Rottnest Island W.A.

Our destination for the day was Rottnest Island and as we were staying in the centre of Perth City, the process of getting there seemed fairly straight forward. We simply had to walk down the hill on Barrack St to the lovely area around the Bell Tower and collect our pre-booked tickets for the ferry that would take us from Barrack Street Jetty down the Swan River to Freemantle. It was a lovely ride down the River past the palatial houses of successful local mining magnates; it took around half an hour to reach Rous Head Harbour at the mouth of the Swan River to collect a few more passengers before heading straight out to Rottnest Island.

There was a bit of a wait for another ferry to move on so we had spend some time admiring the replica sailing boat parked beside the Fremantle Maritime Museum. It was called the Duyfken and was a replica of the first recorded European ship that sailed from the Spice Islands to the Gulf of Carpentaria in 1606. Once the boarding was complete, it took us about 30 minutes to make the crossing to Rottnest Island.

There was an extensive Jetty system at Thomson Bay for our landing, directly in front of the Visitor Centre. The large ‘Welcome’ sign announced, ‘Welcome to Wadjemup’ with a note courteously explaining that the “Island Authority respects the Whadjuk people as the Traditional Custodians of Wadjemup Island” (Rottnest Island). It also announced that Rottnest was the home of the Quokka. It was clear that the locals were happy to announce that the Quokkas were at home on the island but on the door of the café we strolled into after getting off the ferry, the sign immediately indicated that the Quokkas were not welcome to wander in and mingle with the tourists! This negative attitude to the Quokkas probably started with the first Dutch sailors who landed on the Rottnest late in 17th century and decided the Quokkas were just oversized ‘bush-rats’; they gave the island its European name which actual means “Rats’ Nest Island’.

Our plan for the day was to hire electric bikes and roam the Island free of concerns about our transport needs. This was an innocent point of view as our confidence in both the hired bikes and the range of their batteries was unrealistic. Despite generally being a flat island, there are plenty of hills on the west side of the island so unless you were super fit, the concept of riding a self-propelled bike around much of the island is not a sensible idea. We passed a few less than fit older folks on bikes struggling along the way and so we were pleased to have chosen the powered bikes. The map below illustrates that our journey around Rottnest was reasonably extensive but the limitations of time and battery power meant that a complete tour of the island probably needs a couple of days.

We headed north from the Visitor Centre and made our way towards Bathurst Point. Along the way we discovered there were lots of accommodation of all types, catering for summer tourism. January is the most popular time but between 450,000 to 500000 visitors arrive each year, most of them only coming for the day like us but there appeared to be plenty of accommodation for those that wanted to relax and stay for a longer period. Our first stopping point was Pinky Beach which was a beautiful beach dominated by the Bathurst Lighthouse at one end. It was built at the end of the 19th century and activated in 1900. Its construction was in response to a series of shipping disasters in the area, one of which was the sinking of the ship ‘City of York’; there is a bay further around the north-west coast of the Island that bears this ship’s name.

Next door (west) of Pinky’s Beach is a smaller bay called the Basin which looked like it would have been great for snorkeling on a calm day. 1996 was a big year for Rottnest Island and the rest of WA as it was the three hundredth anniversary of the arrival of the Dutch navigator Willem de Vlamingh on these shores. Vlamingh and his sailors spent six days on Rottnest and he appeared to be pretty impressed by the island given his diary comments. The Premier of Western Australia, Richard Court, came to Rottnest 1996 to install the  tricentenary plaque being perused in the photo on the left.

It was a lovely way to spend the afternoon; riding from small bay to the next small bay, all different and all very inviting for a lazy afternoon of swimming and sunbathing. We didn’t see many Quokkas on our bike-riding tour; the one I did come across in somebody’s garden appeared to be dead. However it did give a twitch in its relaxed sleep so I decided not to disturb it.

After inspecting Parakeet Bay, we headed back to the main road around the island which ran close by one of the large lakes on Rottnest, Lake Baghdad. These salt lakes contain brine shrimp which is a great food source for the many species of birds that nest on the island. The island is internationally recognised as an ‘Important Bird Area’. The view over the lake showed us the main lighthouse in the centre of the Island, Wadjemup Lighthouse. It was built in 1849 to help provide safer sailing passages for ships heading into Fremantle and further up the Swan River to Perth. Being only 20 metres high, this lighthouse had to be replaced on the same site in 1896. The photo on the left is of both lighthouses before the older one was pulled down.

