For Perth’s population, Rottnest Island is Nirvana a 30-minute ferry ride away. Not that you’d know it by reading the signs. By TJ Hayes
Rottnest Island is a little outpost of rock, sand, scrub and perfect bays 19km from Perth’s suburban coast. It’s famous, at least in western parts, for its clean beaches, cute quokkas, bikes-only bitumen, fine fishing and cold lagers in the best beer garden in the country. For many, it’s the only holiday retreat required of the world.
Rotto is like a multi-family heirloom dutifully handed down the generational chain by West Aussies. It’s where they learn of bumps and bruises, sunburn and heat stroke, fish and ships, birds and bees. Surprisingly, it has remained mostly under the radar of holiday seekers from the east, despite welcoming 500,000 visitors a year. It isn’t about high-class living – this isn’t where you come for five-star treatment.
The best cuisine is strictly five-finger: fish and chips, a steak sandwich straight from the barbie, a fresh crayfish if you’re rightly connected. It’s a place of simple freedoms and plain living; a postcard-perfect island inhabited by a holiday population girt by sea and bound by the laws of fish-catching kinship and please-don’t-run-over-the-children courtesies. It’s an idyllic place, slow-moving and cyclic, as familiar as family.
But even paradise gets stuffed up every once in a while. Because now, from when you first step off the ferry onto Rotto, you’d reckon you’ve entered one of the world’s true danger zones. Warning signs and exclamation marks follow you off the jetty, around the Thomson Bay settlement, to the shops, to the bike shed, on the bitumen roads and pedestrian paths, down to the water’s edge of even the most gently lapping seashore. Every signpost, every signal marker, threatens impending doom: Don’t dive in! Don’t ride your bike without a helmet! Watch for snakes! Look out for rocks! Watch the cliffs! And don’t even think of feeding the seagulls and quokkas . . .
Birds on Rottnest have taken to perching on “Danger!” signs rather than trees, most likely because they’re easier to locate in many parts of the island. It’s as though bureaucrats found this floating chunk of paradise and asked their mates the lawyers and the lawmakers how to wet-blanket the place. A case in point is The Basin, the island’s most popular swimming spot. It’s close to the main settlement ofThomsonBay, surrounded by large and shady pines. The Basin is really just a well-formed hole in the surrounding reefs, a shallow and safe swimming area where the water in the morning is cut like glass, with the vista taking in the sweep of the bay, the Bathurst Point lighthouse, small white coastal cliffs and a clear horizon out to the endless Indian Ocean. In other words, beach bliss.
Yet to reach the water from the bike racks you pass a large, obtrusive sign on which 11 different hazards are depicted: two to tell you not to feed anything; two not to fall off the cliffs; one not to fish; one not to dive; one not to take anything; one not to start a fire; one to bring your own water; one telling you to put your bike helmet back on; and the last reminding you not to step on a snake. All fair and reasonable, but hardly welcoming. And all this for a ten-minute swim?
A local on the island laughs about the day the Rottnest Island Authority (RIA) put up its “Please walk your bike through the mall” sign beside the small shopping square. For years, bike riders, pram pushers and pedestrians mixed in this area peacefully. But a sign was needed, the RIA believed. Better, a sign with a humungous exclamation mark. “Who needed the signs?” asks the local. “We just sat there and watched as everyone did what they’ve always done. Some cyclists even stopped, read the sign and then just pedalled on. The coppers were asked to stop people but I think they had enough brains not to bother.”
The RIA reports it needs the multiple warnings because of grave fears for personal safety from the crumbling limestone cliffs surrounding the island. It’s a real concern – cave-ins and rock collapses have had fatal consequences at other WA holiday areas. Yet it doesn’t explain the hazard signs for everything else. Some are even found sticking up on the sand in the middle of an otherwise deserted beach, while at other locations, such as old WWII army lookouts still found in the hills, children can enter crumbling buildings strewn with broken glass and barbed wire with scant signs of RIA concern, maintenance or public protection.
So what has sparked Rotto’s safety boom? The rise of public litigation, the bloating of bureaucracy, the dreary fill-time tasks entrusted to the island’s work force. Rotto’s loved status as a timeless bastion of easy holiday living has ultimately worked against it. The RIA response has been to turn Rotto into aNannyState.
It’s all for your own good, they’ll tell you. Tch-tch about The Basin and a Rotto official will remind you that a bloke dived in there, hit his head and will never walk again. (And, coincidentally, reportedly sued the island’s pants off.) Yet here’s the twist: for all this, Rotto is still an almost perfect holiday location. Just ignore the signs and try not to head-butt any passing rocks. Rotto is proof you can make laws and regulations until you’ve run out of public service paper and still Mother Earth and Everyman commonsense will win out. Good for her, him and, ultimately, all visitors to the island.
Basic island bliss
A few points for the Rotto rookie: the island is 11km long, 4.5km at its widest point, with an area of 1900 hectares, all of which is protected as a nature reserve. Dutchman William de Vlamingh landed here in 1696 and named the island in honour of the many quokkas, which he mistakenly believed were rats (hence Rotte nest). Ferries from Fremantle, Hillarys andPerth bring over the hordes, with the trip from Freo taking only 30min. The ferries berth atThomsonBay, where the majority of the island’s services and lodgings are located. There’s also an air service to the island’s small runway.
Once on the island, it’s a cyclists’ haven: there are no car facilities for visitors – it’s strictly bike, bus or feet. A round-trip by bike of the island fromThomsonBayvia the beautiful catch-a-breather end point ofWest Endis 24km. This includes a few hilly climbs, but nothing to alarm the averagely fit. Regular public buses also deposit visitors at various island bays. Lodgings range from hostel beds in the old Army Barracks to campsite cabins, bungalows, better-kept beachside villas and the comparative luxury of the hotel-style Rottnest Lodge.
