You can see Rottnest Island from Fremantle – in fact, from most of the beaches from Freo to Hillarys. It’s a low ridge just on the horizon. The photo above shows the view looking the other way. When I was a kid those towers in the CBD weren’t quite so prominent, but I expect you could have seen them if you looked.
Rottnest is Perth’s holiday island, popular for families, weekends, ‘schoolies’ celebrations and no excuse, really. Private boats stream over there on a fine weekend to enjoy the delights of the local pub (the Quokka Arms), maybe pitch a tent in the camping grounds, or hire one of the cottages dotted around a few of the bays. Or hundreds come for a day trip, zipping over on a twenty-five-minute ride on one of the several ferries.
Beth and I headed over there for a couple of nights to savour the calm. We stayed in what had been (I’d guess) an officer’s apartment– kitchen, lounge, two bedrooms and a bathroom – at the Lodge holiday resort. It’s heritage accommodation, so a long way from 5-star, but it was more than adequate for our needs. The imperfections (like creaking floorboards) added to the charm.
The only cars on the island are maintenance vehicles, so everybody else uses shank’s pony, or they hire a bike. It’s actually quite amusing watching the pudgy middle-aged folks throwing a leg over a bike for the first time in twenty years and more. It’s not a very big island, a chunk of limestone jutting out of a reef that follows the WA coastline, so it’s not what you’d call mountainous. But the wind can blow hard, and riding up those ancient dunes isn’t as easy as it looks. Believe me, I know (past experience). Walkers have to be careful, too. It’s wise to step off the road when confronted by a gaggle of inexperienced cyclists hurtling down a slope toward you. The island is only 11km long, so it’s not a huge walk/bike ride for the fit folks. But there are hop on/hop off buses for the rest of us, and the ferry companies offer a few boat cruises for snorkeling and wildlife viewing.
Rottnest is known for its crystal-clear water, great snorkelling, laid-back lifestyle and quokkas. Quokkas are what gave the island its name. In 1696 William Vlamingh, during his search for the missing VOC vessel, Ridderschap van Holland, landed here and came across these cute little critters. To his eyes they looked more like large rats than anything else, so he named the island Rott Nest. Rat’s nest. In fact, quokkas are little marsupials, so not at all related to rodents. I was interested to discover, on a visit to the island’s museum, that when Vlamingh visited there would have been far fewer quokkas than there are now. The island was uninhabited – the aboriginal people haven’t lived there for thousands of years – and the vegetation consisted of thick-trunked low scrub with a heavy canopy. This provided good cover, but because of the heavy shade, the amount of plants the animals grazed on was limited. When Europeans arrived that all changed. The trees were cut down for fuel and to clear land for agriculture, and the quokka population thrived. Although conservation bodies list the species as ‘vulnerable’ that’s because there are only two populations – one in the southwest of WA, and the other here on Rottnest. They’re doing just fine here, thank you very much. But if something like the terrible disease that decimated Tasmanian Devil populations in Tasmania happened here on Rottnest, it could have a devastating effect. Needless to say, Quokkas are protected by law. However, they’re not welcome everywhere. They are nocturnal, and there are lots around the tiny township in the early hours of the morning and late afternoon, but measures have been taken to stop them entering the shops. Quokkas don’t read very well, but the signs are clear enough. It seems to work.
Rottnest is a beautiful place. I stayed there several times in my youth and it was fun to observe the changes that have been made since my last visit. The dreadful old bungalows with their tatty, pest-ridden thatched roofs have all been consigned to history’s scrap pile. Small, discrete settlements have appeared in a few other places around the coast to accommodate the increased tourist numbers.
The island also has a history. Its governor had a residence built near one of the salt lakes in the interior. It’s easy to pick – just look for the highly inappropriate palm trees. What is it with Europeans and palm trees? The governor also built a summer holiday house near the beach. These days, we call that the pub. The military built a base here in the thirties to man a number of artillery pieces set on Oliver Hill, one of the island’s high points. They were installed to protect the port of Fremantle from approaching enemy ships. Tourists can visit the artillery installation via Rottnest’s only train (or you can ride your bike – it’s steep). It’s well worth a visit, although for me that’s a memory from the past. You can see pictures of Oliver Hill here.
