful injury, we managed to escape with only minor scrapes as the surf lifted us up and spat us back onto dry land.
The 4WD track to Winifred Beach on the west coast was so much like a scene from a fairytale it was as if we had driven into a Walt Disney film. We felt reduced to Lilliputian proportions, as giant pot plants towered above us along the sides of the road. There was a pretty trail through forest to the coast, but it became less well defined towards the end, just when the usually abundant signposts became sparse and difficult to spot in the mass of trees. A tourist had disappeared there a few months earlier (only his car was found in the car park), which made our momentary disorientation a little eerie. As we emerged onto the cliff, a curious brown booby greeted us and didn’t fly away as we passed him to descend the metal staircase that led to a beautiful bay. The small beach can only be sensibly reached at low tide, but the view of the aquamarine water surrounded by high cliffs covered with brilliant green flora was stunning.
Another attempt to diversify the island’s economy from phosphate mining came in 1993 with the opening of a casino and resort. It attracted rich businessmen from overseas, but although it was profitable and provided employment, the Australian Government decided that it did not want a casino on Christmas after all. It refused to renew the gaming licence, leading to the resort’s closure in 1998. Since then it had fallen into disrepair, and the only guests we found there were huge spiders and frigate birds that swooped down to sip from the puddle in the dilapidated swimming pool. In one of the resort buildings lay discarded posters for the Aurora rocket that was to have been launched from the island’s space centre. It felt like the location of a showdown between James Bond and Dr. No, a place where a madman intent on taking over the world was defeated and forgotten. Thankfully, the abandoned resort has since been resurrected (the casino, however, has been left for dead), and Christmas Island remains a magical paradise worth visiting if you get the chance.
When we left our mooring in Flying Fish Cove, we lost no time trying to win the competition that we’d dreamt up with the crew from two other boats: to catch the biggest fish en route to Cocos (Keeling). Unfortunately our efforts got off to a bad start when the lure turned out to be utterly irresistible to Christmas Island’s seabirds, and we quickly reeled it in before we had something with wings instead of fins on the hook.
As well as being unlucky with fishing, we also began the trip being unlucky with the wind. It was very light, and we realized that we’d been blasé about checking all available weather forecasts because we considered this 530 mile trip to be merely a short hop. We still managed 6 knots with our poled out genoa and mainsail, despite a 0.5 knot current against us, but it wasn’t fast enough to ensure a daylight arrival at the atoll. The compensations for this underperformance were gentle conditions and a flat, calm sea, which sparkled during the night beneath a nearly full moon. Night watches were always a pleasure at times like those.
Still we wished for more wind, and this we got the following evening when the pleasant breeze mutated into a steady 25 knot blow, with unremitting gusts firmly in the 30s. We reefed the sails and averaged 7.5 knots, granting us our daylight arrival. Night watches were a world apart now with squalls, gusts, rain, and building seas making it a challenge to scan the horizon for ships. Conditions were so wild that we harnessed ourselves to the cockpit. Stella Maris was pushed sideways by huge rollers, a couple of which even broke over her stern, something that had never happened before. She rose up mountains and glided into valleys, and at daybreak the sun glistened on the foaming white sea creating the strangely beautiful illusion that we were sailing through a snowscape.
The wild weather prevented us from fishing, so as soon as the conditions abated we threw the lure back over the side. There was, after all, a competition to be won. With just forty miles left to Cocos (Keeling) we caught a one metre wahoo: good, but only good enough for second place. Gjalt was busy filleting the catch on the aft deck when Stella Maris heeled over sharply and a wave washed aboard, swamping him up to the waist. The wahoo had exacted at least a little revenge.
Eight miles from our destination we sighted the abundant coconut palms that gave the islands part of their name, and the atoll slowly began to take shape. Discovered in 1609 by Captain William Keeling of the East India Company it remained uninhabited until 1826. The Clunies Ross family obtained sole possession of the islands and brought in labourers, predominantly Malay, to work in the flourishing copra trade. The Australian government bought the Territory from the family as recently as 1978.
As we entered the lagoon’s north pass the seas flattened, and the shallow depths changed the colour of the water from deep sapphire to an inviting aquamarine. The anchorage was south of Direction Island, close to the pass, but as we skirted a sand bank we failed to see a newly placed green buoy marking the entrance and overshot it. Quickly realising that the turquoise water ahead of us was too shallow we turned back. Scanning the water for the way in we spotted the marker, and soon we were within the well-protected and very welcoming roll-free anchorage.
The police came four miles across the lagoon from West Island to complete formalities and were extremely strict regarding visas. Two sailors were expelled in the time we were there, and another bought an expensive extension for just two extra days when threatened with a five year ban from visiting Australia if they didn’t.
Uninhabited Direction Island was a cruiser’s paradise with its perfect golden beach, palm trees, and turquoise tropical water. There was a shelter onshore where we met other yachties for barbecues, and like them we left something there to commemorate our visit. It even had a phone that could be used to make cheap international calls; possibly the world’s best location for a public phone.
One morning dolphins came into the anchorage. We immediately jumped into the water to swim with them and enjoyed a rare close encounter with these playful creatures. For guaranteed snorkelling heaven there was the Rip, a channel at the southern end of Direction Island that was teeming with colourful fish and beautiful coral. A swift current coursed down the centre of it, and the trick was to swim across to the other side as fast as possible after jumping in to reach calmer, shallower water. Once there, we were able to linger above a mesmerizingly beautiful aquatic world. In the deeper water whitetip reef sharks slept below rocky ledges, and once a fearsome-looking barracuda moved so imperceptibly it seemed suspended in the current. It was as good as scuba diving but without all that gear, and we got so close to the marine life that we felt part of it. When we had drifted to the end of the channel we swam back across the current to reach the shore. Then we climbed out and did it all over again.
Around 500 Cocos Malays live on Home Island, a 1.5 mile dinghy ride from the anchorage. It had a bank, post office, small supermarket, and a fuel depot with irregular opening times, so more than once we had to go back the next day. This small society of devout Muslims has evolved in isolation over eight generations and lives separately from the 130-strong Australian community that resides on West Island. Both islands were interesting to visit, but Direction Island was where we cruisers felt at home.
Australia’s three stepping stones into the Indian Ocean had taken us some 2000 miles closer to Chagos and allowed us to glimpse some of the rare gems in nature’s breathtaking collection of jewels. Dolphins escorted us out of the anchorage at Cocos (Keeling), but as we approached the pass they turned back into the lagoon. We couldn’t blame them.