It was time for me to go diving again, so I betook myself to Christmas Island, this Australian external territory in the Indian Ocean. Under water I encountered sharks, dolphins and other creatures of the sea. Above water I went hiking, climbing and birdwatching in honour of the words of someone very dear to me: ‘Take many pictures, do many things you don’t get to do in Singapore and remember each and every one of them.’
Adventurous days indeed, but the many things I don’t (or hardly) get to do in Singapore include enjoying tranquillity. Now, you can find calmness in Singapore, say, to read and meditate. But you either have to live somewhere nice and quiet or you have to know where to look. But never before have I been sitting on the lawn, looking at the Indian Ocean, in the company of chickens.
Best trip ever.
And yes, I took many pictures.
For want of a waterproof camera I couldn’t take pictures under the sea, but there’s a short video of my dives to places with illustrious names such as Coconut Point, Daniel Roux Cave, Lost Lake Cave, Thundercliff Dome or The Morgue (hee hee). My favourite spot was Perpendicular Wall, or should I say mile as we covered a great distance just by drifting in the current. Think of a vast underwater mountain face with lots of interesting overhangs. The footage was taken by Inge, who was in my diving group for the better part of a week. Which means (most of) her dives were mine and (most of) what she describes in her blog was experienced by me too. No idea where the music in her video comes from, though, I didn’t hear that down there.
The first week of my stay I was doing two to three dives per day, and some open-water snorkelling from the boat in-between. I never thought I’d even mention that. Because when you scuba dive to reefs and caves and shipwrecks, why would you bother about snorkelling at the surface, right? Well, on the third day I swam corrected, and that was because of the sharks.
I had seen a lazy leopard shark once before, one and a half years ago, and I’d been super-happy about that. And while diving here, I had already seen from distance grey reef, whitetip reef and silvertip sharks passing by. But I had not imagined what would happen while snorkelling.
During a surface interval Hiro, one of the diving instructors and our skipper on that day, took us to this spot where, if I remember correctly, fishermen throw offal into the water. Which attracts predatory fish.
True enough, when we reached the place you could see dozens of giant trevallies from the boat. They weren’t massive, but many. Now, adult giant trevallies are dark in colour, almost black. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t see a better camouflaged creature when I jumped into the water. It so happened that I was ready a few moments before the others, so I was the first one in. Adjusted the snorkel and put my head under water, expecting to see up close these dark mackerels that are giant trevallies.
Instead I was eyeball to eyeball with a silky shark. Literally. It couldn’t have been closer. Had I almost jumped on its head or had it approached me, fast, when it saw me plunge into the water? It was one and a half to two metres. I could have touched it.
There were five or six of them circling around me, estimated distance one to five metres. I was floored and remember having profound thoughts like ‘Oh wow. Oh boy. Oh wow.’
Then the close-up shark put some distance between itself and me. I put my head out of the water and let my fellow divers know. As they joined me in the water, the silkies kept a greater distance, but they were still circling around us and occasionally came closer (I think Inge caught one of them on video in seconds 20 to 33).
It was a stunning experience.
Hiro and his wife Sandy are the managers of the diving centre on the island. Dave is/was an instructor there; I take it he’s on his way to Malta already.
Walter, who came over for a few dives with us, is the owner. Their underwater consumption of breathing gas is next to nothing. I know because I heard their stats. And one time, during an eleven-minute decompression stop at six metres, I saw for myself as Hiro was sharing his air with me. Thank you, Hiro, much obliged. And sorry.
But the real boss is Cav. Cav doesn’t breathe underwater at all.
I was diving so much for the better part of my first days on the island that I was downright exhausted when I came back home. I went exploring the vicinity of my place a bit, but not for long. Each night I slept like a log. It’s so unbelievably quiet.
As a consequence it wasn’t before day five till I ventured out a bit farther, downhill Settlement to Flying Fish Cove and uphill again to Tai Jin House, the original home of the administrator of the island, and beyond. That’s when at last I saw the red crabs that Christmas Island is famous for. But as soon as I did see them, they were everywhere. In the forest, because they’re land crabs. Checked out some cliffs too, carefully. First bird sightings on day five as well.
