No, Santa doesn't live there. But red crabs do – which you'll know if you've seen Sir David Attenborough's new natural history series, A Perfect Planet. Time to add it to your bucketlist...
At first the fork-tailed shapes reminded me of pterodactyls, gliding low over the rainforest with huge wings outstretched. Soon the birds were zooming on the ocean squalls like jets, just feet above my cliffside lookout point. Repeatedly they tore at the tails of red-footed boobies, causing the smaller birds to drop the fish from their bills, which these hovering heisters then caught mid-flight. As vicious as it was captivating, this display of nature in the raw left me feeling a bit unsettled.
“Christmas Island frigatebirds are kleptoparasitic,” explained guide and wildlife expert Lisa Preston, introducing me to a wonderful word as well as to one of the island’s many endemic species. You would never even guess that these flying menaces were seabirds at all, with their poorly webbed claws and lack of oily feathers. But why swim or dive for food when you have evolved perfectly to steal other creatures’ prey?
It was Charles Darwin who first posited that remote islands gave rise to a greater number of endemic creatures, and while he never found his way to Christmas Island, he would have discovered a rare muse in this dog-shaped outpost in the Indian Ocean. Measuring just 19km from nose to tail, its isolation is compounded by the fact that it went unsettled until the late 1800s – a feat in itself. It didn’t even have a name until a passing English sea captain, William Mynors, christened the volcanic speck on 25 December 1643.
Even today, few find their way here. Until recently, the only way to reach it from the UK was via Perth, which meant a crazy four-hour flight back the way you came. But now a weekly hour-long hop can be chartered from Jakarta (itself now a direct flight to London with Garuda International) has finally opened up the island to European visitors.
The main lure is undoubtedly the territory’s unique wildlife, from its mercenary frigatebirds to the Christmas Island red crabs whose annual migration from forest to ocean so awed the naturalist Sir David Attenborough that he named the phenomenon one of the most mesmerising that he’d experienced. In 2018 it will be 375 years since this wild outpost was first christened, and with new connections off ering the chance to rediscover its biodiverse wonders for myself, I set off in search of a Christmas miracle.
It wasn’t until 1888 that Christmas Island was finally settled. Then a part of the British Empire, the discovery of rich phosphate deposits proved irresistible to prospectors. But it didn’t remain in British hands long, and the island has been an Australian territory since 1958, despite lying far closer to Indonesia (just 375km away).
Today, the territory’s main settlement of Flying Fish Cove still owes its character to the activities of the first colonials. As I wandered the capital, I spied a huge yellow cantilever crane stretched over the harbour, ready to load ships with phosphates. Mining remains the island’s economic mainstay, but that is slowly being phased out to protect arguably its most precious resource: the environment.
In town, industry and island life seemed to meet around the main jetty of this laid-back melting pot, where I found scattered Taoist temples and a golden-tipped mosque. Ethnic Malays and Chinese, the descendants of the workers brought here under colonial rule, make up the bulk of the population (some 85 per cent) while white Australians – who still refer to themselves as ‘Europeans’ – account for the rest. As I walked the beachfront, I passed a smattering of small hotels, ready to welcome the handful of tourists who made it this far, and spied a communal barbecue station where one grill was reserved purely for halal.
I was on my way to find the town’s sole surviving relic of the colonial age, the stately green-and-cream former governors’ residence that stood strategically on Smith Point headland. I wound up a path through tangles of undergrowth to ‘Buck House’, as the locals call it, a grand mansion with commanding views over the cove. I imagined the uniformed overlords that would have once stood sipping G&Ts on its balcony. The building is now a cultural museum, though its most arresting exhibit was a tree made by the islanders, created using jetsam such as plastic dolls, flip-flops and toothbrushes – the true relics of civilisation.
Next, I hired a battered, salt-encrusted 4WD to head for the territory’s furthest points. The island rises towards the interior in narrow terraces like a wedding cake, reaching a wide plateau about 200 metres above sea level. Outside town, the landscape quickly turned a chalky white, scarred by the open-cast phosphate mines. But this changed completely at the boundaries of Christmas Island National Park, as the soil became a rich, reddish colour.
