The Cocos Keeling Islands.
I love this place!
I really do – its perfect for someone travelling on their own, who is happy doing stuff on their own, and is happy striking up conversations with any unsuspecting soul that comes within talking range.
On the other hand it’s equally perfect for anyone looking for a tropical paradise to have some alone time in; it would (I imagine) be great for a honeymoon – or similar. It is also known for kite-surfing during the “winter” months, and with so much to do, I suggest, would be great for friends looking for things to do and a few beers of an evening. In general you can’t really go wrong here!
Cocos what? Where the heck is that?
That’s the general response you get when you say you're going there – so here is the official bit of info:
1. The Cocos Keeling Islands are a couple of atolls with 27 coral islands (add as many words like ‘beautiful’ and ‘paradise’ in there as you like).
2. People live there – the Cocos Malays, who originate from Malaysia and were originally brought over as slaves, and a bunch of Europeans – who originate from Australia as such.
3. The Cocos Keeling Islands are officially a territory of Australia.
4. The islands are way out in the Indian Ocean – about half-way between Sri Lanka and Australia but closer to Indonesia than any other country.
The sum result of those last two facts is that these islands were for a number of years a prime target, along with Christmas Island, for the ‘boat people’ seeking asylum in Australia via boats from Sri Lanka and the like. Great debate in Australia raged around these people and whether they were purely economic migrants or real refugees / whether they should be welcomed or thrown out / what should be done to stop the boat trade – many were paying huge prices to get on leaky and unsafe boats and of course many drowned because of this. I won’t delve into that debate in this post as it would be a book in itself and there is plenty you can read about it online. However, it would be remiss of me not to mention it – particularly as it was all in full swing when I was there. Now, since a hard line stance has been taken by the Australian government, the boat trade has dried up to nothing and I can only imagine that the islands are even more peaceful than they were a couple of years ago.
On to more pleasant things....
To get to Cocos Keeling you have to fly from Perth in Western Australia with Virgin Australia – either direct or via Christmas Island. There are two flights a week.
Two islands are inhabited (about 600 people apparently, although I think they must have all gone sailing when I was there) and it is quite a bizarre set up. In effect, the Australians live on West Island and the Cocos Malays live on Home Island!
Ok so what do you do in Cocos Keeling?
Well let’s start with what you won’t do:
- Shop – there are only basic items available along with a few souvenirs.
- Fine dine – there was one option for the evening meal when I was there – The Tropika Restaurant, although the Cocos Club sometimes does food too. (I believe there may be a new options serving Malay food now.) Additionally there is one daytime cafe, Dory’s, which I loved – the food, the people, the view!
- Go pub-crawling or night-clubbing. Although there is one bar at the Cocos Club and visitors are perfectly welcome.
- Read the paper – none for sale!
However, what you can do is enjoy this little bit of paradise by:
- Relaxing, swimming, reading on a tropical beach – often having it to yourself. It is truly an unspoiled area with all those pure white sand, crystal clear water, coconut tree lined beaches that you see in the travel magazines.
- Hiring a bike and riding around the islands – note that you can hire a car on West Island but I would suggest it’s generally a waste of money given there is one road from one end of the island to the other which will take 10 minutes to drive!
- Taking a ferry to Home Island and enjoying an island tour. I’m not one for tours, but I did enjoy this little one, especially given I was the only one on the tour. (With his smile I felt a bit obliged to do it to be honest!) Eat at the local cafe (Rasa Di Sayang) and chat to the locals. If you can make it for a Wednesday night special – then this is definitely the time to go!
- Taking a ferry to uninhabited Direction Island and lazing around in a hammock, walking the island, and best of all snorkelling ‘the rip’ – world famous in Cocos!
- Playing golf – watch out for landing airplanes!
- Watching turtles in a clear beautiful sea
- Fishing, scuba diving, kite-surfing (July- October), snorkeling, kayaking
- Walking the island and its beaches spotting shells, crabs, and the wild goats and hens
- Going to one of the coolest little art galleries ever and the nearby clam farm
- Going on kayak, motorized canoe, or glass-bottomed boat tours (I didn’t but they have good reviews.)
- Going at the right time for the West Island to Home Island swim Sat 14 November for 2015 (Annoyingly I missed it by a matter of days when I was there.)
