Cocos Islands 1982-84

Geography/History

Click here for background.

The Cocos (Keeling) Islands is located at an apex of a 2700 km equilateral triangle that includes Darwin and Perth.

It was four hours flying time in a Boeing 727 aircraft from either Darwin or Perth.

The Importance of Cocos

This Australian territory has a land mass of 14 square kilometers.

But it was so important in strategic geo political terms.

The early 1980's was the height of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West.

Both super powers used the Doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) as means to avoid nuclear annihilation.

Silos containing nuclear Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles ICBM were constructed in the middle of both soviet and north American continents so as to afford either power time to launch a doomsday retaliatory strike.

Submarines with advanced nuclear missiles were the new threat. Soviet submarines could be positioned off the coast of the USA ready in minutes to launch missiles on American cities.

As a counter measure, American submarines were active in and around the Arabian Sea:

  • To launch pre emptive missile strikes at soviet ICBM sites in central Russia

  • To protect American interests in the oil rich Arabian Gulf States


Listening posts at (a) Diago Garcia (see map) and (b) Pine Gap (Australia) provided the allies with an early warning capacity.

In addition to communications and space satellite tracking at Diago Garcia, the US Navy operated a Naval Support Facility (NSF), a large naval ship and submarine support base, military air base and an anchorage for pre-positioned military supplies for regional operations aboard Military Sealift Command ships in the lagoon.

PC Orion Aircraft - Carmel Emma friend

Joint American and Australian P3 - Orion Aircraft used Cocos as a fuelling location and airstrip for maritime surveillance.

More sinister, the aircraft could drop disposable sonar buoys into this vast Indian Ocean area with a view to electronically "sweep" for soviet craft both above and below the water level.

The planes were dubbed "sub killers". Their design meant they could carry torpedoes which could be dropped out the back by parachute; safely land in the water and then hone onto a target.

Forever on the alert and for a very small cost a P3 could knock out a very expensive weapon of mass destruction.


There were also Regional Interests.

The atoll could be used as a forward base by either Australia or Indonesia in the event of military expansion.

It was already a clandestine electronics listening location for Signals Intelligence Sigint on Indonesia.

There was, however, a problem. Australia's tenure of Cocos was not assured.


The Politics

This insignificant mass of land was on the United Nations list of colonial territories where signatories to the UN agreed to take steps for the local population to decide their status:

  • Independence

  • Integration with the Colonial Power

  • Free Association

Given growing geo political tensions in this region, the Australian Government (Cabinet) decided to get the Territory off this list and to comply with the UN conditions that the indigenous population:

  • through education had to be brought up to an agreed level of cognisance of worldly events

  • that it understood what for what it was voting

  • there was evidence of social and economic development


The caveat which made it a "Top Secret" Cabinet Decision was that as far as Australia's interests were concerned, the only "option" was Integration with Australia.


In effect it was a Hobson's Choice - a choice where there is no alternative.

The preferred outcome was to deny other nations any possibility of access or influence - thus maintaining the status quo.

Hobson's Choice

Nominal responsibility for day to day running of all Australian Territories was the domain of the Department of Home Affairs.

In hitherto sleepy times it was left for public servants to run the outposts as:

  • an R&R destination for a plethora of Canberra based visiting staff; and

  • "jobs for the boys" for income tax free positions within the Administrations where were also Customs/Excise Duty Free perks.

Home Affairs was not a cabinet department. It included a mismatch of leftover machinery of government institutions and thus perceived by Canberra's Mandarins as marginal.


Appointment as Official Secretary

By chance, I saw a vacancy in the government gazette.

It advertised a tax free position two substantive position above my pay classification.

But the Job Description was tailor made for me. It called for experience in change management, institution development, governance and proficiency in the Malay language - a variation of Bahasa Indonesian and Malay.

It was everything that I had been doing in Indonesia (in particular) and Thailand.

My experience in Vietnam was also a fillip.

I applied, was short listed and interviewed.


The interview was interesting. It was held in a conference room within the Territories Division.

I arrived on time but was held up for about forty minutes. So I was sitting in an open area where I had a feeling that from furtive looks in the area there were some internal applicants.

It was so clear that I was an unwelcome "foreigner".

I "aced" the interview.

