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Celebrating the wildlife wonderland on Christmas Island

This island in the Indian Ocean may belong to Australia, but its architecture, demographics and lifestyle echo those of old Singapore

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Tan Chung Lee on 28 Jul 2018

The Straits Times

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This island in the Indian Ocean may belong to Australia, but its architecture, demographics and lifestyle echo those of old Singapore

 

Christmas Island, a speck in the vast Indian Ocean, is a wildlife wonderland that also hides a slice of old Singapore.

 

I arrived in December on the island, just south of Java, to witness its famous annual red crab breeding migration and it was an experience far beyond the ordinary.

 

Apart from crabs galore, there are also rare birds, unusual bats, spinner dolphins, untouched coral reefs, an enchanting rainforest and, best of all, no crowds.

 

It has been dubbed the "Galapagos of the Indian Ocean" or "the other Galapagos" because more indigenous species exist on Christmas Island than anywhere else on the planet, except for the far-flung Galapagos islands in the Pacific.

 

Yet, Christmas Island is hardly known or explored, except by scientists and naturalists.

 

Their work has uncovered about 200 endemic invertebrate species - the result of the island's isolation and a remarkable environment left untouched for millennia.

 

Sitting atop an ancient volcano that rose from the depths of the ocean, Christmas Island harbours a rugged mountainous and lush rainforest interior that is a haven for 14 land crab species.

 

The most famous is the red crab and about 40 million of them are responsible for the island's most popular attraction - the annual breeding migration.

 

In November or December, the entire island swarms with fire engine-red crabs as they march relentlessly from their inland burrows in the central plateau of the isle to the sea to mate.

 

RED CRABS ON PARADE

 

The crabs are everywhere - crawling down cliff faces, along shorelines, residents' backyards, crossing roads, drains, going over and under all obstacles in their path.

 

With beaches the best place to catch the migration, which lasts a week or so, we drive each day during our seven-day trip to a different location to see the march.

 

But so many crabs are on the move that roads leading to the coast are closed for the crabs' safety. We park our 4x4 vehicles at a road block to walk to our destination.

 

Our path is strewn with so many scurrying crabs, we have to side-step them.

 

On roads still open, signs abound to remind motorists to drive around the crabs. Fences are set up to guide them through underpasses, with even an overhead "crab bridge" built to help the creatures cross without becoming road kill.

 

The crabs need moisture to survive so the migration takes place only during the wet season.

 

The mass exodus kicks off as soon as the rains start, any time from late October to mid-December.

 

Each crab deposits up to 100,000 eggs in the ocean, which hatch into larvae that grow in a month to become pink crablings - that is, if they escape hungry fish.

 

They then emerge from the sea as juvenile crabs to begin the reverse migration from the coast to the rainforest where, after reaching maturity in four to five years, they will retrace the same route back to the coast to spawn.

 

Red crabs are thought to have a life span of about 30 years. What is certain, though, is that they are not suitable for human consumption, hence their incredible numbers during migration.

 

OTHER WILDLIFE

 

As if seeing the continuous streams of red crabs on the march is not heady enough, Christmas Island enthralls with other weird and wonderful creatures.

 

Chief among these are the cousins of the red crab - the slightly bigger blue crab - and the monstrous sized robber crab, so called because of its tendency to steal.

 

It is also known as the coconut crab and is the world's biggest, weighing 4kg and measuring 1m across.

 

Both the blue and robber crabs are highly sought after as food, especially the latter for its delectable coconut flavour, given its predilection for coconut, which it gets into by tearing away the husks and smashing the shell with heavy claws.

 

A diminishing species in other Indian Ocean and Pacific islands, the vibrantly orange and blue-tinted charismatic robber crab, which can live to 60, is protected on Christmas Island, which is now its major stronghold.

 

Then there are its seven endemic seabirds, of which the most magnificent must surely be the beautiful long-tailed Golden Bosun.

 

Easy to spot whenever it soars in the sky over the main town of Settlement, where it nests on nearby coastal cliffs, it is Christmas Island's national symbol and graces its flag.

 

The island is also the only nesting habitat in the world for the rare and endangered Abbott's Booby - the largest of all booby species - and the Christmas Island Frigatebird.

 

With so many endemics and more than 100 other migratory and visiting bird species, it is little wonder that the island has become a birding hot spot.

 

What strikes me is how easy it is to encounter the birds and how unafraid they seem to be.

 

At the Margaret Knoll lookout overlooking a forest of green-clad pinnacles dotting the west coast, we watch a returning Brown Booby parent feed its juvenile in a nest less than a metre away.

 

Elsewhere at Lily Beach and Ethel Beach, we catch sight of Red-footed Boobies, Brown Boobies, Christmas Island Frigatebirds and others perched on the branches.

 

A rich coral reef encircles the island and its clear warm waters are home to more than 600 aquatic species, including the Green Turtle and Hawksbill Turtle, which come ashore to nest on the sandy beaches of Greta and Dolly.

 

Then there are the beautiful spotted whale sharks, the largest living fish in the oceans.

 

Christmas Island is one of only a handful of locations around the world where they can be seen.

 

I even have a serendipitous sighting of a spinner dolphin leaping into the air off Flying Fish Cove, where the history of Christmas Island began.

 

THE CHRISTMAS ISLAND NAME

 

As remote islands go, this one is more of an oddity than most.

