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Published May 1st 2016
Visit this beautiful, relaxed and interesting island
Rottnest Island is a short ferry ride off the coast from Perth, Western Australia. A shuttle can collect you from your Perth hotel to reach the Barrack Street Jetty in good time for a morning Rottnest Express ferry to Rottnest Island ($99 for the round trip). The cruise along the Swan River takes an hour to Fremantle and there is an informative commentary from the Rottnest Express tour guide who points out various spots along the way and gives a potted history of Perth and the river. In summer, three daily ferry services cross to Rottnest Island: one from Perth and two from Fremantle. In open sea, the journey from Fremantle is another 40 minutes and then you arrive at the Island's main port, Thomson Bay, named after Robert Thomson, a major landholder here during the 1830s.
One of the most striking features of the island is the unique golden coloured buildings. When the British established the settlement in 1829, the buildings were all painted bright white (as they are in the Greek Islands). But the sailors complained that these buildings caused too much glare for them to see clearly to shore, so given the island's key maritime activities, this was quickly changed. The frugal islanders didn't want to waste their stockpiled whitewash, so they recycled. They added old rusty nails and metals to the white and created the "Rottnest Rust" colour seen on most buildings to this day. Only one or two buildings are whitewashed now, to give visitors a sense of the original colour and its starkness against the bright blue sky.
The settlement chapel is one remaining whitewashed building. In the centre of the village, this is a sweet haven for locals and visitors, out of the sun and away from the babble of holiday-makers. A step inside this lovely building brings an immediate sense of history and peace. The small chapel has several stained glass windows and a calm timber interior. The altar is austere, but beautiful.
Rottnest Island has no source of fresh water. British settlers tried wells to access water below ground, but the subterranean water is "brackish" and undrinkable, so they were useless. The island's several lakes didn't help. Most are salty too and many dry up during the hotter months. The settlers tried catchment channels to trap run-off from the little rain that falls. But again, this was unsatisfactory. The water situation was difficult. These days most of the water on the island is desalinated.
The Salt Store
One positive thing came from the salt-laden surrounds, the island became the main source of salt for the entire Australian mainland. As the lakes dried up each year, a residue of salt was left behind. The islanders collected this for their own use and to sell. The Salt Store on the foreshore is a marker of these times. Salt from the dried lakes was stored here until it was distributed across Australia. Rottnest supplied Australia's salt for many years. After the chapel, the Salt Store is the only other whitewashed building on the island. Although it's no longer used for salt, it can still be seen from sea, but on its own it's more a landmark for sailors than a safety hazard.
The island's quokka population is unique. Virtually wiped out on the mainland, the island is now the main habitat for these fascinating marsupials. They have no predators here and their population has grown to around 12,000. They prefer the shadows of trees around the settlement, but they're not timid and will happily approach humans to scavenge for food. Without predators, they haven't learned to be cautious, but they can't tolerate human food so they can't be fed - even though they hang out at all the village cafes and eateries.
In late 1696, the island was named "Rotte nest" ("rat nest" in the Dutch language of the time) by Captain Willem de Vlamingh. As he explored, he saw the quokkas and thought they were giant rats. After a week here, he described the island as a "...a paradise on earth".
Several bus tours operate to show visitors around the island. The Discovery Tour passes Porpoise Bay (even though there are no porpoises here), Little Salmon Bay and Salmon Bay, all iconic lovely beaches. The bus then turns inland and heads for the island's first beacon, Wadjemup Lighthouse. From here visitors get a spectacular view around the island, just as the lighthouse-keeper would have had during its operation.
One of the highlights is the tour stop at Fish Hook Bay at the western end of the island. This lovely bay overlooks the stunning Cape Vlamingh and across the wide Indian Ocean. The water crashes onto the rocks all around this small spit. A well made boardwalk enables people to get right to the tip of the island in only a few hundred metres. It's wonderful to stand and watch the booming foamy waves and take it all in. Here, there's very little between you and Africa.
Along the northwest coast line is the shipwreck of the City of York. This ship foundered in 1899, in a fascinating but sad sequence of misunderstandings. Its plight significantly changed the island's infrastructure and led to the construction of the island's second lighthouse (Bathurst Lighthouse) at the northern end of the island.
Being ever conscious of their self-sufficiency, in 2005 a wind turbine was established to produce much of the island's electricity. It currently contributes 30% of the island's summer electricity supply and 90% of its off-season supply.
The settlement offers lots of options for refreshments, depending on your appetite, time available and budget. Several lovely and popular restaurants and pubs can be found along the foreshore, but in the settlement the crowds gravitate towards the Rottnest Bakery, which offers a good range of lunch fare. You will get a great coffee from The Lane opposite. There's lovely outdoor seating everywhere - but don't feed the quokkas.
Businesses here are primarily accommodation, cafes or other eateries, with one or two shops, and quokkas abound. In fact, most businesses have a curious feature at their entrance. A knee-high gate — a barrier to stop the curious marsupials getting inside the store. It's much like a reverse cat door, where humans can get through, but animals can't.
The "Quokka gate"
The island is served by an airfield, used for both commerce and tourism, and (believe it or not) a railway. No private cars are allowed on the island, so a common form of transport is a bicycle or on foot. Private ownership of land is prohibited and no domestic pets are allowed. In fact, the island is virtually a National Park.
If you are interested in history, several "prisons for Aborigines" have been in operation here, and there is the Rottnest Boys Reformatory, opened on 16 May 1881. Its purpose was to house delinquent young boys, rather than send them to prison. It closed in 1901 and the buildings are now part of Rottnest Lodge holiday accommodation. A small historic European cemetery can be explored here too.
Many people come to enjoy the broad beaches and stunning turquoise sea that surrounds the island. The bays are popular, but not over crowded, there's plenty of room for everyone. Around 5.00pm the ferry heads back to Perth. Being worn out from a busy day, the journey home seems a lot quicker than the outward one.