The next day both my referees Ros McGovern (Indonesia) and Roger Peacock (Thailand) informed me that they were approached by the chairperson of the panel advising that I had been selected.


My excitement turned to frustration. It took a month for me to be advised - and only orally.

The issue was that there was dissent within the External Territories Division that for the first time, ever, an "outsider" was being appointed as Official Secretary.

Behind the scenes and unknown to me, the government had appointed Eric Hanfield as Administrator to oversee the Cabinet Decision.

Eric was another outsider forced upon Home Affairs by the Mandarins.

Eric was a senior Foreign Affairs staffer whom I had first met in Saigon and worked for him for about 18 months in Canberra in the Aid Branch where I was in charge of the Malaysia Desk. Eric's superior was John Starey who also knew me professionally and was now heading up the implementation of the Cocos Cabinet Decision within Foreign Affairs.

Later, during the posting, Eric explained how Home Affairs management was now having second thoughts of my appointment in view of staff morale.

He said he cut the Gordian Knot by insisting I be his Second in Charge.


Arriving at Cocos

Trans Australian Airlines and Ansett Australia operated alternative fortnightly charters to Cocos and Christmas Islands.

The planes left Perth at midnight and landed between 0330 and 0400 hrs at Cocos where on a cloudy night it was pitch black and disorientating.

Emma (aged three) was asleep so I was carrying her through the isle off the plane.

Carmel and I got separated by slow moving passengers.

Hence it was a long time before I got onto the tarmac.

There was a frenzy of cargo handling, meets and greets and the odd drunk trying to read the newspapers and mail. Everybody waited up for the arrival of the plane as it was the social event of the fortnight.

I was met by Ken Smith the acting Official Secretary who had performed the job for 4-5 months.

Ken informed me that he had taken Carmel straight to our three bedroom bungalow - 5-600 m away.

Emma and I joined her there and we went to bed after quickly examining our new home.

The noise of the ocean waves pounding on the shoreline woke me only hours later.

Looking out the window the Indian Ocean was 20 metres away.

Beyond this shoreline was Africa.

I got dressed and walked to the office.

The scenery was breathtaking. Tall coconut trees waving in the offshore breeze; a clear azure sky, an aqua shoreline to the reef; foaming white water and ozone where the waves were breaking on the coral, sweeping royal blue waves 15-20 metres high building up one after the other, white caps in the distance.

Wow!

My Job

Eric briefed me as to what he wanted. I was to run the Administration leaving him free to enter into dialogue with the Cocos Malay leaders mainly the Cocos Council and the Cocos CoOperative. The Cultural and Co Operative Advisers would be responsible to him where as I would be responsible for:

  • The Secretariat - Communications; Post Office Philatelic Bureau; Immigration; Customs; Law and Order; Compliance; Logistics; Medical, Refurbishment; Capital Works

  • Interdepartmental liaison and localisation of jobs

I also attended formal meetings with the Administrator and members of the Council and Co Operative - as an observer. Here we discussed ad nausea what we were going to give the population if they voted for Integration: housing; the pension; better education; scholarships; beads; mirrors - whatever.

Very rarely did the subject John Clunies Ross come up - he was irrelevant (see further).

The population of West Island (WI) was around 250.

The following is a break up of about 80 positions - all recruited from the mainland.

Secretariat

Administrator

Official Secretary

Admin Officer

Stenographer/Typist

Clerk

Postmaster

Assistant Postmaster

Property Manager

Philatelic Manager

Philatelic Assistant

Gardiner

Doctor (all rounder surgeon; dentist; ship's crew hand)

Nurses x 2

Boat Master

Launch Master

Cultural Adviser x 2

Co operative adviser x 2

Education

(WA Dept of Education)

High School (WI)

Primary school (Home island WI)

Housing & Construction

Electricians; plumbers, carpenters, store man, refrigeration and mechanics

Meteorology

Technicians and observers (3 shifts)

Civil Aviation

Flight Information Service Operatives (3 shifts)

Agriculture

High Secure Animal Quarantine Facility - Veterinarians; lab technicians; livestock handlers

Commonweath Hostels

Accommodation (Single person quarters); catering; supermarket; stores and provisioning

Shell Petroleum

Aircraft refuellers and bulk storage tank operations

The establishment was highly unionised. I was involved in negotiating terms and conditions - where collective bargaining was always on the table.

