Cocos Islands: for the free of sole, and the free in soul.
Do you like secrets? I’m going to share with you a delicious one.
It’s about a little known speck of tropical paradise that sits forgotten in the Indian Ocean.
It’s palm trees and white beaches and land crabs and coconuts. It’s unlocked homes, keys in the ignition and perpetual bare feet. It’s turquoise waters, it’s an intoxicating tropical breeze, and it’s the best darn kite-surfing in the world.
It’s Australia, but not as you know it. And I’m going to let you peek behind the palm trees of this clandestine utopia…
Welcome to Cocos! Now remove your shoes.
I’m living here, on West Island- the lesser populated of the two inhabited islands (120 people).
So, I have done it- I have found the best darn visa extension work in the whole of Australia. In exchange for food and accommodation, I work 20 hours a week on an organic food farm for Cocos Tropical Foods.
While most backpackers – for their 88 days rural work in order to extend their visa for another year – bust their guts on melon farms or have their fingertips erased picking mangoes (this is an actual thing), I am frolicking in absolute paradise.
Not a hostel in sight.
Not a job board in sight.
Not a drunk 18 year old German backpacker in sight (no offence, but you guys are everywhere in Australia).
Not much in sight, actually, except pristine white beaches, licked by turquoise waters, tucked behind endless palms.
Yes, I’m still pinching myself. Every night as I fall asleep to the roar of the Indian Ocean, and every morning as I wake to the cries of numerous wild cockerels which hide out in the undergrowth… I am amazed that I have come to call somewhere so very unique my temporary home.
What an adventure! It has taken me this long to pull myself away from the action and introduce you to Cocos, but here goes.
Ready to learn about somewhere you probably never even knew existed?
I’ll start at the beginning.
Even landing at Cocos is an experience. The runway, flanked by swaying palm trees and turquoise waters on both sides, is set right in the middle of West Island, smack bang in the middle of town. It IS town.
Either side of the runway are big grassy banks- a golf course, in fact- and you can see people tee-ing off as your plane flies over the top of them. Wild chickens run out the way. Locals stand on the roofs of their buildings, or on the top of their utes, or, you know, just at the side of the runway, to wave you in.
Three planes a week land here, so its kind of an occasion of interest. They even open the bar in town. Which is the other building, about ten metres away.
Think of the tiniest airport you’ve ever encountered, and then shrink it down some more.
I was actually a bit confused by the process! Because you literally just go into this little hut, which they drive the entire luggage truck into through a big door, and then you all just grab your bags right off the truck. Once you’ve grabbed your bag, you turn around and walk to the back of the room, where the border control consists of a Malay woman behind a trestle table asking if you have any food.
I push my luggage trolley outside. A small courtyard, decorated with a few picnic tables, swaying palm trees never leaving my peripherals. The first thing I notice is the bare feet.
This island belongs to the shoe-less, the naked footed, those free of sole and free in soul. And there they stand, in huddles of relaxed island chatter, all tans and sunglasses and bleached hair.
Remember that episode of Family Guy where Peter refers to shoes as ‘feet prisons’? Yep.
I pull my phone out my pocket, but of course it does not work here. I’m just about to ask to borrow someone else’s phone, when a tall, bare-foot, short-haired man floats into my line of vision. Laughter wrinkles at his eyes, a child with impossibly blues eyes nestled atop his hip, and an air of complete relaxation seeping from his every pore.
I ask on impulse.
Oh hey, Mel? How ya goin. You seem pretty relaxed out here. …Well, hey, welcome to Cocos!
I walk some 10 meters to the side of the only road on Cocos, Tony stopping to talk to every single person that passes, introducing me to them all as if I’m an old friend. After throwing my bag on the back of his ute, we drive all of 50 meters before pulling up at a chaotic looking wooden house set amongst palm trees. There is a busted car on the lawn, several bicycle parts strewn around, and all sorts of bizarre items clogging the entrance.
‘Well, this is you, this is Jonny’s place’
Jonny and my other co-wwoofer, Dan, are out for the night, so Tony takes me on a brief tour of town (which takes about five minutes- the airport and the runway constituting most of the town), and then we head to the beach with his family for dinner.
He drives us North, complete with wife and four boys, to the top most point of the island. Here at North Point we drive through a palm rainforest, and I keep expecting to see a vellocer raptor emerge from the dense, ancient jungle which encloses us on all sides. It looks like Juarassic Park, and it smells like heaven. You know, that damp foresty smell and warm tropical air…. divine.
