Isle of the Quokka : Just 11 Miles Offshore, Perth’s Summer Playground Was Misnamed Rats’ Nest By the Early Dutch Explorers of Western Australia
“Didja go to Rotto?”
“Where?” I replied, momentarily taken aback.
“Rotto. You know, Rottnest Island.”
We were fellow passengers on the coach from Perth to Broome, this dark-haired Australian elf and I, and we had struck up a conversation. Her name was Vanessa, and she was 12 going on 13.
“No,” I said. “I never went there.”
“You gotta go to Rotto,” she said. “It’s magic.”
And so it is.
After several weeks of wandering through Western Australia and the Northern Territory, I found myself back in Perth, that happiest of all Australian cities, and decided to visit Rottnest Island.
Not once, but twice.
That’s one of the great things about Perth’s island playground. It lies only 11 miles offshore, so a 10-minute flight or a brief boat ride gets you there quick as a wink.
On each trip I chose to go by ferry, wishing to see the low-lying island gradually take shape on the horizon, a narrow strip of green and white separating blue sky above from blue sea below.
It was the Dutch who discovered Rottnest, landing here in 1658. Thirty-eight years later, on Dec. 30, 1696, Willem de Vlamingh came ashore at Porpoise Bay to search for signs of a missing Dutch vessel.
What he found instead gave the island its name.
“Here it seems that nature has spared nothing to render this isle delightful above all other islands I did ever see,” Vlamingh wrote in his log.
Then he saw the quokkas.
Having never come across anything like them before, Vlamingh mistook them for rats, and named the island Rotte Nest , or Rats’ Nest. What he had seen, in fact, was a type of wallaby.
Rottnest Island is not large. Set at a right angle to the mainland, it is roughly seven miles long and three miles across at its widest point. At its northeast end it is dotted with half a dozen or so saltwater lakes.
For the photographer, its 25-mile coastline offers one unspoiled vista after another: rocky cliffs and headlands, sheltered bays, beaches of an almost startling whiteness and miles of lonely road, swept by sand and shaded by cypress, pine and wattle. The water, too, is so clear that the coral reefs can be seen from the clifftops.
Even the air on Rottnest seems somehow different, scented both by the sea and the herbs and shrubs that cover the sand dunes.
It was mid-morning when I arrived. The ferry from Perth and Fremantle was crowded with tourists and day-trippers, their bicycles lashed together on the foredeck.
We were at Thomson Bay, the island’s main settlement. In the hotter summer months, December through March, there can be thousands of people on the island at any given moment. In the winter, this figure shrinks to the few hundred year-round residents.
Perhaps the most delightful aspect of Rottnest is that it is virtually free of motor vehicles. With the exception of the yellow and white buses that take tourists on one- and two-hour trips around the island, the only way to get about is by foot or bicycle.
The latter choice is perfect. There are about 1,200 bikes to be rented, and they go quickly in the summer. Just imagine: an entire island to pedal around and no traffic worries.
Before setting out on my own tour of Rottnest, I stopped by the museum, a former barn and grain-crushing mill, to learn a little of the island’s history.
Rottnest used to be known as Wadjemup by the mainland aborigines, who apparently never got around to sailing across to it.
The first European settlers arrived in the 1830s and set about farming and salt collecting. Then came an unhappy time in the island’s story when it was turned into a penal colony, mainly for aborigines.
Relics from those days, which ended in 1903, are displayed in the museum. I read the stories told in broken English by a couple of the prisoners.
“I have been here some time,” said a convict known only as Brandy. “I do not like Rottnest. Too many kill ‘em. Too many make ‘em ill. I come here for killing a sheep. I saw the sheep had strayed, and my woman said to me ‘kill it,’ and I did so. I am cold here in winter. At night it is cold.”
And this from a man known as Widgie:
“I belong to Ekacootharra or Pyramid Station in the North District. I am here for killing a native. I do not like Rottnest, it makes me ill. I have been two winters here. I came in the steamer.
“I had a chain round my neck all the way down. I was all right when I was in my own country. I used to be a pearl diver but lately a shepherd. I get enough to eat of meat. The bread is too hard and too much cooked and makes me ill. The rice and tea are good.