Not one of the Secretariat positions had been localised


The Locals

Prior to the WW2, construction of the air strip on West Island, communication with the outside world was by ship or flying boat with Home Island as the population centre.

The locals all lived on Home Island in a kampung style village community.

A Co-operative underpinned the economic fabric of the economy.

Infrastructure was basic. It was built by the Clunies Ross dynasty and included sheds/godowns for copra production; general store; power generator and a few derelict vessels. A natural fresh water lens provided adequate drinking and potable water. From memory there was a septic sewerage system.

The package (land and infrastructure) had recently been sold to the government for $10 million.

The 2-3 ha ancestral home was not included in the deal (see further).

Frank Riley, a Home Affairs secondment was appointed as the Co-Operative Adviser.

He had no qualifications. Savvy got him through.

He took me for a tour meeting the locals. It was clear to me that they spoke Bahasa Betawi the dialect of West Java - and a language for which I was familiar. I was able to immediately communicate.

Jakarta was where their ancestors. Families were recruited as indentured labourers to harvest the coconuts produce copra.

Frank was frank. "I have been here for six months bumbling in English. It is amazing to witness how they have responded".

Indeed he had a difficult job and he was going nowhere.

But that is another story.


A Local Wedding

Shortly after our arrival, Carmel and I were invited to a cultural evening.

Everyone was dressed in their finest. There as a single musician who was testing his strings in preparation for his rendition.

I had witnessed such concerts in Indonesia and was preparing myself to be bored to tears with Wayang style "entertainment".

Instead he pumped out a series of Scottish jigs for which all assembled tapped their feet. So unexpected!

What had not changed, however, was their adherence to the Muslim faith. There was a mosque on Home Island with the ubiquitous loud speaker attachment. Weddings were also a dress up occasion and full of Malay ceremony. I first witnessed this during my excursion out of Vietnam in the 60's.

Luddy Swinghammer was the Home Island Nurse. She lived there 24/7/365 and enjoyed the trust and confidence of the locals.

She was Filipino. Her Indonesian was Bahasa Betawi for which she had an excellent command.

Small world. I knew her from Jakarta days. She was the estranged wife of Fred Swinghammer (see Indonesia).

Carmel, Emma and I, stayed in her quarters on long weekends and holiday periods such as Xmas and Easter. The locals would drop in bearing fresh fish; lobsters and make us curried fish cakes chatting to us freely and with no politics involved.

The only downside to living on Home Island was being woken up by the loud speakers at 4 am every morning for prayers. The upside was that there was no abuse of the grog. (Unlike West Island).

Society there was self regulating, peaceful and serene.

The Elusive Pak Emma

There was a WI Electrician (Dick ?) - a member of the Dept of Housing and Construction team.

He had a local "offsider"- a counterpart .

The local spoke limited English. He infuriated Dick by constantly referring to this fellow on West Island - Pak Emma.

"Pak Emma says this, Pak Emma says that, Pak Emma paid us a visit, Pak Emma was looking for you".

Dick was annoyed. There was no one on West Island by this name. But the local insisted.

After about a year, Dick had a Eureka Moment. He found out that I was Pak Emma.

It was an Indonesian naming system:

Pak means father. If you have children you are named after the first born Emma.

Your name changes when a grandchild is born. To the Cocos Islanders my name would now be Nek Dylan - Dylan's grandfather.

Quaint!

Infrastructure

As well as being the licensee of the Airport, I was in charge of the capital works for the Territory as well as transport & communications. I had to be on top of a variety of issues involving:

  • Navigation Aids: DVOR; Distance Measuring Equipment; Direction location Beacons; SSB/HF/VHF Communications

  • Airport/Apron lighting

  • Harbour Lighting; Channel Marking

  • Street lighting

  • Road maintenance

  • Power Generators; electricity grid

  • Water supply - fresh water lens monitoring

  • Sewerage grid; out flow

  • Communication towers

  • Bulk fuel tank storage

  • Submarine pipeline bunkers

  • Fire fighting tender

  • Earth moving equipment: Bulldozers; graders; front end loaders

  • Boats; Launches; Dinghies

  • Radio broadcasting equipment

  • Photocopying machines & office equipment

Thank god for over decade of dealing with infrastructure development projects.

