Nothing against the easy close-haul kite holiday destinations, but some places are worth more effort, like the Cocos Keeling Islands, six hours flight over the Indian Ocean from Perth, Western Australia
WORDS – Mark (Ding) Glendinning / Supersaturated
ALL PHOTOS – Aaron Finch
Getting this close to a runway would usually see you accused of involvement in some sort of terrorist activity, but the boys in blue were nowhere to be seen as the Virgin 747 came directly at me on its final descent for the airstrip. These are the Cocos islands, where it's perfectly normal for tourists to position themselves at the start of the runway in a re-run of Wayne’s World, watch the plane skim their heads by about 30 metres and land half-a-kilometre behind. This is a place of one-off experiences. A lonesome atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
Ask a representative group of people where the Cocos Islands are and most would probably respond with a fairly blank expression or hazard a guess that they are off the Costa Rican coast with incredible hammerhead shark diving opportunities, which is where I thought they were. I was left a little confused when North asked me to cover top five PKRA competitor Tom Hebert’s trip there as he was doing a pro clinic for Zephyr Kite tours, the only kite tour operators on these islands.
Three times a week flights make the six hour journey from Perth in Western Australia. Fresh supplies are also brought in by air with a support cargo vessel every few months. Add all this up and you can start to appreciate the travel involved in getting to this incredibly isolated spot.
My trip began in the UK. 24 hours later I was in Perth awaiting my connecting flight to the Cocos that would leave in 12 hours. Once again I found myself in the twilight zone of airport life, trying to find a quiet corner to roll up into my equipment bag and get a few hours sleep. This trip would be of record breaking distances for most northern hemisphere kite flyers, and so puts them off. Much to their loss.
Lying roughly halfway between Australia and Sri Lanka, you know you are in the middle of an ocean when the pilot tells you that the time zone is a 30 minute increment off GMT, so they can’t even decide which time zone they are in! Of the 30 or so islands in the atoll only two are inhabited. West Island supports a 200 strong Australian expat community who enjoy an easy, sun-drenched, duty-free lifestyle. Home Island has a Malaysian community with a population of 500 devoted Muslims. These Malays initially came to the island under the dark cloud of slavery to help with the only industry on the islands; coconut harvesting. Since those days they have won their land rights from the Australian government and are now an integral part of the Cocos culture.
The kite beach is found on the southern point of West Island, perfectly located for the trade winds that brush through here between June and November. Considering the reputation that this island has of holding the most pristine lagoon kiting available, it’s perhaps surprising that only one tour operator works out here.
Zephyr Kite Tours have been operating kite trips in this region for seven years. Company owner Jennie Phillips has stuck to her vision, building on the successes of each season, developing a business on a small island where nothing else progresses because of the bureaucracy of the Australian government, and everything runs on 'island life' time. When you step out of the plane onto the runway that runs the length of a tiny village on an isolated island, you're met by Jen's radiating 'welcome to paradise' smile.
I’m unsure whether it was a mix up with email addresses or perhaps names but I was suspicious when I received an email from North asking me to follow one of their riders to some islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean and bring back some pictures. Tom Hebert had been invited out by Jen for her yearly pro clinic for a handful of lucky guests who experience an exclusive week taught by a top pro.
First of all I made sure that North's email wasn’t really sent from Owusu, my long lost Nigerian relative offering me the trip of a lifetime for a small upfront payment. Settled that it was in fact a genuine offer my excitement of the destination was hardly dulled by the excessive journey. If you're a Western Australia resident then you'll be aware that Perth is widely recognised as the most isolated city in the world, and you'll be used to long journeys. A mere six hour hop to one of the most beautifully isolated kite spots could be considered for a weekend break.
The 747 banked high over the atoll on approach, providing a perfect view of turquoise blue waters linked by a chain of deserted islands with golden sand. After hours of nothing but deep blue water out of the window my adrenaline and wonder began to pick up at the prospect of landing and calling this place home for a fortnight.
There is only one double storey building on the whole island which was built by a ‘king’ on Home Island but is now owned by an eccentric. The rest of the island's buildings are just single storey wooden houses. The only vegetation that you can see is, as the name suggests, rows and rows of coconut trees. The airstrip pretty much runs the length of the ‘village’ on West Island and doubles as a golf course for four days of the week.
Jen has an eleven day adventure tour planned out to perfection, although you don't get to find out about the plan until you’ve dumped your bags into your accommodation and raced down to kite beach in one of the two Toyota Land Cruisers that she lends to guests. In the time it would take any normal airport to still be struggling with getting baggage to carousels, in the Cocos there were 15 kites fully inflated and killing it just off kite beach. Scoring some wind on the first day on a gorgeous beach next to a perfect lagoon acts as a neutraliser (‘Men in Black’ style), wiping away the recent journey from your memories.
