There is no doubt that Christmas Island is a place of great sorrow and tragedy this week. My heart goes out to all the friends and families of those who died and to the local residents who watched helplessly as people drowned in front of them.
I listen to the radio reports and follow the news on the interwebs, trying to picture the places they are talking about – the detention centre wasn’t there in the early 80’s when I lived on this idyllic patch of earth in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
My parents and brother lived on Christmas Island for about 1 1/2 years. I was what they called a ‘boarder’, that is, I went to school on the mainland and visited the Island every school holidays.
In those days, there was one chartered flight a fortnight from Perth (Ansett one fortnight, Qantas the other) and a flight from Singapore on the alternate week. The Perth flight arrived on the Island at about 5.30am (on a Thursday from memory) and brought the mail, the fresh food, the new records for the radio station and hordes and hordes of school children at school holiday time. We would have spent all night on the plane, with a break on Cocos Islands in the middle of the night for an hour or two as the flight served both territories.
The arrival of the fortnightly plane from Perth was a huge community event. Despite the early hour, seemingly half the Island would be up there – chatting, socialising, eating curry puffs for breakfast, waiting to greet or farewell family and/or friends. The arrival of the mail bags was keenly anticipated, there would have been no news from your friends for 2 whole weeks! In the days before easy access to email and the internet, Christmas Island was a very isolated community. I remember once needing to ring my parents from Canberra during a school term and the process for setting up such a long-distance call was complex and expensive.
It was a bizarre and unusual place. Great natural beauty, weird crab migration paths, the lunar-like landscape left behind by the phosphate mining and a diverse and interesting population, with a mix of mostly Malays, Chinese and Europeans. We ‘boarders’ were usually the children of either government officials (me) or phosphate mine executives (my dear friend Camilla), but they were also children of teachers & health workers.
I see Flying Fish Cove on the news this week as a place of such heartbreak and sadness, yet cannot help remembering how much fun I had there with my friends. The snorkelling and swimming was unbelievable – I once followed a giant turtle as it swam around the Cove for a quarter of an hour. I remember friends getting bad ‘coral cuts’ from the gentle swell over the shallows of the reef, chasing brightly coloured reef fish through the water and picking our way painfully across the crushed coral ‘beach’ back to the grass and shade.
There was an outdoor cinema at the edge of the cliff (most of the Island is sheer, steep cliffs) and at this time of the year, during the monsoon (or ‘swell’ as it was called on the Island) sometimes the waves would be so fierce they would smash onto the cliff below the cinema and send sprays of water shooting up higher than the movie screen. Our house was on the edge of one of those cliffs and had a tropical outlook down across lawn, with palm trees, shrubs and then just nothing – sheer drop off to the ocean. It was spectacularly beautiful.
I know that there was a very dark side to life in such an isolated community but was protected from that by sheer dint of being a teenager at the time. To pretend it was all idyllic and wonderful is naive – but I can only write about what I remembered as a 15 year old.
Somewhere in a box at my parent’s house will be letters, diaries, photos and other memorabilia I kept from my time on Christmas Island – I’m heading to their place this weekend, maybe I’ll take the time to have a look.