Because you are bound by flights, unless you are arriving on a yacht of course, the minimum time you will have on the islands is 3 days. Personally I think you would be nuts to go to the effort of getting there and not staying longer (but then I like walking, swimming, and reading on the shores of a tropical paradise!) If you only have a short stay of 2-3 full days I would suggest the following:
Drop your bags at the hotel or wherever you are staying and go for a walk along the beach and to the ‘town’ centre. Depending what time you arrive (afternoon or evening), visit the local museum, talk to the staff at the Tourist Information Centre to check if there are any special events, and if you are planning on a tour, to book it. If you would like to go on a tour you may be able to fit a late in the day or sunset tour in. (I don’t generally like tours so am not recommending these from personal experience however.) Go to the Cocos Club in evening and meet some locals. (Hint – it might be best to ring ahead if you want to go on a tour the day you arrive. Ring the Visitor Info Centre on +61 8 9162 6790)
Hire a bike for the day and check out West Island - watch out for roaming goats and their families and the birdlife as you go. There is one road from one end of the island to the other. Bike to Trannies beach and then to the jetty at the end of the island to look for turtles. (I spent a good hour watching them – lucky me!) Drop in on the Big Barge Art Gallery – this has got to be one of my favourite art galleries in the world – although that’s got nothing to do with the art. Find the nearby clam farm (run by John Clunies-Ross of the local family that ruled the islands until very recently) – hidden in the trees and bush but worth finding to see the colors of the clams alone! Back in ‘town’ stop off at Dory’s Cafe for a coffee or lunch break. This place was a definite must do every day for me – sitting with your coffee (hot choc in my case) taking in a view that is hard to beat can only be a good thing. Stop to see the golf course – it’s the only one I know of that shares itself with the local airport. Go to the other end of the island and snorkel, walk some beaches, spot lovely shells, chat to any locals you might come across. After dinner hang out at the Cocos Club and get to know some locals
Take the ferry (I did) or the glass bottomed boat tour (I didn’t so can’t really comment) and spend a day at Direction Island. This was definitely a highlight for me. Direction is beautifully uninhabited – there were two others there when I was there for a day and I didn’t really see them so had this tropical paradise virtually to myself. Walk the island’s pathways, laze around in a hammock, and snorkel ‘the rip!’ The rip is a must for anyone like me that likes swimming the oceans and likes animals – clearly fish in this case! It is not for weak swimmers or the little ones, being a really strong rip, but it will take you on a great ride – fortunately into the lagoon! You do have to get back to shore once you have had your ride which is a bit of a swim. By the time you have done this a few times you will be ready to laze around in a hammock – left by some kind soul. Important note – don’t go to sleep on the hammock without an alarm – it’s the easiest place in the world to drift off (I did) and if you miss the ferry (I nearly did), you are there for the night! (Mind you that could be good if you are prepared for it!)
Another option is to make a stopover at Home Island en route. (Clearly, if you have another day take the time to do a separate unhurried trip.) If you do get to Home Island, take the fun tour around the island with Ossie, go wandering and swimming, eat at the local cafe (Rasa Di Sayang) and chat to the locals you might meet there. If you can time it for a Wednesday night – then this is definitely the time to go! They do a Malay style dinner extraordinaire!
Day 3 / Departure day
If you are leaving this day, you could try a morning kayak or canoe tour – depending on tides. You could also take the ferry to Home Island but I would recommend just chilling out locally and soaking up the relaxed tropical vibes! You might enjoy hiring a kayak, or at low tide, you could walk across to Pulu Marays from Scout Park. I definitely recommend this as there is a natural ‘pool’ there which is great for snorkeling –plenty of fish – and the highlight for me were the many little sharks (that won’t eat you)! Coming back I also got very lucky (tide was no longer out at this stage) and stumbled across a turtle - couldn’t have asked for more!
What you need to know before you go to Cocos
It’s an unspoilt tropical paradise, with limited facilities, so you need to bring:
- Any medicines you need
- Cash – there is no ATM
- Credit cards that are not Diners or Amex (a few places take those but you don’t want to rely on them)
- Shoes good for walking rocky sections of beach if you want to explore fully
Your phone won’t work here (unless things have changed) but you can book to hire one at the Info Centre. I didn’t bother but be aware if you think you will need yours!
The locals are friendly – I was invited to people’s houses right to the last minute – my last couple of hours were spent waiting for my flight in someone’s front garden with them and their mates sipping cold beers watching a turtlein the water below (see the pic below - I'm sure she was waving me off). They then drove me the whole 300 metres to the airport at exactly the right time to jump on the plane!