Memorable Incidents

Life was so interesting and full of challenges:

Reef Rescue

It was a Saturday near mid day, Carmel, Emma and I were at a safe bathing spot in the far north west of West Island.

I was approached by Ken Smith who advised me that some kiddies were playing knee deep in the water south of the Settlement when a rogue wave caught a ten year old boy and carried him back out through the razor sharp coral into the ocean.

My immediate thought that the lad was dead given a body being scraped over the reef would have attracted sharks.

The Administrator, Eric Hanfield ,was using the 10 metre ocean going launch on a fishing trip. Also on board were a few "guests". They immediately headed out through the Western Passage and met with two other sea going vessels.

By the time all boats got to the area, two hours had passed.

The West Island Community was alerted.

Everybody took up a vantage point along the 6-7 km windward shore line.

As luck had it, an American P3 Orion was transiting overnight.

We asked if the crew could join the search.

They did so gladly and bravely without hesitation. Standard practice is for such an air craft to sit on the tarmac for an hour for the engines to warm up.

The plane circled the area where the lad was swept away. There were about 8 crew. Two pilots flew the plane (mandatory at such dangerous low heights) and the rest of the crew took up observer stations with high powered binoculars.

I went to the Department of Aviation's Flight Information Room where the duty officer was directing search & rescue SAR patterns.

He was on loud speaker.

Nothing…Nothing ... nothing.

The plane would swing out of the search area circle around for ever increasing passes.

Three hours since the boy was lost, the pilot radioed

"How many people were out there because we think we saw someone afloat - not in the search area - but 5-6 kms north "(see black arrow on above map).

On the next sweep they got a definite sighting.

They now had the technology to guide the rescue vessels.

But it was painstakingly slow. The boats were all 5-6 kms away.

All the time, wave by wave, the ocean current was taking the lad back onto the reef.

The swell was so large that it was impossible for the nearest vessel to spot the boy.

The P3 Orion had an answer. It flew in a straight line dropping marker flares for the boat to "line up" and power in.

But now it and the crew were in danger of being carried onto the reef and smashed to pieces.

The boat handler told everybody over the radio that he was going to face the incoming waves; float backwards and then full thrust forward every time there was a wave "build up".

Hairy. The waves were huge.

The boy was only metres away but frustratingly the crew still could not see him because of the swell.

"Look left - you are on top of him" said an observer."

"Got him" was the reply.

The boy was in reasonable shape. Not a scratch. He was in the water for four hours. He was a poor swimmer.

He said he thought he was only in the water for 10 minutes...at some point he was with a pod of dolphins.

How did he survive?

Our doctor suggested that because the lad was known to not at all that bright, this handicap saved him. He just "shut down" to his predicament.

An Air Show from the Yanks!

When the Yank P3 Orion taxied in the entire community was there to thank them.

The crew was more enthusiastic and vociferous. One member stated that he was involved in many maritime SAR operations but this one was the only positive result where all their training kicked in.

They were scheduled to depart that day. We would not have it. We wanted to fete and thank them all into the night.

The next day we were all on the tarmac expressing a fond farewell.

The crew responded with an aerobatic display the likes of which I had only ever seen in Vietnam 67-68.

The P3 is such a powerful aircraft. It first came in at tree level from the west and went straight up - almost at the vertical.

We thought that was its farewell.

There was silence. Then a flash of aluminium, followed by the doppler effect of four screaming engines - then into the vertical over the crowd.

Again and again the crew did this.

It became a guessing game as to which direction it was next approaching. Then the show was over.

Prepare for the Worst

...hope for the best.

During Mum's visit we entertained her with an emergency.

A RAAF P3 Orion radioed advising it had an external wire cable that had semi detached itself. It was flaying about harmlessly but might present a danger when landing. The pilot just did not know.

The Administration had practiced for such emergencies.

We had a fire tender, allocated drivers and volunteers trained in putting out fires. The last time we had a training exercise we were gunning the tender around a corner unaware of two surveyors and a theodolite in the middle of the road. The surveyors got out of the way in the nick of time but could not save the instrument.

But when it came to fires involving aviation fuel it may also been a case of Keystone Cops. Nevertheless we had to try. Perhaps we could put out collateral damage if the plane got out of control and hit adjoining houses.

