It took barely ten minutes for them to appear.
Our whole evening had been meticulously planned by Lisa, tour guide and all-round sorter-outer-of-problems.
Dinner was at the Christmas Island High School allowing the junior Master Chefs of Year 11 and 12 the opportunity to practice on real people. But we’d barely sat down in the new outdoor dining area when the first one scrabbled its way out of the jungle surrounds.
Robber crabs, uninvited and unexpected, marching relentlessly towards the smell of food, a multitude of mobile bowling balls pressing forward with all the determination of a Light Brigade. More and more joined the main advance across the lawn under the direction of a giant of a crab, more briefcase than bowling ball size, a veteran, our guides said, of maybe eighty plus wet seasons.
Like a well-drilled regiment, our group leapt from their seats and rushed to meet the charge, cameras and smart phones at the ready. Teenage waiters, valiantly trying to deliver meals to guests more interested in the wildlife, took on the crustacean army with nonchalant but surprisingly gentle applications of foot to armoured body. Sue, guide and crab guru, scooped up the forward scouts and relocated them to the jungle edge, while Janos, the tree hugger, cut off a few malcontents heading off on a tangent towards the car park.
The advance faltered and dissention broke out in the ranks. The giant crab was blindsided by an ambitious challenger and for a moment looked as though he might be overcome. But the elder fought back, bashing a mean-looking claw down smartly on the attackers back, quashing its opponent into a hasty withdrawal and reasserting his authority in one fell swoop.
Alas, too little too late. The crabs fell to bickering among themselves and the advance stuttered to a halt. The giant stalked off in disgust and the army retreated to the edges of the jungle to await our departure so they might clean up the crumbs in a more dignified manner.
Some time later.
A contingent of would-be ornithologists assembles in the darkness of the Golf Club parking lot. The night is soft and warm and in the distance, the occasional calls of red-footed boobies and frigate-birds break into the sounds of silence.
Lisa – tour guide and also apparently, owl whisperer – instructs us in the proper etiquette for spotlighting Christmas Island hawk-owls. Not too many torches, keep your voice down and mind you don’t step in a hole or on a wandering robber crab.
We head off across the barely visible fairway towards the deeper shadow of the jungle edge, not talking, and keeping a close eye on the surrounding darkness because no one wants to stumble on a robber crab. When we get close, Lisa signals a halt and starts playing her recording of the owl call.
We wait, listening for a reply from the darkness. Nothing.
Lisa tries again with the recording, and after what seems like hours, in the distance there’s a reply.
A faint, but definite ‘book-book’.
And now the big question? Is Lisa up to the job? Will she get us an owl?
What follows is a virtuoso performance as Lisa forsakes the recording and starts speaking owl, ‘book-book’-ing to the owl, who almost immediately ‘book-book’s back. The exchange goes on for quite a while, as we wait in he darkness, the volume of the owl’s call indicating it drawing closer and closer. Finally it’s close enough for the spotlight to start scanning the branches high above.
There are two Christmas Island hawk-owls looking back at us.
To see one owl is amazing, two is almost unheard of.
Four huge yellow eyes survey the crowd below with the same mixture of amazement and distain all owls seem to share. All around me, cameras with enormous zoom lenses swing up to capture the beauty of this little owl and preserve it for posterity. They are lovely birds, with bright orange and cream bars across its front and darker, less flamboyant wings.
We have a good ten minutes with the owls, enough time for everyone to have a good look and maybe get a photo or two. The little raptors fly from one branch to another, tracked by the spotlight, the occasional soft ‘book-book’ questioning our intentions.
And then, suddenly, the owls decide they’ve had enough and leave as quietly as they came, disappearing into the blackness of the jungle.
The torches come back on to light the way back across the golf course.
Inevitably, there are robber crabs on the greens.