Great Walks explores a 20km atoll walks on the incredible Cocos Keeling Islands, part of WA.
Seemingly adrift in the enormity of the Indian Ocean, the remote Cocos Keeling Islands sit atop the remains of ancient volcanic activity and offer a remarkable walking opportunity. And despite the fact they're geographically closer to the Indonesian island of Sumatra, these idyllic isles located thousands of kilometres from the WA coast are actually an external territory of Australia.
The Cocos Keeling Islands are made up of 27 individual islands with a permanent population of just over 500 people spread between two of these islands, Home and West Island.
Descendants of the original plantation workers still reside on Home Island and live in a traditional Malay kampong, which in many aspects feels very much like a small piece of Malaysia. West Island is home to around 100 Australian mainland expats including ancestors of the Clunies-Ross family. The remaining 25 islands are pristine, uninhabited and beckoning to be explored.
On West Island, boarding Cahaya Baru, a sleek modern, air-conditioned ferry for the 30 minute trip across the lagoon is a rare way to start a walk. Gliding across the crystal-clear waters of the inner lagoon, scattered coral reefs break up the endless kaleidoscope of blues.
Progressing along Jalang Kampong Atas, the trail that leads to the southern end of Home Island, the scene of stillness and tranquility belies what is happening on the other side of the island. The unrestrained Indian Ocean is in a relentless battle with the fringing reef of the islands.
Abruptly, Home Island physically ends and with that, the intent of the atoll walk is immediately apparent as we are faced with the first of many water crossings. The aforementioned uninhabited islands are accessible on foot only on certain low tides. During normal tidal ranges, the expanse between the islands is awash with water and impossible to negotiate on foot.
Leaving the paved roads and remnant vegetation of Home Island behind, the terrain markedly changes to exposed rocky shores littered with shattered fragments of coral. Travelling further, faultless white sandy beaches come together with thick, overgrown coconut forest.
Traversing the wild and windswept coast of South Island frequently reveals unique objects washed up on the shoreline. The south-easterly trade winds, which for centuries have propelled trading vessels around the globe, now deposit unsettling reminders of human kinds’ impact on our planet. Whilst resting in the shade of a swaying coconut palm, sweat beading on my forehead it is difficult to grasp that the nearest landmass to the south is Antarctica, some 6,000km away. These islands really are in the middle of nowhere.
The view across to West Island invokes sobering thoughts that this incredible journey is nearing its conclusion. The late afternoon light casts enchanting shadows on the glistening sand as juvenile reef sharks systematically patrol the shoreline. With aching muscles and encouraged on by the thought of a cold drink and air conditioning, we plunge into the tropical waters once more. As the tide begins to rise, exploring the few remaining postcard perfect islands is a fitting conclusion to what is truly a great walk.
Words and photos_Rik Soderland