By Roger ALLNUTT
Dutch sailors exploring the western Australian coast in the late 17th century were intrigued by what to them seemed like a population of rat like creatures on an island west of what is now Perth. They named the island Rotte nest (rat’s nest) which nowadays is Rottnest or colloquially Rotto. The local Noongar people called the island Wadjemup.
These small creatures are the quokka, a rather cute native marsupial found in very few other locations. A protected reserve with the absence of any predators of the quokka means that their numbers are safe; the only other inhabitants of the island are Australian sea lions and southern fur seals and a number of native and introduced bird species that nest near the shallow salt lakes in the centre of the island.
Nowadays Rottnest is a popular holiday destination with a mix of day trippers and visitors who come for a few days, to relax, fish and explore the island. However since a settlement was established in 1829 the island has also been used as a penal colony, an Aboriginal prison, military establishment and internment camp.
The best way to get to Rottnest is to join one of the daily ferry services from either Perth or Fremantle for the 18km crossing from Fremantle. I would recommend taking the Rottnest Express from Perth as the ‘cruise’ down the Swan River is most enjoyable and the commentary points out many features along the river. Leaving from the ferry terminal at Barrack St Quay you get a splendid view of the city skyline with the edge of Kings Park in evidence. The old, iconic Swan Brewery on the shoreline is now home to upmarket apartments and then the ferry passes the University of Western Australia and some of the large mansions owned by the wealthy burghers of the city. An intriguing sight is a tiny mooring with two small boats and a shed – the smallest private yacht club in the world.
After picking up extra passengers at Fremantle the 20km crossing takes about half an hour – longer if the sea is rough which it often is. Thankfully, I had a perfectly calm day!
The ferry lands at the north-eastern corner of the 19-square-km island that is home to less than 200 permanent residents. They live in limestone cottages constructed in earlier times.
Many visitors to Rottnest hire bikes to cycle along the road that circles the island. It looks deceptively flat but I noticed some were labouring along the way. Instead I joined the Rottnest Express bus tour, an excellent 1 ½ hour tour accompanied by a good commentary covering the island’s history, flora and fauna and major attractions.
The coastline is delightful, rugged promontories interspersed with white sandy beaches and pale blue waters offshore. Snorkelling is popular. Birds nest on ‘stacks’ on the rocky promontories and there are parts of a couple of old wrecks still poking out of the water. The local tea tree is shaped like large bunches of broccoli. The tour stopped at vantage points to admire the view.
There are two lighthouses on the island, the 38.9m Wadjemup Lighthouse in the middle of the island is open and voluntary guides will take you to the top for panoramic views across the island, the surrounding sea and on a clear day Perth on the horizon.
If you cast your gaze down to the animal life around you, particularly in the evenings you’ll find the furry hose of the island, the quokka. It is a semi nocturnal marsupial and if you only stay on the island as a day tripper you may only see a few. There was one near the bus terminal and after directions from our bus guide I found a small group resting under trees close to the nine-hole golf course. In the evening the quokkas come out in large numbers (estimates of between 10,000 and 20,000) scooting along the roads and paths and generally entertaining the visitors.
On the way back I would suggest disembarking at Fremantle with time to explore the city that was home to the America’s Cup in the summer of 1987. Since that time the city has gained a reputation as a trendy spot for coffee or one of the craft beers, there are plenty of galleries, a great market or grab fish and chips at the fishing boat harbour.
The centre of the city contains fine old buildings including the old Prison where you can do an underground tunnel tour. The Maritime Museum and Art Gallery deserves plenty of time. The twelve-sided Round House built in 1831 also briefly served as a prison.
A quick train ride takes you back to Perth, a very attractive city nestling on both sides of the Swan River., the city centre set in a long rectangular grid pattern stretching from a bend of the river to West Perth. Four free bus routes cover the city and nearby suburbs and these regular buses is the perfect way to get about for tourists and locals alike. I stayed in West Perth and found all the sights I wanted to see were readily reached on our local bus.
Grouped in the centre of the CBD are lovely old buildings many along St Georges Terrace. Government House set in extensive grounds holds a prime position while close by is the Perth Concert Hall. Across the road the historic Town Hall is juxtaposed with the very modern City of Perth Library while Anglican St George’s Cathedral is worth a visit. A stark, modernistic sculpture of St George and the Dragon is near the front door. I was intrigued by a plaque-cum-cross in one of the side chapels honouring the Battle at Fromelles in France – the plaque will be taken to Fromelles next year as part of the 100th anniversary of that terrible battle.
Two pedestrian malls in Murray and Hay Streets are always busy with foot traffic and people relaxing at cafes or near the fountain.
One of the delights of Perth is Kings Park overlooking the Swan River at West Perth. Over 4-square-km in size the park is a superb retreat from the city bustle. Enjoy panoramic views over the Swan River and the city from vantage points along the edge or from the top of the spiralling DNA tower (101 steps). The Botanic Gardens are superb but there are fine examples of flora throughout the expanse of the park. I was particularly taken with the tall trees along Fraser Ave, the closest point to the city, the trees planted by local dignitaries in 1929 to celebrate the centenary of Perth.
As a tennis player I enjoyed seeing the grass courts of the Kings Park Tennis Club. In a corner of the park I came across the statue of Dr Arnold Cook and his dog – he was the founder of the Guide Dog Association in Australia.
For more information on Rottnest Island including ferries and tours check www.rottnestfastferries.com.au
For information on Perth visit www.experienceperth.com
Roger Allnutt was a guest on his visit to Rottnest Island of Rottnest Express.