Steve Taylor returns to “Rotto”, where his fondest memories share space with quokkas, selfie-seekers and other sentimental sojourners. Photography by Alicia Taylor.
It’s a little frayed at the edges. And it’s positively dowdy in pockets but, for me, Rottnest Island’s imperfections are as endearing as the bits that make you swoon – the mottled mint-green bays pooling onto sweeping smiles of sand, its breathless, stone-quiet interior and its contemplative lakes. You’re told this brittle, lumpy little biscuit is made of limestone when, in fact, it’s composed of memories and it’s those warm, lazy images spinning in the collective consciousness of generations of West Australians that protect this wonderland and keep it locked in time.
Line up yesterday’s Super-8 film against today’s iPhone videos and you’d be hard-pressed to spot a change in the place – and that’s how adoring “Rotto” fans want it to stay.
At 19 square kilometres, the island is slightly bigger than NSW’s Lord Howe and sits about 20 kilometres off the coast of Perth. Established in the 1830s, the settlement has a laid-back vibe that belies a troubled history, first as an Aboriginal prison and later, during World War II, as a heavily armed strategic garrison. Now one of Western Australia’s most popular holiday spots, the island has a permanent population of just 100 or so humans and upwards of 8000 quokkas – cheery, cat-sized marsupials that, like Rottnest itself, are protected by the State Government.
As deckhands in Fremantle load the Rottnest ferry with Eskies, duffel bags and bikes, there it sits – a low, smoky smudge offshore. The swell rolls in on an early sou’-west sea breeze and white caps salt the surface. We thunder across the stretch of water known as Gage Roads, thumping up and over the swirling sea. There’s a roller-coaster chorus of “Whooo!” from passengers as the nose of the Rottnest Express plunges into the face of another oncoming wave.
Within 25 minutes or so, on the lee of the island, the skipper eases up on the throttle and the glassy surface of Thomson Bay becomes a window to the spearmints and peppermints of the sand and seagrass below. “When they walk ashore,” one island worker tells me, “I reckon people move about 10 or 20 per cent slower than they do on the mainland.”
It’s true. I suppose it’s so utterly unlike the world we’ve left behind. Everyone takes their time to process the scene as they saunter in, thongs thwacking, along the main jetty. They squint at the sun-bleached limestone, the flour-white sand and the weary light-ochre stucco of Rotto’s low-lying buildings, examining maps and checking villa numbers.
“Eeek!” a child squeals when a brazen seagull swoops her sausage roll outside Rottnest Bakery in the settlement square. “Yaaark!” a boisterous crow fires back. The tables are filled with hunched-over visitors, who protect their piping-hot pies and pastries from the hovering squadron like students shielding their exam papers from copycats. Creeping below, brushing past ankles and fossicking for crumbs, are the more canny members of the quokka community. They find the pickings here way easier to come by and, frankly, much tastier than anything in the wilder parts of their natural home.
Longreach Bay is one of the loveliest stretches of the island – a big beaming arc of sand and mottled greens. It’s a five-minute bike ride from the modest shops and eateries that make up the settlement, passing the variously tired and tarted-up cottages and cabins of Thomson Bay, along the nine-hole golf course and then The Basin, a protected swimming spot with bivouacking pods of sun-screened mums, dads and toddlers.
The wind whistles by my helmet and the gears hum along the straightaways and sweeping chicanes but the brakes are ready. It’s spring and the island’s venomous dugites are active. I’ve seen them slither out of nowhere, paying no heed to the road rules. Quokkas aren’t the most observant pedestrians, either, and will pop up inexplicably in the middle of thoroughfares. Nowadays, you also need to look out for grunting, prostrate tourists framing a #quokkaselfie to add to Rotto’s most prolific Instagram feed.
The villas staggered along the bays are operated by the WA Government’s Rottnest Island Authority and most remain resolutely basic. There was a time when my family used to queue to jag a collection of villas here or in nearby Geordie or Fays bays for the following year’s get-together of our extended clan. My late dad was responsible for the timing – a week either side of the Melbourne Cup – and yes, there were hats for the big day (festooned with corks when the flies were bad).
Like so many of its neighbours, Villa 802 at Longreach could restage those events as if no time had passed. There’s a king-size bed now – no need for the foam topper visitors once packed to soften the brutally hard mattresses – and a spanking-new fridge but that’s pretty much the extent of the makeover. In any event, it’s all about the deck with its opera-box view of the bay and, further north, the springtime traffic jam of humpback whales on their commute south. Approaching dusk, the horizon is alive with their splash and spray.
