Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Red Alert

Dec 25, 2007

Come December, bright red crabs are found crawling virtually everywhere on Christmas Island as they make their annual migration to the coast

By Mavis Toh

THERE it stood - the bright red crab - lying nonchalantly in the middle of the road as cars zipped by it.

I was driving out of the Christmas Island Airport and when I saw the cars in front of me swerving to avoid the crab, I followed suit.

For the next 15 minutes, I turned into an F1 driver, zig-zagging across the two-lane road.

As I drove along, I realised it was not just one crab but hundreds, perhaps thousands, of them on the road.

I cringed as I heard my first casualty crackle under the Toyota Rav 4's wheels but soon learnt that it was a sound I had to get used to.

Visitors to Christmas Island during the December period will be treated to the company of the millions of red crabs as they make their annual migration to the coast.

They are on the roads, the beaches, in the forests and even scratching on your front door.

The peculiar sight of the red crustaceans and the stunning view of the Indian Ocean aside, Christmas Island resembles Singapore in the 1970s with its low-rise flats, the roti prata breakfast and the Mandarin-speaking female boss at the grocery store.

Unknown to many, Christmas Island was part of Singapore in the 1910s but was acquired by the Australian government in 1957 for &pound2.9 million.

Although an Australian territory, the island is far more reminiscent of South-east Asia than anywhere in Australia.

It is a tiny dot on the Indian Ocean, some 60 per cent of the 1,400 islanders are Chinese, 20 per cent Malays and the remaining are Europeans.

Most of the early settlers came from Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

The island's small population makes no one a stranger. Locals wave as they drive by each other and stop every few steps to greet friends as they make their way through a restaurant.

The closeness of the community makes the island so safe that locals leave their houses and cars unlocked - with the keys in the ignition for the latter.

Captain Don O'Donnell, my local guide who has been on the island for eight years, explained: 'No one would steal a car here because if you need one, just ask and people would gladly lend you theirs.'

On the first tour, the captain, a 72-year-old grandfather, took us to rugged terrain.

Parking his car (unlocked and with my iPod and passport inside) among some vegetation - 63 per cent of the island's 135 sq km is a national park - he led us into the forest.

Though a 20-minute uphill hike avoiding the sharp edges of the rocks and the omnipresent red crabs was not an easy feat, the captain did not so much as pant.

The city girl in me was starting to worry about losing the signal on my cellphone when I saw the light at the end of the ordeal - a spectacular view of the Indian Ocean glistening under the hot sun and an overview of the island's nine-hole golf course.

The panting pack was still taking in the picture when the captain pulled out two golf clubs and several golf balls hidden behind some rocks, like a magician.

'People on the island like to find their own space and this is a favourite spot for many golfers,' he said, passing us the clubs to take a shot. 'The aim is to get the ball onto the green from here.'

Teeing off from a cliff, overlooking the blue sea could jolly well be one of my best Kodak moments here.

Seven beaches, 13 eateries

On another occasion, while exploring the island on my own, I spotted a man, washed wet by the sea, 'finding his own space' on a steep cliff, fishing.

Solitude is something you need to be prepared for when visiting the island. While its lush forests, swarms of birds and clear water beaches must be heaven for the nature lover, there really isn't much to do once night falls.

Of the 13 eateries available, fewer than half are open for dinner. The few gift shops are closed by five and nightclubs are unheard of.

The chatty islanders, though, make the nights bearable. One told me how the resort I was staying in used to be an old hospital. Another entertained me with his own colourful history and a third showed me the best spots to pick ripe mangoes.

The highlight for many locals would be the open air cinema which screens 'almost new' movies every Saturday evening. For A$5 (S$6.32), I watched Spider-Man 3 under the stars with a can of Coke and a pack of microwaved popcorn.

Despite the slow nights, there is more than enough to do in the day, depending on your energy level.

Most would start the day at 8am with a dive. Christmas Island, surrounded by a narrow tropical reef which plunges into a bottomless abyss, boasts one of the world's top diving spots where divers can expect to see untouched coral reefs, dolphins and whalesharks.

The afternoon can be spent visiting one of the seven beaches on the island. Getting to the best spots, though, requires some tracking especially when most of the roads are closed for the crab migration.

A bumpy 40 minutes four-wheel drive later - there were so many crustaceans on the road the driver in front of me had to take out his broom to sweep them to the side - I still had to trudge through a half-hour forest trail before reaching Dolly Beach.

You will be treated to a panoramic view of the fantastic rock formations on the Robinson Crusoe-style beach before taking a vertical descent to the sandy shore. There, the water is clear and a rock formation creates a little lagoon safe for swimming.

Very often, the beauty of Christmas Island is in its untouched innocence.

There are no beach chairs and shops lining the shore but instead you get your own little piece of quiet paradise. Once, I pretended I was taking a dip in my private beach.

At that moment, I understood what Lisa, a local on the island, meant when she said that 'I'd rather have a bad day on the island than a good day elsewhere'.

Despite the seemingly rural lifestyle on the island, things here do not come cheap.

A plate of fried rice costs A$7, a sandwich A$13 and a can of Pringles A$4. However, I was also told that jobs on the island pay well. A waitress could make A$30 an hour and a truck driver A$70,000 annually.

When I told the restaurant boss my salary back home, he offered me a waitressing position at his joint.

At the end of my seven days on the island, it was hard to trade in the blue sea at my resort door for a view of the CTE from my bedroom window.

Besides, driving zig-zag to avoid the crabs got to be quite fun.

Now, I wonder if that waitressing position is still open.

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