Cocos Keeling: Australia’s paradise island

We expected it to take us five days to sail the 550nm from Christmas Island to Cocos Keeling but we had such good wind that we made it in three-and-a-half days.

Even though Cocos Keeling is part of the same underwater mountain range as Christmas Island, the topography is very different.  The latter consists of two low- lying coral atolls with palm fringed white beaches and turquoise water. 

Cocos consists of a group of 27 islands that form two atolls, 24km apart. The northern atoll, Pulu Keeling, is a national park and thus inaccessible. Of the southern atoll, only two islands, West Island and Home Island, are inhabited. Some 450 Cocos Malay people live on Home Island and 150 Australian English speakers on West Island. Direction Island, the only location where yachts are allowed to anchor, was inhabited for 60 years but today there are only camping and picnic facilities here.

Having learned these facts from a brochure given to us by the clearing authorities, we were very curious to learn more about the history of Cocos Keeling and so followed the annotated historical walking route on Direction Island and visited a small museum on Home Island, which told the fascinating story…

History of Cocos Keeling

Captain William Keeling of the East India Company first sights the islands in 1609 and two centuries later, in 1825, Captain John Clunies-Ross sets foot on land, on his way from Java to England via the Cape of Good Hope. He maps the entrance to the South Island lagoon, digs water holes and plants some seeds, and by doing this, he in effect laid his claim.

However, in the following year Alexander Hare, governor of Java at the time, settles on Home Island with 90 men, women and children and in 1829 starts to export copra to England. In the meantime, Captain Clunies-Ross returns to Cocos in 1827 with his family, a small group of seamen and servants. From the start relations between Hare and the Clunies-Ross family are troubled.

When Hare died in 1834, Clunies-Ross took over his people and business and thus commenced the Clunies-Ross dynasty which would last for 147 years. Palm trees were actively planted on South Island and the copra exported by ship from coconuts processed on Home Island.

In 1886 Queen Victoria officially gives the Clunies-Ross family perpetual lease of Cocos Keeling and in the late 1800’s the family builds their manor house on Home Island.

Direction Island

In 1899 Clunies-Ross rents out Direction Island to the Australasia and China Telegraphic Company. In the early 1900’s this company lays deep-sea telegraphic cables in order to link Australia with the rest of the world. The new cable runs from Perth to Africa via Cocos and this same line connects south east Asia with Europe and ultimately Britain.

In 1902 a cable station is built on Direction Island and in 1911 a mast is erected for radio contact with passing ships. A small village develops on the island as about 50 people, mainly English, Chinese, Indian and Malay workers, keep the station operational. They are quite isolated as Clunies-Ross for some reason prohibits contact with his people, but for a once a year get-together on his invitation.

As a communication link the cable station is of strategic importance and is thus under attack in both the first and second world wars. However, with the revolutionary changes in the communication technology, the station closes in 1960 and all structures are removed so that the island can return to its natural state.

Australian territory

In 1951 protection of Cocos is transferred to Australia and the Cocos Malay people are allowed to emigrate. The number of people drops from 1 814 to 350 and to prevent all his workers from leaving, Clunies-Ross builds pre-fabricated houses with electric light and increases their wages. The Australian government buys land on West Island in order to build an international airport.

In 1955 Cocos Keeling officially becomes Australian territory, but the Clunies-Ross family don’t see themselves as subject to Australia and still treat their workers like slaves. In 1978 Australia buys Home Island from the family for 6 250 000 Australian dollars, but the family retain the manor house. However, in 1979 a management board is founded but relations between the family and the board are so bad that the government takes possession of the house in 1983 and bans the family from the island.

In 1984 the islanders get to determine their own future and vote to remain part of Australia, rather than become independent. In 1987 the production of copra is ended as it is no longer profitable. It is difficult to say how the people on Home Island make a living today, but apparently there is enough work for everybody by servicing the labour requirements of the supermarket, hardware store, clinic, Shire’s office and in maintaining the island’s infrastructure.

Our stay at Cocos Keeling

We were rather isolated at Direction Island as yachts are not allowed to sail further within the lagoon and whilst there are ferries that run between the islands, while we were there, the ferry that runs to and from Direction Island was in for service. Thus we never got to see West Island.  Home Island was about 20 minutes away by dinghy and, due to the brusque trade winds, we were soaked by the time we got there.

The supermarket gets fresh vegetables and fruit flown in every week and we were warned that it sold out quickly. Due to trouble with our dinghy motor we only got to the shop at 09:30 and were lucky to get some broccoli and the last remnants of carrots.

Partly because we were so isolated at Direction Island, crew on the four yachts anchored there were very sociable. We had sundowners and a games evening and also snorkeled “The Rip” together.

Here a strong current flow into the lagoon through a narrow opening between Direction Island and Prison Island. We always enjoy snorkelling such passes as they teem with big fish and sharks and the side walls are normally clad in beautiful coral. On this occasion we saw numerous large fish and some majestic Napoleon Wrasse, calmly nibbling at the rocks and coral in the calm, shallow waters, adjacent to the rip. Some allowed us to approach almost within arms’ length.

What astonished us about both Christmas Island and Cocos Keeling, is the investment Australia makes in protecting its extended borders. While we visited, the Border Force ships, Ocean Protector and Ocean Shield, were anchored at both islands semi-permanently.

After enjoying a week in yet another paradise, we cleared out, lifted anchor and set sail for Tanzania, Africa, 3 330nm to the west. Some 13nm out of Cocos an aircraft flew low over Moondust and shortly afterwards one of the Australian Border Force crew called on the radio, checking our movements, onward destination and ended with warm wishes for a safe and pleasant passage.

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