Eventually, the darkness lessens, and before us, through a small clearing in the palm leaves, lies white sand, licked by turquoise waters. Wow.
That evening we cook fresh fish atop a fire on the beach, and I eat my first bit of fish in over ten years. Well, I tell myself, you live on an island now girl, time to get over yourself and eat some seafood. So I did. And you know what? It’s pretty good!
Yeah, go on, it’s just chicken of the sea!
The fire is made of palm leaves, driftwood and coconut husks; which strikes me as very beautiful.
Hundreds of enormous hermit crabs, and little ones too, come out to traverse the sands of their curiosity, taking inquisitive little pinches of our esky and cooking utensils. The boys dance with them.
Afterwards we go to the pub, and I meet everyone. And by everyone, I mean a good proportion of the community. Because it’s Friday night and you live on a tiny island, what else are you going to do?
My feet are still bare. My phone is at home. And the beer is $4.
I’m gunna like it here.
A Barefoot paradise
The next day is my day off (oh, island life), and I go to the beach with some new friends for a surf lesson.
Here everyone just leaves their surfboards on the beach, in cute little shelving. This is a place of community; nothing is locked away, and you never have to worry about anything being stolen. Where would it go? Who would take it? Everyone knows everyone, and believe me, they talk.
Anyway, obviously I’m terrible at surfing, cursed as I am with no patience, no balance, and stubby little sausage arms. I find myself gravitating towards the white sand, and there I remain.
The following day is also my day off (this is going well so far), and more of the same follows.
Actually, that first week, I didn’t seem to do a great deal of farm work. Instead I found myself padding around barefoot, exploring this secret paradise, in awe of it’s beauty.
I especially love the giant land crabs of Cocos- or rather, I love sticking my camera in their face as they try to run away from me, claw raised in a mad spasm of self defence.
It’s not just giant land crabs- there are turtles, exotic fish, and a mind-boggling array of tropical birds to get out and see.
One day we snorkelled to a small island just off West Island. We swam around it and saw hundreds of brightly coloured fish showing off their neon extravagances in the clear warm waters.
On the island there were wild chickens and we cracked open loads of coconuts to fed them.
I fell asleep on a bit of driftwood, a large smooth surface of sea-worn warmth, something I think was once a door. All I needed was a ‘wilson’ and I’d really have been living the castaway dream.
One day I just started walking.
Falling forwards, into untold sandy footprints.
The only plan to have no plan, just enjoying the sheer act of putting one foot in front of the other, and not concerning myself one iota with where I might end up.
I wanted to walk the island. I wanted to feel turquoise waves lick my feet, see palm trees dance in my peripheries, and hear hermit crabs scuttle across the coral; for step, after step, after step.
It was a triumph of curiosity; I ended up walking 12 kilometres in bare feet and didn’t clap eyes on another human soul for four hours.
I slept in the shade of endless palms, I swam in endless blue waters, and I drifted into endless thought. When I got hungry, I crouched in the sand and spent half an hour repeatedly bashing a coconut on a sharp rock, and then gradually prising it apart with a clam shell. It took lots of work. Maybe people did see me, and just left promptly because I looked like such a lunatic.
Finally, I heard a dull thud, and coconut water coated the rock. Nature had submitted, relinquishing her bounty to my human needs, and as I ate I felt immensely thankful.
I returned on a cloud of calm; all brown skin, tired limbs and sea encrusted hair. A memory card full of photos, a belly full of coconut.
This is what it means, to me, to live connected to the land: it is to be lead, and to be fed.
To venture unhindered wherever the wind blows me, to forage for lunch in my bikini instead of forage for change in the supermarket. To eat cross-legged in the sand, under the warmth of the midday sun, instead of bent like a depressed gnome into an office cubicle, under the eternal glare of artificial strip lights.
It is real. It is living how we are designed to live, and that’s why it feels so good.
There is an innate switch in each of us that the modern world will never be able to flick. But turn off your phone, go bash some coconuts on rocks, and it’s like… BOOM…the switch is flicked.
And… BOOM… just like that, a bikini clad, bare foot, mosquito ridden, leathery, wild haired cave woman emerges like a lunatic from the dense palmy undergrowth of Cocos Islands. (Probably running because she ate too much coconut at the all you can eat beach buffet, and it’s a laxative- don’t you know?)
Watch out kids, I hear Hippy is catching.
Stay tuned for more updates from the middle of my beloved Indian Ocean; there is so much I want to tell you guys about Cocos! The people, the kite-surfing, the peculiar intricacies, the fun things you can get up to…. This is such a unique place, and I’m living here like a local.
This. This is how you travel.