Destinations

Hidden gem in the Indian Ocean

Billy Freeman - AAP

Before I went to the Cocos Islands, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you these tiny specks in the Indian Ocean are Australian territory.

I wouldn’t have been able to tell you much about them at all, in fact.

They’re overshadowed by their more famous neighbour, Christmas Island, but the Cocos, about halfway between Perth and Sri Lanka, are a tropical paradise.

Twenty-six islands make up the Cocos but only two – West Island and Home Island – are inhabited, and have a combined population of about 600.

Understandably, many activities and much of the employment centre on the water, which is as blue as the sand is white.

The only downside to visiting the Cocos is the distance.

It requires a four-hour flight to Perth from the east coast of Australia.

One of the two flights a week goes direct to the Cocos, while the other requires a four-hour trip to Christmas Island and then a one-hour flight.

But if you can stand that much time on a plane, flying in over the islands’ breathtakingly beautiful beaches offers a sight to behold.

The Cocos are a world-renowned destination for kitesurfing, which is a good thing for the islands because the peak season for the activity is in the cooler (but not really that cold) months, from July to September.

The activity is so popular there are tourist packages just for kitesurfing, which include flights, accommodation, equipment hire and lessons.

Snorkelling is another popular activity because the water is an ideal temperature – between 26C and 29C – and is home to thousands of aquatic species.

When I was there, the locals stressed how good a place the islands were to raise children – everyone leaves their doors unlocked at night and the islands feel safe.

A number of playgrounds and a school are on each of the islands, meaning every child would just about know each other.

In the classroom, they would undoubtedly learn of the Cocos’ rich history.

The islands were discovered by Captain William Keeling in 1609 – hence the more formal and lesser-used name of the Cocos Keeling Islands.

In 1805, a trader from Scotland, John Clunies-Ross, arrived on the island and dug wells and planted palm trees.

That’s not all he planted – his descendants still live on the island to this day.

Recently, Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove visited the islands to mark the 100th anniversary of the World War I battle between HMS Sydney and the pride of the German fleet, the Emden.

The battle began when the Emden dropped anchor on the island in a bid to take control of the communications station there, but ended abruptly hours later when the German ship was forced into defeat.

The anniversary celebrations were a big deal, with many descendants of the Emden sailors flying from Germany for the occasion.

But in the end, the scenery and lifestyle are what attract people to the Cocos.

Many people from Australia and overseas keep homes there that are used only part of the year.

As I sat on the plane taking off after my five days, I was jealous I wasn’t one of them.

IF YOU GO

* Pack clothes for warmer weather, but also pack for rainy weather – it’s an island in the middle of the ocean, after all.

* Get used to living on island time. Everything runs at a slower pace.

* Make sure you visit the Muslim-majority Home Island. It has beautiful architecture and the people are among the happiest you’ll meet.

GETTING THERE

Virgin Australia flies every Monday and Saturday to the Cocos Islands. One flight is direct to Cocos from Perth, while the other goes via Christmas Island.



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