Rottnest, by most people’s preference, is a summer island. This doesn’t mean winter is bad: many prefer that time of year when the island is quieter, the ocean turns stormy, lodgings are cheaper and the pace of life slows to a half-crawl rather than a summer stagger. But summer wins with most people because that’s when the bays and beaches allow for long, lazy days of swimming and sunning. Some surf at good breaks such as offStricklandBay, others snorkel and dive off reefs and wrecks. Children make merry on the beach or on their bikes, or by discovering that their holiday community includes dozens of other kids, quokkas, pelicans, peacocks and giant stingrays beneath the local jetties. All adult daytime activities, including babysitting duties, come with the promise of a world-class sunset, an evening barbie, and a few beers or a bottle ofMargaretRiver’s finest before bedtime.
While bikes are the preferred mode of transport, the public buses have become an increasingly popular way of getting around the island. Still, despite the beauty of easily reached bays such as Little Parakeet Bay, Salmon Bay, Ricey Beach and Fish Hook Bay, and the enjoyable sense of discovery of pedalling around an island in near-isolation, a surprisingly high number of people see off a week at Rotto without ever leaving the security of the Thomson Bay settlement. Some of this can be put down to chronic laziness, a bit to family commitments, and much to the allure of a few days with the feet up and no more activity required than an easy stroll to the Quokka Arms, the island’s famous, distinctive hotel. Its beer garden, which looks out to the skyline ofPerthacross the expanse of theIndian Ocean, perfectly fits its environment. It’s a must-sit.
Beyond biking and beaching, more activities have been added to the visitors’ palette in recent years. Among the best is the chance to paddle some overpriced kayaks around the bays. There’s a good chance of seeing a dolphin or stingray on your journey. Scuba diving off some of the many wrecks ruined on the island’s reefs is fun. And there are also tours of the whole island by bus, or short walking tours led by a guide around the settlement. Minigolf, movie nights and even karaoke at the Rottnest Lodge’s bar add some amusing variety, especially for the tone-deaf.
But most of Rotto’s preferred summer pleasures come free. Many of the bays that dot the island have small, clean patches of white sand ideal for dumping a beach towel and a Vitamin D-deficient body onto. The waters are generally calm and cool, and many are ringed by reef, much to the enjoyment of anyone with a dive mask. Occasionally, stinging jellyfish are blown in to the bays and blot one side of the island, but that’s usually solved (rather than salved) by the heady hedonist cycling over to Rotto’s protected side.
Although prices during high season can be quite daunting, there’s relatively cheap accommodation now available in the old army barracks and Tentland sites. A four-bed refurbished bungalow will cost $335 for a night, or $1235 for a week, but you can pitch a tent in the well-maintainedThomsonBaycampsite for $8 an adult. Rooms at the Rottnest Lodge will set you back anywhere from $210-$465 during the peak of summer.
Unwary visitors expecting five-star plush may be tempted to make the following complaint: that the quality of lodgings seldom seems to match the price tag. A non-impressed friend from abroad even went so far as to describe our rented bungalow as “third world accommodation” resembling “aSowetomud hut.” Her non-sentimental opinion made me inspect my surrounds a little closer: the cement floors; the cobwebs over the windows; the plastic-coated mattresses on the beds; the blankets piled in the corner, their hygiene history hidden, their most recent stains not; an old and rotting divan in the living area. The RIA promises it has spent millions on upgrades of accommodation (and there’s even talk of new “executive” housing in the near future), but newcomers should be warned that being house-proud on Rotto is mostly about having the most snaggers sizzling or the flashest fish frying on the barbie out front. No-one is checking the concrete walls for Monets.
Cuisine and dining options run a similar line. Served food on the island is, almost without exception, overpriced and uninteresting, from the buffet served at the Rottnest Lodge to meals at the Quokka Arms and Tea Gardens and the tepid coffee served at the Dome Cafe. There’s fast food chicken, burgers and pizzas, but none deliver much return of taste for line time. The bakery, once a shrine to portly generations for its cream buns and luscious loaves, now delivers nought but droll, disappointing and doughy breads, pies and pastries. The best advice is to buy what you can from the general store and make do yourself. A fisherperson in the household never hurts.
So there you have it.Paradise, John Milton once wrote, ain’t paradise until it’s no longer paradise. (Well, at least I think it wasMilton.) Today’s Rotto is what’s real when you wash away the sentimental attachments, stir in the economic, legal and governmental demands of our litigation-loving society and let the whole thing simmer for a summer or two.
Yet still the island survives and thrives as somewhere much nearer heaven than holiday hell. For one man’s rat’s nest is another’s loved Rottnest. Like a seagull perched on a danger sign, it’s all about holding on to what you like – and letting the rest of your worries just take wings.
DETAILS: Rottnest Island
Best months to go: Summer months until late March will ensure warm weather and long days. Winter months means no flies.
Most underrated aspect: Sunset drinks in the famous Quokka Arms beer garden after a day of swimming, cycling and sleeping.
Most overrated aspect: The Nanny State indulgences of the authorities and conservationists.
Be prepared for: Police demanding you wear your bike helmet, private boats turning quiet bays into overcrowded parking lots.
Watch out for: Cute quokkas and the odd territorial black swan.
Best value encountered: Single-gear bikes cost around $45 per week and they’ll be the only transport you need.
Rottnest Island Authority
Phone: (08) 9432 9300 Website: www.rottnestisland.com