Another day, out on my own again, I went to Daniel Roux Cave in the morning, but taking it on from above this time. As interesting as that was, what will stick in my memory was this helluva speed climb up a volcanite hill, all rocks and jungle and more rocks, along some fuel pipes, as fast as I could, as if something was chasing me or waiting for me at the top, but really only in search of that cave, which as it turned out wasn’t even there because I had taken a wrong turn in the woods! When I reached the hilltop or plateau or whatever, I sank to my knees, literally. Remembering the days of my national service I wondered what had happened to my pledge never to exhaust myself like that again. Then I had to climb down.
In the afternoon I hiked from Settlement almost to the defunct resort and back. It was only at night that I realised I had been striding for seven hours straight that day. Ah, the chafing. You’re a fool, Patrick.
Apart from these solo runs I went on guided tours with Lisa and John. Lisa runs this tour agency that can also take care of your air ticket, John is one of her guides who can tell you the Latin name of everything organic. Places visited by four-wheel drive vehicle and on foot have evocative names such as The Dales, Hugh’s Dale Waterfall, The Blowholes or Margaret Knoll Lookout. Beaches, I was told, are named after women and girls who were lost to the sea there: Dolly Beach, Greta Beach, Lily Beach. No joke.
Another tour I went on was a personalised birdwatching trip with Kirsty, who operates a business dedicated to photography with her husband Jon. I’ve taken hundreds of pictures of birds that day, but not many of them are acceptable. Why must the prettiest birds be so fast? Kirsty and Jon, however, take amazing photos. A few of them are on display on their website.
My Personal Hobbiton
What else? Oh, only everything I needed for a holiday.
I’ve mentioned reading and meditating surrounded by chicken. It was so relaxing to read this introduction to anthropology that had been lying around unread for a year. And to start reading The Silmarillion, again, revisiting my own handwritten notes from when I had read it the first time, hrrmmty-six years ago.
I didn’t even mind running into the man-sized spider web that one attercop had woven between two trees.
Sleeping in. Doing nothing. Meditating on the lawn in front of the house. Chatting with my neighbours and hosts Tanja and Chris, who let their guesthouse, Sea Spray Villa, to holiday makers. Helping their daughter Poppy and her friend pick mulberries, because I’m taller and could reach higher into the tree. Eating too much pasta for dinner. Watching Australian commercial TV, eighty per cent of which consists of commercials for lawn mowers, utility vehicles and roof tilers. Sitting on the veranda after dark, listening to utmost silence, looking at where you would see the motionless sea were the night not so black about you. Occasionally, walking over to the Golden Bosun, a public house, for a Fat Yak.
Which brings me to the islanders. What a friendly lot. I haven’t seen, heard or felt a single piece of malice. Instead, Australian neighbourliness and mentality, which is more robust than, say, the Singaporean one, but that takes my fancy. Experiencing Christmas kindness instead of CBD cynicism was refreshing to the max. Example? There’s a roundabout in Flying Fish Cove. By the roadside there are blackboards where people announce the next toy exchange or leave messages like ‘To whoever repaired the bench at the picnic table – THANK YOU!’ They might also ask everyone to be on the look-out for this aged gentleman visiting the island who’s a bit too adventurous for his age and own good, or advertise news such as ‘Tonight roast beef at Café 1888’.
Christmas Islanders are so few in number that it feels like you meet all of them when there’s a night market, or when the plane arrives on Saturday, or on similar occasions when people gather for sociality. The rest can be met at the supermarket when open.
This is the kind of place where you don’t lock the doors but leave the car keys in the ignition. Everyone says hello when they see you. The second time this happens, they know your name.
Landscape and Other Things
On the eve of my departure I went on a farewell walk. And lo, right in front of me a red crab was crossing the road, as if to come over to say goodbye. I waited for him, and for a while my crab buddy and I were walking slowly side by side as a pink and blue evening sky turned dark blue and the stars came out. Then he turned into the bushes and we parted, he to go his way and I mine.