“I am cold in winter, my blanket no good, it is old. I do not know when I am going back, but I shall be very glad to. I expect to go by and by.”
The prisoners were used as laborers on the island, and the limestone buildings they erected in the mid-19th Century are among the oldest in Western Australia. Many are still in use. Some of the hotel rooms that visitors regard as picturesque are, in fact, the cells once occupied by prisoners.
After 1903 the island gradually made the transition from penal colony to holiday resort. It was a natural.
The weather was superb, the scenery magnificent. One could hike, fish, swim, cycle or simply laze in the sun. Much later came the tennis courts and the golf course, the surfers and the sailboarders.
Best of all, Rottnest is only two hours by water from Perth, including an hour down the Swan River, or one hour from Fremantle.
Yachts and pleasure craft of every size and description lie at anchor in the various bays and coves that ring the island. A second settlement has been built on the promontory separating Longreach Bay from Geordie Bay.
It was with a sense of exhilaration that I set off by bicycle to explore the island. There are hills, but none are steep. In any case, it’s difficult to get really tired because there are too many points of interest to stop at. And one can always take a swim.
Chances of coming across the island’s only dangerous creature, the dugite, are slim. This black-green snake is described as “venomous but shy” in the museum display, and I neither saw one nor heard of anyone seeing one.
The quokkas, though, are another matter. Unafraid of man, one sees them at any time of day in colonies all across the island, although they tend to be more active early in the morning. The tour buses have regular stops where the quokkas have learned that they will be fed, but it is more satisfying to come across them by chance on one’s own.
Inoffensive creatures about the size of a cat, they have a plump body with a smallish head and small, rounded ears. Their fur is smooth and ranges from brownish gray to gray, and they have long, tapering tails. They were the first marsupials to be intensively studied.
The little wallabies were once common in the southwest corner of Australia, but are now rare on the mainland. They are common on Rottnest, but there was a time when their numbers were in danger even there.
It was the practice, apparently, to allow the aborigine prisoners to wander free on the island on Sundays, and they used to hunt the quokkas to supplement their meager prison diet.
At other times, the governor of what was then the Swan River Colony also used to organize quokka hunts when he visited the island, staying in what was the governor’s residence, now the Rottnest Hotel.
Since 1920, however, when the island was made a nature reserve, the quokkas have happily multiplied and today are really the symbol of Rottnest.
I cycled on, past Porpoise Bay and the site of Vlamingh’s landing almost 300 years ago, up to the Rottnest Lighthouse, stark and white on its hilltop. Built in 1895, its light is visible 37 miles out to sea.
And just as well. The reefs off the island are treacherous and have claimed numerous victims. At Thomson Bay, the Underwater Explorer, a sort of semi-submarine, takes visitors on a circular trip over the coral reefs and two of the island’s dozen wreck sites.
Passengers can view the astonishing variety of fish that live around Rottnest; can marvel at the various corals, some of the most southerly in the world, and gape at the bones of the Macedon, which sank on March 21, 1883, while carrying 50 passengers, 40 horses, mail and other cargo to Fremantle.
Visitors also can see the Denton Holme, which was wrecked on the night of Oct. 25, 1890, at the very end of a long journey from Glasgow.
Both of these wrecks occurred in Thomson Bay. Other wreck sites around the island are marked by plaques set both on shore opposite the sites and underwater at the sites.
I cycled on, down to Nancy Cove and its osprey nest balanced precariously on an offshore rock, over Narrow Neck and out to Cape Vlamingh at the extreme westerly end of the island. It is a little awe-inspiring to realize that the next land west of here is Madagascar, 4,000 miles across the Indian Ocean.
Then I doubled back along the north shore, stopped to photograph my own colony of quokkas, coasted down between the salt lakes and back to Thomson Bay and the ferry waiting to take me back to Perth.
Vanessa had been right. It is a magic island. And the next time I meet someone who says they’ve just been to Perth, I’ll have my question ready.
“Didja go to Rotto?”