Our next bay was called Little Armstrong Bay where there was an information Board that explained some of the history of the changing geography of the island and its connection with the mainland. In Fremantle we had noticed that indigenous traditional stories told of how the mainland had once extended out to past Rottnest. The info board at Little Armstrong Bay stated that “before the last sea rise, approximately 7000 years ago, Wadjemup was connected to the mainland. Wadjemup’s elevated position on the Swan Coastal Plain would have made it a valuable meeting place for the local Noongar people…Nearby finds dated to 17000 years ago show evidence of Aboriginal occupation. Flakes of chert found in limestone sediment reveals an ancient tool making site.”

Back near the Visitor’s Centre there is an old anchor placed in a garden just near where visitors arrive off the ferries. It was rescued from the waters of the Bay we had just arrived at on our bike journey. It was a sad story of unnecessary catastrophe caused by human error and poor lighthouse technology. The loss of the ‘City of York’ was one of the main reasons that another lighthouse was built at the end of Pinky’s Beach in 1900.

From about the point where we passed Stark Bay on the West coast of Rottnest Island, the road (Bovell Rd) became quite hilly as it moved away from the coastline and headed toward the intersection with Digby Drive. We were starting to get a little weary so the choice of directions was difficult when we were faced with the dilemma of turning right towards the very westerly end of Rottnest or should we start heading back towards the ferry terminal. We decided to push on to Narrow Neck and make a decision when we got there.

When we arrived at the start of Narrow Neck, we immediately realised that storm damage had started to take its toll on the landscape of the Island. The old road along the edge of Lady Edeline beach was broken off along the beach side and a fence to keep us away from this edge had been built down the centre of the old road. It was a s good a place as any to come across a discussion of whether what we could see was just normal storm damage or an example of climate change. “A storm surge in May 2003 was so severe, that the Narrow neck scarp moved 1.3 metres inwards and 0.3 metres downwards in a period of approximately 6 hours.

It reminded me of our stay in Karijini National Park where clearly some tourists were offended by information Boards that suggested the rocks before us were many millions of years old, an inconceivable age if you take fundamentalist Biblical scholars as you source of science. The Information Board at Narrow Neck appeared to be being a little cautious about involving itself in politically sensitive debates but it was reasonably clear in its predictions for Rottnest Island. “Narrow neck is the narrowest part of the island and is particularly sensitive to erosion. Scientists predict as sea levels rise ‘Narrow neck’ will be once again underwater as it was 5000 years ago, creating two islands.”

We rode across Narrow neck and stopped at the Roland Smith (1893-1972) memorial. He was clearly a highly respected pioneer citizen of Rottnest Island. The view of the road from this point showed that it wound up hill towards the West End of the Island so good judgement suggested that it was time to turn back.

We were just passing Strickland Bay (above) when Gayle started to notice that her bike was losing power. By the time we got to the left turn off up to the lighthouse, her bike battery had failed all together. Luckily we had been given the phone number of the bike shop and we were able to phone them for assistance. It only was a ten minute wait before we had a new battery and her bike was ready to go. A couple approached the bike mechanic asking if they could put their bikes on the back of his ute and get a lift back to town? Like the old saying predicts, “Refusal often offends!”

Our trouble hadn’t quite finished as I noticed when we started up the hilly road that would take us towards the Oliver Hill Lookout. My own battery indicator was signalling that I was running out of power! While Gayle was sailing along with no bike worries, I had to save power by turning my battery off for any of the flat sections of Digby Drive and only use minimal power going up the hills. I was very pleased to see the bike shop when we finally arrived back.

As we were travelling back to Perth on the ferry, we started to discuss the best pieces of advice we could give to future travellers to Rottnest, particularly those on a one-day visit who want to see as much of the island as possible.

  1. Hire a bike to see the island, it is well worth it.
  2. Hire an electric bike unless you are a fit long-distance rider.
  3. Find out from the bike shop an appropriate distance to ride within the bike’s batteries capabilities.
  4. Enjoy the day!

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