The settlement's infrastructure was built during WW2 when aircraft were not so big. The adjacent housing complex so close to the run way was not problematic at that time.

But now ... we had to hurry and evacuate the area.

The Orion's landing was an anxious moment. Fortunately the offending cable simply dragged along the back of the plane rather than whip lashing into the fuselage and engines causing irreparable damage.


The danger of a modern jet aqua planning in a tropical rain storm was of constant concern to me. But then again so was a tsunami, a cyclone, a tidal surge.

We were so remote and out of the mainstream of Emergency Services.

Cyclones passed left and right of us. we were so lucky.

Soviet Activity

Derricks Dangling

We received a telegram from a vessel asking for anchorage because of unstated difficulties and providing an ETA.

Eric H. had a posting in Moscow and recognised that the name of the vessel was Soviet/Russian.

We knew the soviets to be tricky when visiting host ports.

They were apt to drop electronic devices into shallow water that would serve as trigonometry points for satellite tracking.

The protocol was for us to respond and on the Department of Defence's instruction, meet and escort the vessel to an area which could later be "swept" for navigational or listening devices.

We arranged to meet the Russian vessel at 6am - near the Eastern Entrance.

In reality. however, we set off at 4am and elected to exit via the Western Passage.

The crew was Harry Bingham, myself and Wayne ? (who came along because of quarantine regulations )

Around 4;30 we came out of the radar shadow of Horsburgh Island.

Harry Bingham, was operating the radar.

"How many vessels are we meeting Paul?"

"What do you mean Harry? - One"

"Well there are three blips - that means three vessels".

I looked into the tunnel like scope and indeed saw three blips then stood aside for Harry to do the calculation as to how far we were apart and the estimated rendezvous point.

A few minutes later Harry was aghast. "Paul, there are only two blips - with one separating fast on the surface".

Harry was a master seaman. He got out the charts and protractor and manually calculated the speed of the departing surface vessel. He concluded that we would not get a visual given our speed.

But we had covered sufficient distance to sight a vessel that had heaved to - with engines stopped and it derricks exposed and dangling (Derricks cranes that lift heavy gear on or off a vessel).

Clearly we caught the Russians in the act of transferring something or someone. The use of derricks meant that it was big.

Soviet Surface Vessel - Note crane capacity

The channel 16 radio squawked "Good Morning Cocos this is the captain speaking.

We have engine trouble and want to anchor at North Keeling."

"Good morning" I replied "North Keeling is not an option. Please follow us . We will take you to a better location."

A standoff was developing. To the point that the vessel was not following us but heading towards North Keeling.

By this time I was becoming sea sick.

Harry was panicking I was becoming too sick to care about a major incident where I in my hat as Harbour Master I was not being obeyed.

The situation was saved in as much as the Russian captain announced

''No worries Cocos, we have just fixed our engines and no longer seek your assistance"

We radioed Eric H. with the news. Eric advised that a RAAF P3 Orion had been dispatched but we should proceed immediately to North Keeling.

So we went and anchored there waited and did some fishing. A 3 m shark took a fish I was reeling in.

Some time shortly thereafter we noticed something on the beach that we could not make out.

Wayne volunteered to go and have a look.

He dived into water where only 20 minutes earlier that shark was present.

He came back to report it was only a rusted 44 gallon drum that had been there for some time.

Soon the RAAF got there and we then took off for home.

There was a debriefing but we were told nothing further than what we saw on the radar.…

In 2002 a movie was made starring Harrison Ford and Liam Nielson - K-19: The Widowmaker.

It was about a nuclear reactor accident aboard a Soviet submarine. It causing a meltdown and leading to catastrophic consequences. The crew tasked to repair the problem were suffering from radiation poisoning and had to be evacuated to another submarine at a rendezvous location.

For me, it continues to be spellbinding watching.…

The incident appeared in the Australian news tabloids.

"The Australian" cartoonist depicted a character somewhat like a WW2 Coast watcher with a slouch hat on an island that has been up rooted by a submarine coming to the surface and saying "We think we detect the presence of a submarine".

Sigint Visitor.

...

Space Shuttle Re-entry

The RAAF and American P3 Orions used Cocos as a refueling facility.