 

Just 135 sq km or one-seventh the size of Singapore, two-thirds of it is a national park.

 

It is located right smack in the Indian Ocean, closer to Java than Australia, which is 1,550km away and administers the island as an overseas territory.

 

It was named by Captain William Mynors of the British East India Company ship, the Royal Mary, which sailed past it on Dec 25, 1643.

 

Over the years, several sailing expeditions tried to gain access to the island, but its rugged coastline proved to be a formidable barrier.

 

In 1886, Captain Maclear of HMS Flying Fish managed to anchor in a bay he called Flying Fish Cove, to send out a landing party to collect flora and fauna specimens.

 

Another expedition the following year brought back a rock sample that indicated the island to be rich in phosphate.

 

That prompted the British to annex the island in 1888 for phosphate mining and, for the next 70 years, the island was governed from Singapore as part of the Straits Settlements and, later, when this was dissolved in 1946, the Crown Colony of Singapore.

 

And thus began the Singapore connection.

 

SLICE OF OLD SINGAPORE

 

Chinese, Malays, Indians and Eurasians living in Singapore - and then Malaya - answered the call of the colonial administrators to work in the phosphate mining industry.

 

Indentured labour was also brought in from China, Indonesia and India.

 

In 1958, a year before Singapore became self-governing, the British Colonial Office transferred the sovereignty of Christmas Island to Australia at the latter's request, in return for a payment of $20 million Malayan dollars to the Singapore government.

 

Fast forward several decades and it is inevitable that many aspects of Christmas Island life today are familiar to anyone visiting from Singapore.

 

There is a Malay kampung in Flying Fish Cove with a mosque located on Jalan Masjid, facing what is fondly called the Malay Club, open on weekends and serving delicious nasi lemak and roti prata.

 

This is a cafe and meeting place not only for the Malay community but also for other locals from Poon Saan, the Chinese enclave located in a hilltop district a short drive away; Drumsite, with its more eclectic population, or the nearby Settlement, the island's equivalent of a downtown area.

 

What catches my eye as we make our way on a Sunday morning for breakfast at the Malay Club is the architecture of the housing blocks lining the road facing Flying Fish Cove. If not for the view ahead of a kayak-lined beach, a cooling breeze and a pair of frigatebirds swooping over the choppy waves of a cobalt blue sea, I could well be looking at three-room flats in the Tiong Bahru neighbourhood.

 

The flats and those in Poon Saan are likely to have been inspired by the housing estates built in Singapore by the Singapore Improvement Trust, set up in 1927 to provide low-cost homes.

 

For years, until the 1970s, even Christmas Island's education system was based on the Singapore syllabus, with educators brought in from Singapore to teach in its schools.

 

Today, the island's 2,000-strong population partially mirrors Singapore society.

 

The ethnic groups are made up of Chinese, Malay, Eurasians, Indian and a white Australian community.

 

When I drop in at the home of locally born Seet Choy Peng on a Friday, her husband, dressed in Baju Melayu and songkok, excuses himself to get to the mosque when the call to prayer sounds.

 

The locals are friendly, greeting us like long-lost friends. Many still have relatives in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.

 

On our first day, we meet Kemal and his friends pulling in their boat from a fishing expedition at sea. He promptly gives us a pair of garoupa and drives us to Lucky Ho restaurant at Poon Saan with instructions to cook the fish for us.

 

Then there is retiree Albert Zhang, who insists on taking us to South Point, the southern-most tip of the island, to show us the two temples the earliest Chinese immigrants had built to give thanks to the Goddess of Mercy for a safe journey.

 

He also shows us the Chinese Heritage Museum in Settlement for a glimpse of the island's history.

 

Astonishingly, the island is still a beacon for more recent arrivals such as Ms Tricia Ho, 53, an administration officer with Christmas Island National Park and Mr Michael de Cruz, 56, who is in facilities management.

 

They considered its tranquility and laid-back lifestyle plus points for bringing up two young sons when they moved here 15 years ago.

 

NATURAL WONDERS

 

Wildlife apart, Christmas Island boasts a wealth of natural sights.

 

One of the most impressive are the blowholes along its southern coastline of jagged limestone cliffs. Here, as the ocean waves rush in, seawater shoots up with force 30m into the air through rock fissures, creating impressive geysers.

 

Its beaches are scenic, with white sands backed by impressive cliffs or tucked in bays surrounded by promontories. It has many hiking trails with spectacular views of the coast.

 

The walk in Territory Day Park ends in a lookout with a panoramic view of Flying Fish Cove and the port at Settlement, which is the base for the island's phosphate industry. Here, a 6km conveyor belt runs downhill to load phosphate into waiting ships.

 

The hike to the lookout of the island's nine-hole golf course goes through a historic Chinese cemetery with traditional armchair-shaped tombstones.

 

The walk is uphill but compensates with sightings of the Golden Bosun and the unique Christmas Island Flying Fox, which flies in the day as well as in the night.

 

Phosphate mining is the island's only industry but, after 130 years and with deposits shrinking, the island is looking at another possible source of revenue: tourism.

 

The island is blessed with the right requisites to draw more visitors, now numbering only 1,500 a year.

 

With its singular history, natural beauty and distinctive biodiversity, it is a pity Christmas Island has yet to make its mark on the world tourism map.

 

• Tan Chung Lee is a freelance travel writer.

 

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.