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Published: October 14th 2008
Ummm. Why am I taking this photo when I could be lounging in that sweet hammock.....?
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Sept. 25, 2008 50 meters west of Direction Island, Cocos Keeling, Australia
As we approached Cocos Keeling I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. About four or five miles away on the horizon, a long strip of palm trees seemed to grow out of the ocean. As we moved closer, a white strip of sand separated the trees from the sea. The water grew bluer and bluer as we got closer, and the spectrum of colors widened. The shades grew deeper. Some of the blues are so bright and so blue there is no way to describe them. They are like nothing I’ve ever seen.
Any image from this atoll, which rests 1,000 miles from Western Australia, could be on the cover of a National Geographic magazine.
At first glance, Cocos Keeling is paradise.
The ringed atoll, about five miles in diameter, consists of about a dozen islands, with two separate populations. On Home Island, there are about 400 Muslim Malays. The people of Cocos Keeling voted in the 1980s to become part of Australia. On West Island there are about 100 Caucasians. There is no bank, no ATM and most stores are open only a few days a week - and only for a few hours. We are anchored about 50 meters from Direction Island, or DI as the locals call it, which is about a mile from Home Island and clear across the atoll from West Island. There are no inhabitants on DI and a ferry runs twice a week to the other islands. Occasionally there is enough rain water to fill some tanks on DI where a few shower heads are attached. The yachties, as the yacht owners are called, use DI to shelter their boats from the wind and, of course, for barbecues and a place to rest their sea legs.
Most importantly, on DI there are a few hammocks strung between the coconut trees.
Sadly, there is also another side to Cocos Keeling. The Malays and Caucasians are separated by the few miles between their respective islands, but also segregated culturally. On West Island, the people were friendly and warm and welcomed us with open arms. (Granted, yachties have money and they tend to spend it at their ports of calls.) Most of the stores opened up early or stayed open late to accommodate the World Arc group. But I got the impression that without government funding, the island would fall into a deep pit of poverty. Most people on the island had more than one job to make ends meet and many, if not most, worked for the Australian government in some fashion or another. Granted, many of the people choose this slower pace of life. All seemed to be happy, but I think most people see the island as a two- or three-year holiday from mainland Australia. A 1-kilometer runway served two flights a week from Perth, but I got the impression that the runway served as a stopover for the Australian or British Air Force. The island is, after all, just a few thousand miles from South East Asia and India, and just a bit further to places like Afghanistan.
On West Island, the Malays, are a different story. About 60 percent of the population is unemployed and all apparently receive handouts from the government. The island is more picturesque than West Island because many of the original trees still stand and it was the base of the Clunies-Ross family, which ran the coconut plantation. Sadly, though, the Clunies-Ross estate and massive gardens are in a state of disrepair. There is the feel of an old plantation that has seen better days. Walls are crumbling, cricket grounds haven’t been used in years, grasses haven’t been mowed. We saw almost nobody. (Granted it was Ramadan.) Daily prayers were broadcast in the town over loudspeakers, but there were only two of us in the streets to hear them. It was a haunting feeling. A spit of crumbling concrete made its way from a dirt road and out into the water of the atoll. A sign read: “This boat ramp was made possible by” and then there was a list of a half-dozen tourist groups, volunteer charities, boating organizations, youth clubs etc. Some groups contributed in one fashion or another all the way from mainland Australia. All for a strip of concrete. It was sad that this was somebody’s dream. It looked like it hadn’t been used since the day of its great unveiling. I got the impression that some bureaucrat had visited the island and said “You know, what the Malays need is a way to fish and that will create jobs and that will provide them with food and commerce and a proud livelihood.” But I saw no boats on Home Island and no boats in the water nearby. The bureaucrat apparently never bothered to ask anyone on the island if they want or need a boat ramp. Four or five wind turbines had been sent from the U.K. Two were erected but neither was turning. The other few were lying on the ground unused.
As we went back to our dinghy to make our way back to DI, I saw a young Malay boy fishing on the dock. I said “hello” and he grumbled a “hi” back. His fishing line was cast off the dock and a bright bobber moved up and down with the waves about two feet off the dock. When I asked him if he’d had any luck fishing, he replied simply, “No luck.”
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