One day, when Eric Hanfield was on a visit to the mainland, a senior RAAF officer walked into the office and introduced himself as an intelligence officer.

He stated that signals traffic monitoring has revealed that the soviets were organising the daylight retrieval of a prototype unmanned space shuttle and because of technical circumstances, the event was to occur some several hundred kilometers from Cocos.

For this reason his visit was to put us on notice that teams of P3 Orions would be operating out of the airstrip and that a 100m ground to air antenna would be rigged temporarily on our sports ground.

He sought our goodwill in arranging accommodation and office space for up to 100 personnel involved in this rare Window of Opportunity on the high seas.

He also sought our assistance in quarantining the sports ground and declaring it off limits to inquisitive children as they could get zapped by the high voltage.

Some 12 Orions were parked on the airstrip apron

One by one the Orions arrived. At one point in time up to 12 aircraft were stationed on the tarmac. There was round the clock surveillance of the target area including the involvement of the survey vessel HMAS Moresby.

It was still the era of the Cold War. The opportunity was for intel but at the same time to get up the noses of the soviets. Our pilots were buzzing the surface vessels which were protected by an armada of nuclear armed soviet warships such as the type pictured below. This dwarfed our one and only ship - the HMAS Moresby - a hydrographic survey vessel.

Soviet Cruiser Moskva (recently sunk by Ukrainians)

"Feather bashed" by HMAS Moresby

As a thank you to hosting the RAAF, I was given a set of unclassified photographs taken by the crews.

I kick myself for giving them away - 20 years later.

The photographs were masterful:

The Moresby "feather bashing" a monster battle cruiser;

The actual retrieval - Russian frogmen in the water securing capsule with buoys - it was the size of Combi Van and shaped like a flying saucer;

The capsule being winched aboard the quarter deck of a cargo vessel;

Soviet technicians with electronic instruments all over the vessel taking measurements;

One technician "brown nosing" a "fly over".

Doctor John

John Shields was the resident Doctor.

Because of our remoteness he had a surgeon's background. He ran the four berth hospital which had basic operating facilities in cases of emergency.

If treatment could not await the fortnightly plane charter we would call in the RAAF P3 Orions complete with medical staff.

John's job was to keep patients alive, drugged up and free of pain until help arrived. There was no dentist. He would either pull the tooth or do a temporary 'drill n fill' to tide you over until the end of posting.

John liked a drink. He was an old sea salt and would entertain you with stories about his sailing days.

He was gregarious. He insisted that all guests (male or female) pee on his paw paws.

After the second or third one (at the Cocos club bar) he would start falling over and go home. It was a ritual. You would not see or hear from him after 1800hrs.

Some people said he was an alcoholic. I did not think so.

But I avoided his dentistry attempts after one visit. He did not hurt. It was disconcerting, however, as his hands were shaking.

He was probably in his seventies.

Transferring sick crewman

Dr John loved being a crew member of the MV Sir Zelman Cowan (SZC) - our 10 meter ocean going launch.

In any weather he would with the agility of a 20 year old negotiate a Jacobs ladder (see picture -right)

It was all about timing. He would hang on to the rail of the launch with one hand; wait for the launch to rise with the swell and at the very point when the vessel was descending he would transfer to the ladder and scramble up to attend to a sick or injured crew member.

It was dangerous it was always wet and slippery. A fall in between both vessels would be fatal. If he survived but was injured, there would be no doctor. His rationale, however, was the Hippocratic Oath....

On one occasion we were called out to a bulk ore carrier which used it SSB radio to contact us.

We asked for its location.

They said because it was daylight they did not know - but please hurry.

We found out later that the Panamanian registered vessel had a Greek crew and everything was operated on the cheap. Navigation was done by sextant where a course was plotted for the next day using the stars.


As we knew the RAAF was "nearby" we asked them to locate the vessel and fix a position for us.

Dr John loved being a crew member of the MV Sir Zelman Cowan (SZC) - our 10 meter ocean going launch.

In any weather he would with the agility of a 20 year old negotiate a Jacobs ladder (see picture -right)

It was all about timing. He would hang on to the rail of the launch with one hand; wait for the launch to rise with the swell and at the very point when the vessel was descending he would transfer to the ladder and scramble up to attend to a sick or injured crew member.

