Christmas Island: wild natural beauty

By Dan Bowles 1 May 2012
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There’s much more to Christmas Island than crabs and illegal immigrants.

FOR MOST AUSTRALIANS, Christmas Island is a far-flung territory known for its annual red crab migration and a contentious immigration detention centre. Other tropical destinations might sit higher on the bucket list, but Christmas Island deserves more credit than it gets.

I have my first glimpse from about 5km away, as my aeroplane comes in to land and I am awestruck. Here lies a natural citadel in the ocean. The orange afternoon sun illuminates lush, green rainforest and limestone cliffs that step down into shallow turquoise, coral-bottomed water dusted with white as swells collide with the shore. As my aircraft descends, more detail becomes evident in trees and vines separated by pockmarks in the rocky cliff lines.

Immediately upon leaving the airport car park in my 4WD hire car, I am surrounded by the rainforest. The sounds of insects and ring of cicadas float through the open windows of my vehicle.

Hidden treasures of Christmas Island

While getting around on Christmas Island is relatively easy – it’s just 20km long by 15km wide – it holds some well-hidden treasures. First stop on my exploration is Golf Course Lookout. We arrive at a nondescript laneway into the forest and after only several metres treading into the rich dark soil, I yell excitedly, “Crab, crab!”. It is a regal red and a wonderfully healthy specimen.

These fascinating arthropods are not exactly cryptic hibernators, only coming out to breed once a year. They are everywhere. Even better are the massive robber crabs. Coloured by luminescent browns, oranges and blues, these houseless hermit crabs earn their name well. My sunglasses slip off at one point and one opportunistic crab runs off with them before I’ve even leant over to retrieve them.

After descending through the forest for a while, stopping to admire historic early Chinese graves, we emerge at a cliff-line towering above the island’s picturesque nine-hole golf course.

Clifftops and rainforests

Tropicbirds and frigatebirds ride the updraft, swooping and diving only metres away. It feels as if I could reach out from the precipice and touch their wings as they rush past. We have a chuckle when local tour guide, Lisa Preston tells us the other name for the lookout is ‘Tenth Tee’ – at some point there was even a grassed area and some old golf clubs.

Later, we drive across the island and descend from its high-terraced rainforest, down steep slopes, passing massive strangler vines, and into the shore terrace where pandanus-like shrubs thicket the flats.

Arriving at the Blowholes, the air is heavy with salt and the low rumble of the ocean. Even though there is little swell, the coastline here periodically growls and sends puffs of spray impressively skyward. The limestone of the island is a termite’s nest of passages and caves formed by percolating water over millions of years and in this location every flow and ebb of the ocean pressurises seawater into the system until it is released in this dramatic way.

Author Dan Bowles is an Australian Geographic cartographer. Find a detailed feature and fabulous photography on the birds of Christmas Island in the May/June issue of the Australian Geographic journal.