The national park occupies two-thirds of the island but its forest – or ‘jungle’, as the locals call it – does not reveal its secrets readily. In one place I stumbled on the remnants of a ‘hidden garden’, where the island’s indentured workers had once grown papaya and chilli pepper plants in the clearings. But this was just the tip of it.
I followed trails leading to concealed beaches named after the wives of former governors and administrators, such as Ethel and Winifred – to me, they sounded like grumpy great-aunts. An hour’s hike from the nearest drivable path, I reached Dolly Beach. Its cove, cradled by jungle-draped cliffs, was bisected by a freshwater stream and swept with the tractor-like flipper tracks of nesting sea turtles. I walked across fine sand that was curiously squeaky underfoot and strewn with driftwood and coconuts.
Here I lay on the shore with my feet in the surf, pondering the plight of five Dutch sailors shipwrecked here in 1855. With an abundance of seafood, coconuts and wild fruit washed down with fresh spring water, the castaways lived here for a year before being rescued. Why, I wondered, would they ever have wanted to see a windmill or clog again?
While the women were remembered by beaches, the male colonial bigwigs gave their names to the island’s extremities, such as Jackson Point and Anderson Dale. There were several ‘dales’ here, forested valleys veined with streams and christened with old-world names. I felt a strange sense of magic at Hugh’s Dale Waterfall, where a build-up of calcium carbonate deposits on the moss and ferns under its spray had effectively fossilised them. This exquisite natural sculpture looked so feathery and delicate that I hesitated to touch it while I stood cooling in the cascade. When I did, I found it was rock hard.
After drying off, I took to the forest with my field guide and binoculars to look for some of the endemic species that draw birders from all over the world. Eventually, I spotted a gorgeous golden bosun winging over the treetops with an otherworldly grace, its long tail feathers streaming behind, the glistening relic of another age.
Like the tortoises of the Galápagos, there is one creature that stands out amid all other wildlife here: the crab. There are 20 species of land crab on Christmas Island, but it is the reds that make all the headlines, and have had perhaps as big an influence on the island’s history as its human settlers.
Red crabs were everywhere I looked – never mind that it wasn’t even migration season. These bright-scarlet crustaceans were a constant presence: scuttling across roads, sidling along beaches. I even saw a few in the settlements, scurrying boldly around gardens and verges, unfazed by humans. There are some 45 million of them here, though the vast majority burrow in the damp, dappled rainforests of the National Park; it was there that I headed next with Lisa, the island’s main guide for 15 years.
As we drove along the bush tracks, time and again we stopped to coax oblivious crabs out of our path while Lisa elaborated on their mysteries. “Nobody knows why the red crabs predominate here, or for that matter, what evolutionary advantage their intense colour gives them,” she explained.
What we do know is that the crabs have been able to sustain their dominance here because theirs is one of the world’s few sizeable islands that, until comparatively recently, had never been inhabited by humans. In the years before man arrived, they made it their own, and I was slowly discovering how much of the island’s environment is designed by, and increasingly for, the crabs.
I wandered the park, shaded under a canopy of strangler figs and Tahitian chestnuts, amazed at how the forest floor below seemed as if it has been swept clean. The crabs are the decomposers of the ecosystem, Lisa had explained, eating and recycling every scrap of vegetation. A boardwalk raised me up above this canvas, and as I looked more closely, I could see that the ground was honeycombed with delicate crab burrows that would easily collapse underfoot.
It is from these burrows that the red crabs emerge every year, synchronised with the climate, the tides and the lunar cycle to a baffling degree. So much so that, each autumn, soon after the start of the rainy season (no one knows exactly when), females in their tens of millions will simultaneously cascade en masse to the shore and release their eggs into the Indian Ocean. Three weeks later, the larvae emerge from the waves, metamorphose into land crabs and scramble back to the forests.
“The trouble is, despite heaps of research into these crabs, we humans are still basically clueless,” admitted Lisa. “In 2016, for example, we predicted that they would emerge mid-December and the world’s crab-mad hardcore booked their trips. Then it all happened three weeks early. The latest theory is that the crabs somehow knew how El Niño and La Niña would interact. Crazy or what?”
The red crabs don’t have the limelight all to themselves, though. It was their less common yet conspicuous cousins, the robber crab, that bewitched Professor Brian Cox in his 2013 Wonder of Life TV series, and they remain a curious sight for visitors.
