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Crabbing around Christmas Island

A red crab crossing the road. Red crabs are famous — and protected — on Christmas Island. Photo by Regina Lee/The Star

Publication Date : 06-02-2013


It’s easy to feel right at home on Christmas Island. The question is: What do you do when you’re there?


When I first told my friends that I was going to Christmas Island, the first thing most of them said was: “Oh, so you’re going to that place with the giant head statues?”

Urm, no, that would be Easter Island.

And although Easter Island shares, in name, popular Christian festivals with the place I was headed, it could not be more different, being at almost the opposite end of the globe.

Christmas Island, at 135sqkm, it is less than half the size of Penang island. It’s a tiny speck of a terrier-shaped island in the middle of the Indian Ocean and is technically a part of Western Australia, although it’s really much closer to Bandung, Indonesia, which is just 300km away.

I must admit that I, too, did not know much about Christmas Island, apart from reading in the news in December 2010 about the 100-odd refugees sailing in from Indonesia who had crashed their rickety wooden boats against its rocky cliffs and drowned.

The island is more popularly known for its swarming crabs. It is here that millions of red crabs migrate from their burrows in the jungles to the sea and back for moisture and to spawn, making for one of nature’s most unique spectacles. When I was there, watching crabs cross the road was almost commonplace.

But if you truly are lucky to be on Christmas Island at the right time, you would be able to see a sea of red crabs all over the place.

Being a seafood lover, I immediately imagined endless plates of the crustaceans – so many that I would soon become utterly sick of it. But, as it turns out, the red crabs, together with the 13 other land crab species on the island, are protected.

No amount of sweet-talking and eyelid-batting in the world would convince my new friend, Uncle Joe, a Christmas Island local, to go and catch us some crabs on the sly.

“Someone even offered me A$100 (US$103) to catch a crab. No way am I going to do that and get myself a A$5,500 fine,” he said, as we drove past the town of Flying Fish Cove in his four-wheel-drive.

Even to drive recklessly around the critters might earn you the wrath of the authorities.

“But they can’t fine me if a crab were to crawl into my house and somehow died,” Uncle Joe said with a twinkle in his eye, adding that indeed the robber crabs and blue crabs have the tastiest meats.

“But crab are my friends now,” he added with finality.

Flying Fish Cove, though the hub of activity on Christmas Island, is nothing more than a one-street town not unlike the many small towns in Malaysia. The island has only one of everything spread about its domain − one post office, one car workshop, one police station, a secondary and primary school each and one supermarket.

Phosphate mining

Apart from that, only two economic activities dominate the island − the phosphate mines, and the big refugee detention centre which appears to have spun off an economic sector all its own, what with various officers from enforcement agencies flying in to the island for a stint of several months before flying home.

With their bloated meal allowances and hefty salaries from doing risky jobs, as well as the transport costs of importing just about everything from Perth − four hour’s flight away − these representatives of Australian officialdom have contributed to food and other goods becoming extremely expensive on the island.

A plate of fish and chips, an Australian staple, is priced at a hefty A$30 at the Golden Bosun Tavern in Settlement, one of Christmas Island’s more popular watering holes. Places where one can unwind after work are also limited to just a few choices. The local Chinese are partial to belting out tunes from yesteryear in a clubhouse in Poon San, where the Chinese community have taken to residing.

There is also a bustling recreation centre where folk go to play badminton.

At night, the island’s only outdoor cinema opens twice a week and will play the same film for several weeks. When I was there, Taken 2 was on heavy rotation, and it’s A$5 if you want to sit on the benches in front of the screen. Otherwise, standing at the back is free of charge. Either way, you must be prepared to be attacked by a swarm of hungry mosquitoes.

Sensing that I was not exactly keen to serenade the locals at the Poon San club, Uncle Joe took me to a nightclub at Christmas Island Resort. It was once the premier accommodation on the island, but the outdated decor and facilities now looked like they had seen better days.

Once inside, we saw the young ones, as well as those who are young at heart, boogie-ing the night away. Korean bartenders, hired by the Korean owner of the resort, made all kinds of exotic drinks, some with names that would make you blush. This I found out after one high-rolling local, who looked no older than 22, dressed in what appears to be the common attire in the club − bermuda shorts and slippers − offered to buy me drinks.

But, like they say, the best things in life are free and that is definitely the case when unwinding on Christmas Island.

Flying Fish Cove, with its endless beaches that come complete with free showers, is packed almost every day. Aussie families will bring kids as young as two in little floaties, braving high waves that, honestly, petrify me at times.

Sun-kissed teenagers, some of whom look like bronzed Adonises, get their kicks from jumping off the jetty on Flying Fish Cove. Snorkelling just 50m away from the beach, you would be greeted by dizzying bouquets of coral.

The Chinese Cultural and Heritage Museum is home to several dusty exhibits which tell the origins of the Chinese people who first arrived as miners on Christmas Island.

There are also several other beaches around the island, including Lily Beach (named after a little girl who drowned after the waves got to her), Dolly Beach, Ethel Beach and Greta Beach.

But don’t expect long beaches with fine white sand that Malaysians have become accustomed to, especially in the East Coast. Since the island faces the open ocean, the strong waves slamming against the rocks and corals have rendered the beaches full of broken corals and made the sea floor extremely rocky. This means footwear is a must.

Another must is some real strong sunscreen lotion. Forget those namby-pamby ones with SPF 15; you need at least SPF 30, or better yet, industrial-strength protection.

I had thought the climate there would not be much worse that ours but I was dead wrong. I was sunburnt by the first day after spending just two hours at the Flying Fish Cove, so it was quite amazing that some locals were running in the scorching mid-afternoon sun when all I wanted to do was go back to my hotel and sleep in air-conditioned comfort.

An afternoon at the museum

However, I was brought up by avid travellers in my family to believe that napping when on holiday was sacrilegious, so I hauled myself to the museum. Ironically, it did look like we had barged into the middle of the museum staff’s nap time and roused the island’s most unfriendly person.

Though the exhibits were a commendable effort in explaining the origins and history of Christmas Island, the worker looked positively unhappy, angry even, to see us. I was actually quite curious to see if the other museum visitors would have something to say about her, but unfortunately there was no one else there.

Apart from the surly troll who lurked in the museum and rolled her eyes at visitors, the Christmas Island locals are pleasant and very friendly. Those driving by will even wave at strangers – which actually confused me at first.

“Is there something wrong with me? Am I not supposed to walk on this side of the road?” I thought to myself.

But it’s a small island where everyone knows everyone, and people leave their homes and cars unlocked. Christmas Island is also a lot like home with its strong Malaysian links.

You’d be surprised walking down the streets to hear conversations in Malay or Penang Hokkien. Locals now estimate that the Malays and the Chinese make up 40 per cent of the population, with the rest being Europeans.

Uncle Joe, friend and protector of all crabs, came to Christmas Island in the 1970s to try his luck working in the phosphate mines and has since prospered and got used to the sleepy lifestyle. Over some Aussie barbie (barbecue, to the uninitiated) at the Malay Association building one evening, I discovered that my new friend, Pakcik Othman, who was born on Christmas Island, was going to be on the same flight back to Kuala Lumpur for a short holiday.

Looking every inch a Malay man and with his excellent command of the language, he would not look out of place in Malaysia. After a bit of chatting, I asked if he would consider leaving Christmas Island and living in Malaysia.

“My father lived here and I was born here. I have an Australian passport and this is my home, as well as my children’s. I wouldn’t trade my life on Christmas Island for anything else,” he said.

*US$1=0.96 Australian dollar


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