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The larger Australian cities offer daily flights to Perth, which can also be reached (more expensively) by rail on the famous Indian-Pacific or the less famous but equally imposing Trans-Australian.
Since Perth is closer to Singapore than it is to Sydney, going by road takes a fair while, no matter where you start. All the same, the journey can be done by bus or private car.
Once in Perth, getting to Rottnest is a breeze. Those in a hurry can make the 10-minute flight from the Perth Flight Centre at Perth Airport. The round-trip fare is about $35 U.S. for adults, $17 for children. By far the better way to go (unless you get seasick) is by ferry.
There are two choices: You can leave from the Barrack Street jetty in downtown Perth, cruise down the Swan River for an hour (well worth it), stop in Fremantle to pick up more passengers, and then make the one-hour sea crossing. Or you can take the train from Perth to Fremantle North and catch the ferry there.
The cost from Perth for a one-day round trip is about $21 for adults, $15 for students and $7 for children. A number of companies operate ferries, and in the summer they sail daily, usually leaving by 9 a.m. and returning by 6 or 7 p.m. It is best to book a day or two ahead.
Accommodations: Since it is so near to Perth, that city and its wide range of hotels can be used as a base for exploring Rottnest, but staying on the island itself is much more fun.
At one end of the scale is the plush Rottnest Lodge Resort, replete with swimming pool. Recently purchased by America’s Cup-winning yachtsman Alan Bond and undergoing refurbishing, the Lodge is closed until November. In-season rates (during summer and school holidays) range from a high of $106 single, $183 double to $84 single, $150 double.
Equally popular and overlooking Thomson Bay is the Rottnest Hotel, known locally as the Quokka Arms. High-season rates there are $45 single and $66 double.
The Rottnest Island Board (see address below) can also arrange bookings for holiday villas, bungalows, cottages and small apartments. Camping is permitted on the island, and at Tentland there are cabins and tents available for hire.
Getting around: The most pleasurable way of seeing Rottnest is by bicycle. These are available from Rottnest Bike Hire, a short walk up from the ferry landing. The cost for a full day, including chain and lock and a refundable deposit, is about $15.
For those who prefer not to cycle, the island does have one- and two-hour coach tours that cover most of the island sights. Details may be obtained from the Tourist Information Center at the head of the main jetty.
Some ferry tickets from Perth include a bus tour and lunch at the Rottnest Resort Lodge. There are also some free guided tours, by bike or on foot, around the Thomson Bay vicinity. These are geared to history, bird life and so on, and last from one to two hours.
What to see: The Museum is small but interesting, and is a good place to get an idea of the island’s past. Admission is 75 cents. Thomson Bay’s architecture itself is fascinating, reminiscent in many ways of California’s Mission architecture. The Old Chapel is a good example.
The Basin is a popular swimming area surrounded by coral reef. If you’re not up for snorkeling or scuba diving, take a cruise on the Underwater Explorer ($9 adults, $7 students). The salt lakes attract a wide variety of animal life, including many of Rottnest’s more than 120 species of birds.
Rottnest Lighthouse is occasionally open to visitors. The 9.2-inch coastal defense guns atop Oliver’s Hill are a reminder that Rottnest was a military camp during World War II. The island scenery will speak for itself. And, of course, there are the quokkas.
Tips: As Perth’s playground, Rottnest is heavily booked in the summer. As with everything else, plan ahead. The weather in summer is excellent, much like that of San Diego, Perth’s sister city. But take along a sweater or jacket for the evening ferry ride back to Perth if you intend to stay on deck. If the water’s rough, the spray can catch you unawares as the boat pitches and rolls.
For more information, contact the West Australia Tourist Commission, 2121 Avenue of the Stars, Suite 1210, Los Angeles, Calif. 90067, (213) 557-1987.
On Rottnest Island itself, information and bookings can be obtained through the Rottnest Island Board, Rottnest Island, West Australia 6161. Also, the Rottnest Island Information Centre at the head of the main jetty is open every day except Christmas.
For further reading: “Rottnest Island in History and Legend,” by W. Somerville. The book is, or was, out of print, but copies can sometimes be found at used bookstores in the Perth area.