It was dangerous it was always wet and slippery. A fall in between both vessels would be fatal. If he survived but was injured, there would be no doctor. His rationale, however, was the Hippocratic Oath....

On one occasion we were called out to a bulk ore carrier which used it SSB radio to contact us.

We asked for its location.

They said because it was daylight they did not know - but please hurry.

We found out later that the Panamanian registered vessel had a Greek crew and everything was operated on the cheap. Navigation was done by sextant where a course was plotted for the next day using the stars.


As we knew the RAAF was "nearby" we asked them to locate the vessel and fix a position for us.

Mums Visit

Mum (Miss Daisy) was an intrepid traveler with a strong constitution.

She chose to travel from Canberra to Perth by coach bus and return.

She reasoned she could see more of the country this way.

Our ocean going launch, the Sir Zelman Cowan regularly patrolled the Territory as a measure to protect Australia's multibillion dollar livestock industry. We were operating a High Security Animal quarantine station on West Island. The location was selected because of it remoteness and the risk of contamination by exotic plant and animals. Patrolling and monitoring was just one added precaution.

I organised with Harry Bingham the Boat master to take Miss Daisy to the resting place of the remains of the German warship MSS Emden which was located off the south western tip of North Keeling.

Harry would navigate out of the safety of the lagoon of South Keeling and head north for about 20 nautical miles braving huge waves along the way until you berthed in the northern lea of the island - see map.

The Emden engaged the cruiser HMAS Sydney in a sea battle on 9 November 1914.

It is regarded as Australia's Baptism of Fire as a sovereign nation.

We really should not brag about this. Both were light cruisers - but the Sydney had a more powerful set of guns hence the ensuing fire fight was uneven.

Before Mum departed for the trip, I pointed out the significance: (a) she born 14 November 1914 - five days after this battle and (b) The Sydney was, by co-incidence, steaming nearby as an escort for a convoy of Australian troops bound for Gallipoli via training in Cairo and disengaged from the convoy to do battle. Her brother was to pass by Cocos in the next convoy.

MSS Emden - Sunk by HMAS Sydney 1915

Above: Photograph of the MSS Emden self breached on the coral - with a boarding party from the HMAS Sydney rowing towards it.

Weather wise, November is a period of the doldrums - no wind, stinking hot. Hence the ocean is flat and still. Years later the wreck was cut up and shipped away and sold to the Japanese as scrap metal. Only the non salvageable carcass is left and is designated as a war grave.

Not at all queasy from seasickness Mum bounced off the SZC.

Her comment on this visit was more about the voyage. She now knew the meaning of high seas. One minute Harry would be going full throttle so as not to be dumped by an approaching wave and then easing off as he literally surfed down the other side. Harry had a penchant for the theatrical. He would talk and yell at the monsters and feign fright so as to give any passenger a memorable experience.

I would go at any opportunity - regardless of always being seasick.

Dealing with Isolation

Two years went so quickly.While mostly pleasant and idyllic in nature, Carmel bore much of the social repercussion of decisions that went with my job.

Ostracising individuals was a pastime to escape boredom.

There was a lot of pettiness, prejudice, envy and jealousy - particularly against people with Chinese/Malay backgrounds who occupied strategic positions due to their ability to communicate with the locals.

The terrain was flat, the breeze cool and the ozone caused by the waves pounding on the coral was exhilarating.

You never tired of looking out windward over the reef. You would see a dark blue wave building and building up to 10 to 15 metres and the crash onto the reef - which would look give you the impression there were a series of washing machines creating Persil white water and froth. The colour of the water would then change from turquoise to azure. Then on the shoreline the green coconut trees would be swaying back and forward in the breeze.

Carmel and Emma had bicycles. They would ride everywhere but mainly on the sealed roads. Riding on the coral strips was hard going.

I entertained Emma by chasing chooks on a Lambretta motor cycle. She would be stand on the running board my legs astride.

We would straddle along either side of the 2 km airstrip on the soft sandy verge.

Here she delighted in turning the throttle handle to the Full On and enjoy the wind in her hair. She would "steer" the lambretta in and out of the Coconut groves. I would alight; shimmy up a tree; chop down a coconut with a machete; flip the top off and we would take a drink.

Years ago, I asked Emma what she remembered mostly about Cocos.