Aside from the obvious surroundings and favourable weather, one of the first things I noticed that was in obvious contrast with my normal life is the amazing ability to leave expensive things lying around the island, for whatever reason, and then pick them up again a day or even a week later. Vehicles are left unlocked with keys in the ignition and I was even able to set up night time-lapse shoots in the middle of the village without even having to worry that my camera equipment might not be there in the morning. I guess with nowhere to go apart from the 15 kilometres up and back down the island and with a population of 100, if you did become the dodgy character that 'borrowed' some kites, you would soon become shunned by the tight but friendly locals and your trip or life would be made pretty uncomfortable. Jen mentioned that a few cars had been ‘misplaced’ in the past, but far from being grand theft auto, this was more down to locals exiting the pub and ‘borrowing’ their mate's van for the trip home as the keys are always in the ignition.
Put 15 kiters in the pond at Safety Bay in Perth and before long you have a few tangled kites and some annoyed locals. Fly 15 kiters out to the middle of the Indian Ocean and with ten kilometres of waist deep lagoon to play in; theoretically it must be the least densely populated kite location on earth.
As with most locations the fun happens close to shore though, and it takes a few sessions to realise that even if you are two kilometres out in the lagoon, you can still stand up in just over waist-deep water, opening up an enourmous playground to enjoy and progress your tricks without fear of overpopulating the shore line. If the proverbial does hit the fan, one of Jen’s team is on hand in a dinghy to bring you back to the kite shack and safety of cold beers when needed.
The Cocos lie in the path of some very consistent trade wind patterns. Averaging 15 – 20 knots, the southeasterly trades start to blow from July and continue through to October/November. On average you can kite 80 – 90% of your time on the islands on ten or 12 metre kites. Consequently, you don’t have to hang around the beach kicking stones all morning waiting for the wind to fill in like other hot destinations that rely on thermals. When the wind blows, it tends to blow all the time, occasionally stopping for a few days, seemingly catching its breath before howling again for the next few weeks. Zephyr organise kite beach cover from 7.30am onwards as, when you're this close to the equator, lie-ins don't exist with the sun rising at 6am on the dot every day, all year. Getting a session in before 9am is common and wholly encouraged.
By day four of our group's pro clinic adventure we were well settled in and it was time for the biggie. Followed by the dinghy full of the supplies needed for lunch at one of the deserted islands, the team headed out for the crossing which takes about an hour. Checking back through one of the many line-mounted Go-Pros we saw a few baby sharks and turtles come up to investigate the riders during their crossing.
The destination for the crossing are two small islands in the atoll, the first known as Prison Island; a stereotypical island in paradise. We've all seen a cartoon characterisation of a shipwrecked man waiting for some hammock material to drift by so that he can tie it to the only trees on a ten metre square island. This sandy mound protruding from the water is just that. During the 30 minutes the team had to catch their breath and relax tightening right thighs from kiting in one direction for so long, it was a perfect opportunity to snorkel with the baby black tips and feed them with bait.
Back on our way, 30 minutes later we were kiting towards the furthest island to the north, Direction Island, and lunch. A crescent moon shape, Direction Island is just five metres wide with a beach curving into the lagoon and, albeit a slightly tricky landing area, it’s probably wisest to land in the water and swim in than crash your kite into the canopy shredding palm trees (a tactic one nameless guest employed). A fast paced rip-tide runs between Direction and Prison island which, when snorkelling, gives you that conveyor belt feeling and is probably the best and easiest snorkelling experience you'll find anywhere. Running for about 100 metres you drop in at one end and pop out at the other before heading to shore walking up to the jump in spot and doing it again.
After lunch we packed down and headed back in the dinghy. If you do want to even out your legs and strengthen the other leg muscles it is possible to kite back to kite beach. The wind conditions will dictate where you hit West Island on your return. Fortunately the wind direction altered slightly on our trip back, meaning we all coolly sailed straight into kite beach in one tack to where we had started, considerably more tired and in need of a beach fire and beers.
Kiting on Cocos Island is perfect for all levels, you couldn’t design a more ideal place to teach beginners or to throw down the latest moves in flat, shallow water. Apparently there is a ‘secret’ wave riding spot to hit up when the swell and wind are aligned too, although it is essential to have dinghy back up for this one as it’s outside of the lagoon and if anything goes wrong then you might be floating for a very long time before washing up on another shoreline.
The assortment of watersports toys, including some brand new SUP boards, means even if the wind drops or there's no surf there is still plenty to enjoy. Which brings me back to golf and the airstrip; the hub it would seem of the island. For Thursday afternoon golf it is compulsory to bring a six pack. The course includes three holes where you have to tonk the ball across the landing strip to play the hole. Or you can do what I did, park yourself at the start of the runway at about 11am on a Tuesday, Friday or Saturday and wait till you see the headlights of a 747 heading straight for you. As we looked out of the window of our flight off the island we could see 15 kiters lying down at the start of the runway waiting for one of the biggest adrenaline rushes of their lives as they played chicken with a 300mph aircraft.
Only in the Cocos Islands (the one without the hammerheads).
I for one love a destination where everything is so handy and accessible with no huge drives to your surf or kite spots. Zephyr's bicyles are available for use and, as the island is only 15 kilometres long, you can easily explore most of it. There's also world-class snorkelling and, for the more adventurous, diving is literally on your doorstep. The pelagic sea life around the island is incredible; those first few days exploration saw a whole heap of black tip baby reef sharks, turtles and giant manta rays; a sign that these are pristine reefs. In fact the government have made them marine reserves, so even fishing by the locals is highly licensed and policed.