Measuring about the size of a football, with legs and pincers spanning out a metre or more, I watched these huge crustaceans – which began life in the sea, remember – climb trees in search of fruit and coconuts. At close quarters, they looked quite threatening, but the only real harm they might do is make off with any shiny objects you might leave unguarded, hence their name.
On my final day, I toured the island with Rob Muller, the National Park head ranger. He told me that the robber crabs could seek out food by means of a sense of smell that can detect a single molecule in the air.
“We had some Swedish scientists here once,” he recalled, “looking to see if they could replicate the robbers’ olfactory senses and develop it into a technology that could detect explosives or illicit drugs. They failed.”
Rob was full of stories, though one in particular stuck with me. Despite the overwhelming presence of 45 million red crabs on the island, their numbers have perhaps halved in the last 50 years. This is largely thanks to an infestation of nonnative yellow crazy ants that are driving down the population. But plans are afoot: National Parks Australia has introduced a tiny wasp that kills a bug that helps the ants that kill the crabs (…that lay in the house that Jack built). It’s a remarkable plan, and one Rob is cautiously optimistic about.
At the ‘Pink House’ research station, where such schemes are fine-tuned, I walked through a fine mesh-protected enclosure of rocks and shrubs in the darting, watchful company of blue-tailed skinks and Lister’s geckos. Both of these endemic reptiles were on the brink of extinction, and now probably only exist in captivity.
“The ecology of a small island is easily upset. Humans are the main introduced species, and they have had the biggest impact,” lamented Rob. But there is hope. Some 120 years after they first settled here, people may also hold the solution.
Later that night, in the company of a few other islanders, we sipped sundowners while darkness fell on Flying Fish Cove and the call of the muezzin echoed across the water. A school of spinner dolphins was in the harbour and we watched a flying fox unhinge itself from a palm and float into the gloaming. The conversation turned to Christmas Island’s future and everybody agreed that, with the phosphate mines winding down, the long-term survival of the island and its residents, both human and animal alike, lay in eco-tourism.
In a world where people and the environment are often in conflict, it was uplifting to hear that on this far-flung and little-known speck, the reverse may be true. Christmas Island was named 375 years ago, but its new accessibility presents us with an exciting gift, waiting to be unwrapped by a whole new wave of visitors. And this time we won’t take it for granted.
The author travelled with Ethos Travel (www.ethostravel.co.uk, 020 7284 1888), which offers a nine-night itinerary in Christmas Island. The price includes return flights to Christmas Island from Heathrow via Jakarta, seven nights room only at the Sunset, two nights room and breakfast at a Jakarta airport hotel, a week’s 4WD car hire and a half day orientation tour with Indian Ocean Experiences.
Garuda International (020 3770 9661, www.garuda-indonesia.com), is the only airline to fly direct from the UK to Jakarta; flights take around 14.5 hours. A weekly Garuda charter flight from Jakarta to Christmas Island (book at www.christmas.net.au) runs on Saturdays; flight time is 80 mins.
The Sunset (www.thesunset.cx) is a well-named two-storey hotel that is stupendously located on a west-facing headland overlooking the sea, with its own small swimming pool.
The rather chic Mango Tree Lodge (www.mangotreelodge.cx) is a stylishly decorated, comfortable hotel with striking artwork on the walls.
VQ3 Lodge (www.vq3lodge.cx) is modern and functional, and set in a lush array of gardens.
The main settlement, only natural harbour and the island’s largest beach. It has a multicultural atmosphere thanks to its Chinese, Malay and ‘European’ quarters.
A natural sea cave with access from the land. Swim in gin-clear water strangely lit by slanting shafts of light.
Epic lookout point on a precipitous cliff. Excellent for watching frigatebirds battle with boobies.
A series of rocky lava promontories that rumble with waves and tidal pressure, erupting in frequent geyser-like explosions of seawater.
This remote, Robinson Crusoe-esque beach is cradled by cliffs and remains a year-round nesting site for sea turtles.
Incense drifts ghost-like across statues and food offerings at a forlorn Taoist temple on one of the remotest headlands.
A deep depression in an enchanted forest where exquisite natural rimstone pools have formed under the torrent of a waterfall.
A wildlife research station in the heart of the National Park, where endangered critters (and the projects helping to save them from extinction) can be seen.
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