Cocos (Keeling) Islands: Australia’s Indian Ocean Idyll

The Cocos (Keeling) Islands are possibly the most beautiful place I have ever been.

This is strange to admit, even embarrassing. Travel writers are not supposed to make such claims. We’re supposed to give information, provide historical context and show how our readers might make the journey we’re sketching. We’re not supposed to lose our cool and submit to the sheer gorgeousness of a particular place.

But the fact is that the Cocos Islands, an Australian external territory, are exquisite. The beaches are damn near close to perfect and the lagoon is full of exotic marine life. For anyone who has gone out of his or her way to visit deserted beaches, the Cocos Islands are the Holy Grail. And for those who have waited for hours to witness a single sea turtle clamber ashore on one or another Caribbean beach, the thousands of sea turtles simply hanging out in the Cocos lagoon will come as a revelation. The same goes for the reef sharks, of which there are an impressive number.

It’s also hard to beat these islands for their remoteness. They’re 1700 miles and two time zones to the west of Perth, the most practical launching pad for the islands. (It’s also possible to book a charter flight to the Cocos Islands from Kuala Lumpur via Christmas Island on a Malaysian airline called Firefly, but most visitors fly from Perth with Virgin Australia.) It takes over six hours to reach Cocos Islands from Perth, with a 50-minute refueling stop on Christmas Island.

In terms of geography, the Cocos (Keeling) Islands consist of two coral atolls, 26 islands in all. Of these, just two are inhabited: West Island, home to the territory’s airport, most of its administrative offices and around 100 mainland Australians, and Home Island, home to around 500 Malay descendants of the indentured servants brought to the island by its previous owners, the Clunies-Ross family. (I’ll write more about the territory’s tangled colonial history soon in a later post.) The island is characterized more or less by residential self-segregation, though there is some mingling – students from Home Island take the ferry to West Island daily and people travel in both directions for work.

The Cocos Islands are by no means a five-star outpost of luxury in the Indian Ocean; the territory cannot compare on this front to Seychelles, the Maldives or Mauritius. For high rollers, Cocos’ basic guesthouses, motels and house rentals will seem terribly simple. That’s fine. The rest of us – who by the way will have already paid a pretty penny to get to Cocos – will not mind simple accommodations in a place as beautiful as this one.

So who visits Cocos? Government officials, kitesurfers, birdwatchers, fishers and divers – and me. I visited in November, soaking up enough tropical heat to last me through the impending winter. I have a few posts forthcoming on Cocos, on island activities and the different cultures of Home and West Islands, as well as some notes on the nature (and future) of tourism in such a remote and remarkably gorgeous place.

[Images: Alex Robertson Textor]