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Rottnest Island in a day: sea, cycle and the unexpected

“Blue skies, a warm breeze, smiling tourists – they were all good signs. The other signs like posters telling of a kitesurfing championship the following day should’ve hinted at strong winds and changeable weather. We didn’t do the math.” 

The clouds raced in at an alarming speed from the West, over the Indian Ocean. We weren’t too far from Little Parakeet Bay before we noticed the change in weather: a cooling and a darkening, a sudden rush of wind… and still a goodly cycle ahead before we would reach our campsite.

“I don’t think I zipped up the tent…” Paulette said in a slightly worried tone of voice. 

We’d just survived a sighting of a “venomous, potentially lethal” (and thankfully shy) dugite snake slithering across the road as we freewheeled down the hill. Now we were about to be submerged in a Western Australian cloudburst.

Dugite snake

We had been hunting the famous Western Australian sunsets for the past two weeks. Glowing orange fireballs extinguished in a hiss of smoke and steam (okay, not really) in the deep blue – somewhere far off toward my homeland, South Africa. We had not had much success.

As common and glorious as these sunsets reportedly were, our Zimbabwean and South African travelling duo were not exactly striking it lucky thanks to a list of reasons surprisingly varied and lengthy: stuck in the car in a bluegum forest; overcast weather; up too late from an afternoon nap; and impassable sand dunes. I could go on. 

We had hoped that today out at Rottnest Island, a spit of land 11km long and 4.5km wide, just off the coast of Perth, would be different. Unfortunately, it looked like the rain had other plans.

We’d hopped on one of the early morning ferries from Hillary’s Boat Harbour in Perth. (You could also access the Fremantle ferry from Northport, North Fremantle, a little further south).

Our plan was to return the next morning and, in just under 24 hours, fit in a lifetime of memories, plus an epic sunset. Simple, no?

Blue skies, a warm breeze, smiling tourists – they were all good signs. The other signs like posters telling of a kitesurfing championship the following day should’ve hinted at strong winds and changeable weather. We didn’t do the math. 

cycle pitstop

We arrived excited, relaxed and ready to tour the island I’d heard so much about. “When you go to Australia next year, you can’t miss Rottnest!” a colleague insisted. “It’s a must-visit – a total chillax.”

After a quick hot sandwich and great coffee (Aussies pride themselves on their coffees) in the bustling ‘town centre’ (read: a 50m walkway of eateries, mini grocery store and a little post office with seating scattered about), we headed off to pitch our tents.

It was a well-equipped campsite – a huge area, under the trees with a sea-view, quickly filling with students celebrating year-end on “Rotto”. Visitors are almost always spoiled with a sea-view here.

Every so often, a quokka – the mini wannabe-kangaroo marsupials that gave the Island its name – would hop past, inquisitive and seemingly happy with the human visitors.

The heroic and the dark and the daily

Rottnest Island. “Rat’s Nest” Island. So named by Dutch Captain Willem de Vlamingh of the Dutch East India Company when his ships landed in 1696 and he was confronted by these outsized “rats”, endemic to the region. Not exactly the ideal name for a spot set to become a classic holiday destination.

But what was that to him? He was simply there to hunt for a missing ship, the Ridderschap van Holland, lost with all 325 crew and passengers somewhere on the voyage between the Cape of Good Hope and Batavia.

That and also to further explore and chart the entire West coast of the Southland (Australia). Except for a high regard for the scent of the wood on the island (apparently it smelt like rosewood), De Vlamingh was not much impressed with the whole region, which may be part of the reason why European settlers only made themselves at home on Rottnest over 100 years later in 1831.

There’s a lot of history for such a little place. And the best kind of history – the kind full of stories, the heroic and the dark and the daily:

Try to pierce the mystery surrounding the sad tale of that “Imperial Pauper” at John Lomas’ Cottage.

Lomas's Cottage

Visit a lighthouse and ponder the lot of the lighthouse keeper’s daughter who became the island’s first teacher.

Think about the lives of the hundreds of seafarers from the 13 ships wrecked in the waters around Rottnest.

Consider the Aboriginals who were imprisoned here until the early 1900s, working the saltpans, the island a penal colony then, their quarters transformed into tourist cottages now.

Stroll around the military barracks and remember the island’s role in both Great Wars.

After we’d set up camp, we did exactly that before the beaches and open road beckoned (there are no cars on the island). We hired bicycles from one of the well-organised rental stores and with cozzies, borrowed snorkel gear, and a few provisions in hand, headed off clockwise to circumnavigate Rottnest.

The island is a walker’s, cyclist’s, and swimmer’s paradise – as long as you have water to drink. Interestingly, it appeared that the majority of the popular spots to visit were along the south-eastern side of the island. Whereas all the water access points were on the north-western side – quite the opposite, in other words.

Cycling

It’s a road trip, on a bike. Absorb the scenery as it changes from beach to brush, to undulating hills, scrub and trees, salt pans… picnic at Salmon Bay after a bracing snorkel through the clear water and some kelp forest, catch the shadow of a ray as it skims the sandy floor, ward off the seagull who also wants a bite, greet the quokka congregating around your bike, turn off to another beach, white as a sheet and doze to the waves lapping near your feet.

We returned to the realisation that we were about to be drenched. Paulette headed off at an astounding pace to close the tent flap while her aunt and I followed as fast as we could. Craning our necks to look back, we saw a grey wall advancing over the grasses and previously still lake. And then the rain was upon us.

Drenched, we arrived at the campsite to find Paulette, not quite as wet, having evicted a cunning quokka from the warm and dry tent.

The cloudburst past, golden light broke through from the West. We grabbed our cameras and headed off towards the Bathurst Point lighthouse (subsidiary to the Main Rottnest Lighthouse on Wadjemup Hill), a short walk from the campsite.

It was late afternoon and perfect timing to catch that sunset. Which we didn’t. We caught a rainbow instead.

Rainbow after the storm

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO:

WEBSITE: www.rottnestisland.com

Amy Allen

Amy is a speech-language therapist by day and travelling adventurer in her spare time – whether it’s the daily N2 commute to work by bus, Euro-railing the Continent solo or road-tripping Namibia in a VW Chico with friends, she loves the winding road and the people she gets to meet along it. Her travel experiences are diverse but rarely dangerous (except for that one time…). She’s had opportunities to visit Southern India, parts of the States and lived in the UK for 2 years. She worked a 2-month stint on an Israeli moshav and most recently, took on the great Down Under and New Zealand for 3 months, with a journal, pen, and camera in hand.

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