"You falling out of a tree dad"

The first time Emma wore shoes was on the tarmac alighting from the plane that took us from Cocos.

Between this point an Baggage Collection she had discarded them and would not tell us where.

She was a free spirit on the island. Doors were never locked. The neigbours kids wandered in and out; exploring the nearby groves, chicken coups and hideaways.

If you did not see Emma for an extended period you would not be overly concerned - she would soon turn up accompanied by some other bare footed imp.

One day we saw her in the garden playing "house" with a little friend. There were toy teacups and saucers and a hot can of beer with ring top partially opened.

Another form of exercise was tennis. As often as we played and practised we never improved. But it was a good to take your aggression out on an innocent tennis ball.

I played golf almost every day. But it was just an excuse to get some exercise to justify a thirst.

The grog was duty free.

The evenings were something special. There was very little interference from city lights hence witnessing the full constellation of the stars combined with the sound of the waves was an experience that was repeated night after night.

For more photos see Google Maps

Likewise we were never tired of swimming in the turquoise coloured wading holes and beachcombing ankle or knee along the warm sandy coral shoreline.

Reef sharks were everywhere. If you suddenly came across them, they would scurry off at great speed. "Swimming with the Sharks" was a catch cry.

Our contact with the outside world was courtesy of the fortnightly arrival of a Boeing 727 from Perth.

It transported the newspapers; the mail and subsidised fresh fruit n veggies.

All other goods arrived by sea - about once every two months.

It brought in everything from sand to sand shoes; from beer to bolts; from frozen milk to machinery.

In a sense time was measured around these cycles:

  • Abundance/growth at the arrival of stock;

  • Waning as items depleted

  • Rejuvenation when the plane/ship returned.


The Act of Self Determination (ASD)

There was a cabinet decision to engineer the ASD as soon as possible.

On the ground, Frank Riley (Co-operative Adviser) and I set about generating and expanding labour contracts for the Malay Co-operative. It involved providing bodies for:

  • Philatelic handling and packaging

  • Stevedoring

  • Aircraft baggage handling

  • Stores administration

  • Office Administration including postal and telecommunications

  • Municipal works - gardening; road maintenance; garbage collection

  • Maritime crewing

  • School aides

There was a social cost to these pro localisation interventions:

  • Some West Islanders were advised their appointments would not be extended

  • Spouses had little chance of part time employment


On the other hand, however, the coffers of the co-operative expanded exponentially which was proof to the United Nations of its Economic Development precondition.

To this day, I fail to understand the role of the two Cultural Advisers. Instead of assimilating the two societies Home Islanders and West Islands they were driving wedges and causing dissent. One adviser was a zealot. He seemed to have a personal vendetta towards the Clunies Ross dynasty over his past treatment of the locals.

This person advised Eric H. that the Malay population would vote for an Act of Self determination if the Australian government got rid of John Clunies Ross. It was advice was not tested by Eric who relayed the information on to Canberra.

"Yes! Yes!" said the government and set about turfing JCR out of his ancestral home.

Boeing 707 full of UN observers landing

Most "West Islanders" were incredulous. They considered the proposed action immoral and un Australian. (The High Court thought so too.)

Many were beginning to speak out in spite of the high stakes consequences which were now unstoppable:

  • Australia informed the United Nations of the population's readiness;

  • a Boeing 707 full of UN observers arrived and got confirmation from the Cocos Council - through its own interpreters that they were ready;

  • The delegation signed off on the economic and social pre conditions

  • A vote was held on the spot.

  • Result 99% in favour of Integration with Australia.

Good Work Team! Mission Accomplished.

My personal point of contention was that the Cocos Malays would have indicated its readiness to vote regardless of the Clunies Ross factor.

Their decision was $$$$ based.


Carmel, Emma and I departed Cocos a fortnight after the vote.

I was replaced by Frank O'Riley who had returned to Home Affairs after his assignment as Co operative Adviser 12 months earlier.

Frank was appointed as Official Secretary (i) without the position being advertised and (ii) still unable to speak Malay.


Post Script:

In May 2012 there was an Expose by This Day Tonight about the Cocos Malays. See Annex

(Perhaps Dick (the Electrician) can give the modern day public servants a Eureka Moment as they sort out phantom social welfare payments.