I love it when truth is stranger than fiction – and one of the legends that inspired my Ocean's Gift series is one of these.
There is a dragon at Christmas Island. No, not a lizard or a water dragon – a huge, mythical beast with its own cave. A grotto, in fact.
Now, when I say it's a legend, it's a fairly young legend. People have only been living at Christmas Island since the 1880s. Occasionally ships would stop there for water, food or other supplies, but it's a forbidding rock in the Indian Ocean and not exactly a well-known tourist destination.
Yet the dragon…is a lost tourist who stayed.
As you drive out of the Settlement toward Waterfall and the golf course, there's a sign pointing into the jungle that says, “The Grotto”. There are a couple of bays by each side of the road where you can park your car and that's about it. In William McGregor's time, there wouldn't even have been that – just a muddy track churned up by his motorcycle from daily trips to Waterfall.
Feeling a bit silly, I parked my rental four-wheel-drive (a battered Toyota RAV4, if you absolutely need to know) in the bay and followed the arrow on the sign.
I expected to see some of the nice signs like you find in the National Park, on the other side of the island, telling me how unique and wonderful the Grotto is. Instead, I was freaked out by a lovely yellow sign telling me to “Proceed with caution”. That's when the dark clouds overhead opened up and dumped a downpour on my head, just in case I didn't get the message.
On the other side of the rough clearing in the jungle that marked my path, there was another, equally cheery sign. I mean, nothing welcomes tourists like a lichen-encrusted sign saying:
ENTER AT OWN RISK
The rain stopped as quickly as it had started and I could now see my path ahead. It looked like something out of an Indiana Jones movie – the local crabs having a party while they wait for the main meal to show up. While not the biggest crabs on the island, every one of them was bigger than my sneakered foot. And not afraid of me in the slightest.
Here There Be Dragons
My dog-eared and downpour-dampened guidebook told me the Grotto was the home of a Chinese dragon. Around a century ago, he (she? it?) swam all the way from China, but became lost in the Indian Ocean. He was exhausted by the time he reached Christmas Island, but he heard voices speaking Chinese, so he desperately tried to find a way ashore. Time and time again he tried, only to meet more waves and cliffs barring his way.
Eventually, the exhausted dragon found a cave that led up under the island. He kept swimming upward until he emerged in the Grotto.
When he had recovered, he climbed up over the entrance to the Grotto, where he can still be seen today. The sound of him roaring in the caves welcomes or warns visitors, depending on the weather. Or his mood.
On the day I visited, Cyclone Iggy was just offshore of the island, and the ten metre swell in Flying Fish Cove looked every bit as bad as the photos of the 1932 storm that carried away the loading pier. So the Grotto dragon was deep inside the cave, roaring a warning to anyone crazy enough to be out in the weather. Yes, including me.
So, how does the Christmas Island dragon in the Grotto have anything to do with me or mermaids? Well…Ocean's Triumph is set at Christmas Island and some of the scenes take place in the Grotto. And what's the difference between a mermaid and a water dragon, really? I mean, it could have been a dragon roaring…or a mermaid burping…who knows?