The next morning, aboard the adventure tour boat Eco Express, we’re surrounded by these gentle giants and their calves as they breach and wave their tails. They’re drawn here by the Leeuwin Current that swings down from the equatorial north, warming the waters around Rotto and enabling sea life far more diverse than that off the mainland – including 400 fish species and 20 types of coral. New Zealand fur seals sunbake at Cathedral Rocks on the island’s weather-beaten southern tip.
“Are there dolphins?” asks a passenger. “They come and go but they’re not residents,” replies the Eco Express guide.
As we weave through craypot marker buoys on our circumnavigation home, a dolphin springs gleefully from the water and past the gunwales of the boat like a paid extra.
On the wilder sides of this A-Class Reserve, you could be excused for thinking Rottnest is uninhabited. But on a high-season summer day you wonder how it hasn’t been stomped to the floor of the Indian Ocean – a kind of Atlantis sunk under the weight of 650,000 visitors (mainly from WA) who come to explore, cycle, camp, loll on its scores of beaches and love it then leave it every year.
Somehow, it shrugs off all the attention. Despite the tinnies and gin palaces that hang off its almost 850 moorings, the battalions of invading schoolies, the crowds that pack the pub for concerts and the assortment of entrepreneurs whose high-end plans founder and sink as surely as the dozen or so wrecks on its reef, Rotto retains its old-world feel.
It’s arguably the most resilient and enduring place in the state, helped by careful management. The island has established a strong renewable-energy grid and relieved water shortages with a green-powered desalination plant. Wastewater is recycled and rubbish is compacted then dispatched to the mainland. Four bus services traverse its narrow asphalt roads and a clutch of maintenance vehicles keep the place catered and cleaned but that’s about it.
In the end, it’s the layers of carefree, salt-and-sand-caked memories of Rotto’s devotees that preserve it and keep the future at bay. If you love this place, as many do, you don’t want it to change.
The Fremantle Doctor – a cool wind that whips through on summer afternoons – is here early and the giant blades of a wind turbine whomp, whomp, whomp with the stiffening breeze as I cycle past. It’s my final day here, the luggage truck has collected my stuff and it looks like the passage home will be lumpy. But I can’t leave without visiting my favourite pocket of the island, home of my most enduring memory.
Within minutes I’m there. I kick out the stand of my bike, unclip my helmet and gaze at the craggy limestone frame around the still, turquoise waters of Little Parakeet Bay. It was here, 18 years ago, that I proposed to my wife. I love this place. ￼
You need to do this...
Cycle and snorkel
There are about 20 kilometres of bike trails to explore and Rottnest Island Pedal & Flipper has your ride (from $30 per day). And helmet. And the flippers and goggles to take on your adventures.
Fur seal safari
Circumnavigate the island on a 90-minute trip aboard the high-powered, wave-skipping Eco Express ($65 for adults; $32 for kids aged four to 12). Hold on to your sunhat as you head offshore to the whale corridor (from September to November) then south to see New Zealand fur seals and explore other untamed corners of Rotto.
Yep, there’s an off-road version of these nerd-mobiles. Segway Tours WA offers a super-fun way to see fascinating pockets of the island, including the undisturbed World War II military bunkers near Kingstown (from $79 for Segway training and a guided one-hour trip).￼
Adams’ Grand Island Tour starts with a bone-rattling railcar run up to Rotto’s highest point, Oliver Hill. Knowledgeable volunteer guides will show you the tunnels of Rotto’s WWII military centre before a fact-laden coach tour around the island ($79 for adults).￼
These are the places to stay...
Rottnest Island Authority villas, cottages and hostel
The authority runs seasonally priced accommodation, including budget and premium options. Rottnest Hostel at the Kingstown Barracks offers cheap digs (from $45 to $117 per night) and has recently added family dorms (from $80 per night).
Pinky’s Eco Retreat
Newly approved, Pinky’s eco glamping (from $100 to $350 per night) is expected to launch in late 2018. In the meantime, there’s basic camping at the campground run by the Rottnest Island Authority ($38 per site).
For many, this is Rottnest HQ. It has great food, a sprawling beer garden that hosts concerts by major artists and sublime views of Thomson Bay. The 18 refurbished rooms (from $250 to $450 per night) are cool and comfortable.
International resort brand Karma Group has given the old Rottnest Lodge a luxe facelift. The rooms and apartments (from $250 per night including breakfast) have been upgraded and there’s a pool and day spa.