The central point for Rottnest tourists is the Settlement – the distinctive ochre-painted buildings which comprise the shopping centre, with the Lodge a short dawdle away. Over the years the Settlement has expanded, but the essence is unchanged. Large trees overhang a mall area where bikes should not be ridden. The bakery was always famous, and the first port of call on a day trip. It’s larger now, with more offerings, and probably a different baker. The same for the general store, which used to stock bare essentials. Everything costs that little bit more because it has to be imported from Fremantle, but the range rivals anything you’ll see in a mainland supermarket, and they sell liquor. As it happens, we’d brought our own wine, but we stocked up on nibbles.
Quokkas aren’t the only animals on Rottnest. It used to be part of the mainland and a few species have survived in this harsh, dry climate. I noticed a number of pink and grey galahs, but no other parrots, and several small bird species. There is one snake, the dugite, which is right up there with the poison. But like most snakes, make some noise and they’ll run and hide.
Beth and I walked many kilometres, avoided quite a few bikes, met a few quokkas, drank some excellent wine and ate some good food. We also learned about Rottnest’s darker side. We visited the small (white) cemetery on Rottnest, with its markers, some still legible, others eroded by time and weather. Many were children. Life was harsh in those days.
But while life was harsh for the Europeans, it was much harder for the aboriginal prisoners brought here in the late nineteenth century. The Lodge where we stayed was built as a prison. In the museum we watched part of a documentary about Rottnest as a prison, and recalling what was said, the prisoners were not necessarily native to the Perth area (the Noongar). Some were brought from the deserts in the North, sentenced in some cases for the crime of killing a sheep. These people didn’t understand white man’s law, and some had very likely never seen the sea. They were brought to Rottnest in neck chains. This site tells the story.
I don’t want to go into details, that’s not what this blog is about. Suffice to say hundreds of aboriginal men died on Rottnest. In time the prison was closed, the cells and warder accommodation were turned into holiday rentals, and the island became a holiday playground. When I was young we knew aboriginal people had been brought here, that it had been a boys’ reformatory, and an internment camp for Italians in WW2, but it wasn’t important, not something you thought about.
Not long before I left Perth in 1996 I remember talk of human bones being found on Rottnest. Naturally, that caused a stir, and people went looking for more. And found them. The remains of hundreds of aboriginal men were buried in an area being used as a camping ground for holiday makers. Today, the aboriginal burial ground is at least marked, although the individual graves are not, and people are asked to respect the area (which is no longer a camping ground). Moves are underway to develop the site into a historical feature which people can visit.
There was a stunning piece of artwork in the museum – I regret not taking a picture, but I guess that’s a copyright issue, anyway. It showed a curved surface. Across the top of the curve were a bunch of smiling white people – men, women, and children – waving, looking happy, against a blue sky. Under the curve against a black background was a thick scattering of simple images of people curled in a foetal position.
One last observation. Aboriginal people lived on Rottnest thousands of years ago, before the sea levels rose and cut it off from the mainland. I didn’t know that. This rather good article tells you a little more about the aboriginal connection with Rottnest and its Noongar name, Wadjemup. I found a number of different meanings for the aboriginal word, some claiming it has something to do with the buried people – but that happened comparatively recently, and I think ‘place across the water’ is more plausible. As I said in the beginning of this post, Rottnest is visible from the mainland, a ‘place across the water’.
I loved the couple of days we spent on the island. It’s sad that it has become an expensive place to stay, out of the reach of ordinary folk. It wasn’t like that when I was young. If you go, make sure you visit the museum, a little white building near the Settlement. It will tell you a few things you didn’t know about the island’s flora and fauna – and its human inhabitants.