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Rottnest Island, WA

Popular Perth holiday and day tripper destination 19 km off the coast.

Located 19 km off the coast from Perth, Rottnest Island, is the city's favourite holiday and day tripper destination. Only 12 minutes by air and 2 hours by water the island is accessible and idyllic. There is a joke which Perth people tell against themselves about the island: "Where do Perth people go?" "To Rottnest island because there's nowhere else to go." Today the island's great appeal, apart from the relaxed ambience and the beautiful beaches, is the absence of cars (everyone on the island rides a pushbike or walks), the historic buildings, the charm of the huge Moreton Bay figs, the quirky appeal of the Quokkas, and the quiet waters around the island. Not surprisingly Rottnest has been a magnet for Perth people since the 1850s. The island is 11 km long and 4.5 km at its widest point.


Rottnest Island is located 19 km off the coast from Perth and Fremantle


Origin of Name

The local Noongar Aborigines knew the island as Wadjemu which meant "place across the waters where the spirits are." It was the Dutch sailor and explorer, Willem de Vlamingh, in 1697 who mistook the island's quokkas for rats and named the island 'Rat's Nest Island" or, in Dutch, Rottenest Island. The 'e' was dropped. So, the correct name should be "Quokka Island".


Things to See and Do

Getting to the Island
The most popular way to access Rottnest Island is by ferry. 
(i) The Rottnest Express departs from Pier 2, Barrack Street jetty in Perth; Northport Rous Head Harbour, North Fremantle; and B Shed Victoria Quay, Fremantle. There is detailed information, prices and times, at their website - https://www.rottnestexpress.com.au.
(ii) Sealink offer regular ferry service from Fremantle to Rottnest on the Quokka 1. For detailed information check out https://www.sealinkrottnest.com.au/ferry.
(iii) Rottnest Fast Ferries depart Hillary Boat Harbour which is located 20 minutes drive north of Perth. Check out https://www.rottnestfastferries.com.au for details of times and prices.
(iv) There are a number of air companies which offer flights to Rottnest. Check out http://rottnestisland.com/byair for details and prices.

Getting Around The Island
There are three ways of getting around the island:
(i) walking - there are plenty of tracks and roads. Register that the island is 11 km long and 4.5 km at its widest point. It is 22 km to circumnavigate the entire island.
(ii) bicycles - many visitors bring their own bikes on the ferries but it is equally convenient (although many people complain about the cost - in 2018 they were $30 a day) to hire a bike and explore the 22 km of cycle trails. Check out https://experience.rottnestisland.com/WebStore/shop/ViewItems.aspx?CG=RIABike2&C=AB2 for bookings of bikes. Remember: there are no cars on the island. Cycling is fun and safe.
(iii) There is a bus which goes around the island (go to http://www.rottnestisland.com/the-island/visitor-services/getting-around and click on Essential Guide for the times). It is called the Island Explorer Service and traverses the island every twenty minutes. Visitors buy a ticket which allows them to jump off and on the bus as they find places around the island where they want to stop and do more exploring. It takes an hour to travel around the island and there are 19 places where it stops.

Rottnest Island Heritage Trails
1. Vincent Way Heritage Trail
This is a  2 km walk which takes about 45 minutes and departs from the Rottnest Island Visitor Centre. It is an opportunity to explore "one of the finest examples of colonial architecture in Western Australia". It was all largely the work of one man, Henry Vincent, who was the Superintendent of the Aboriginal prison on the island from 1839-1849 and from 1855-1867.
The Rottnest Island Old Settlement is National Estate listed and, as the National Estate Register notes: "This historic group is integrated around an avenue of Moreton Bay fig and olive trees, and has the atmosphere of a 19th century village". 
The Vincent Way Heritage Trail starts at the sea wall on Thomson Bay which was built between 1846–49 by Aboriginal prisoners from limestone quarried on the island and sawn into blocks.
You then walk up the steps which lead to cottages F and G (built around 1840 by Henry Vincent as a residence for himself and his family and restored in 1986 by infamous and discredited Perth entrepreneur Laurie Connell.
The road along the sea front leads to cottages H, J and E  which were built around 1847 to house the island’s military guard. The original three roomed limestone building was extended in 1863 to accommodate the prison warders and their families.
Nearby is the Administrator's Cottage (late 1840s), the boat shed (1859), cottages K1 and K2 (1847), cottage with boat shed (1846), cottage M (1867), cottage L (1871). The amusingly named Buckingham Palace was built in 1871 by an ex-convict but was subsequently occupied by a warder named Buckingham .
The Lodge Resort (which operated as a boy’s reformatory between 1880–1901) was built in 1880 to house boys as young as eight who had been convicted of such minor crimes as loitering or stealing cakes.
The Rottnest Museum (1857-59) was originally built as a hay store and grain crushing mill and now houses an interesting exhibition of artefacts and memorabilia connected to the island's history.
The Quad is an octagonal prison for Aborigines which was built by Henry Vincent in 1864. It is now used as accommodation for visitors to the island. Consider that it once housed up to five prisoners in rooms that were only 2 metres by 3 metres.
The Chapel (1858) was built by Henry Vincent as a school house and chapel. The names of a number of Rottnest pioneers appear on plaques on the walls.
Along the shorefront on Thomson Bay are the Ranger's Office (originally the salt store - 1856) and the Hotel (1859) which was built as a summer residence for the Governor and first used by Governor Hampton in 1864 as a holiday resort where he would go shooting duck and quokkas. It was converted to a hotel in 1953.

2. Cape Vlamingh Heritage Trail
Cape Vlamingh is located 11 km from Thomson Bay. The Heritage Trail is only 1 km and takes a leisurely 30 minutes. It is an excellent opportunity to study the flora, bird life and geology of the island.
In terms of geology the Cape Vlamingh Heritage Trail brochure notes: "Until about 7000 years ago Rottnest was joined to the mainland because the sea level was lower. Rottnest until that time formed an area of hilly sand dunes in a wide coastal plain. These sand dunes were cemented into limestone by rainwater, and if one looks across Fish Hook Bay, the layers that were formed as the dunes drew can be seen. These rocks and the whole of Rottnest are composed mainly of fragments of sea shells - if a handful of sand is closely examined, the particles of shells can be clearly seen. Just above the level of the sea the base of the cliffs is undercut. See the ledge about three metres up which marks the top of the hollowed out strip. This marks the level of the sea about 3,000 years ago. (The sea level rose from about 130 metres below present sea level to about 3 metres above present levels before reaching today's level about 2,000 years ago)."
The highlights of the walk include the holes which are the burrows of mutton birds (wedge-tailed shearwaters) who nest and breed in the area between August and May; the unique quokkas who rely on succulent plants because there is no fresh water on the Cape; the dugites - poisonous snakes - who inhabit the sands in the area; the fairy terns who breed in the area and the bottle-nosed dolphins (tursiops truncatus) which can often be seen in the offshore waters. There is also the wreck of the Kiryo Maru (a Japanese tuna boat which sank in 1984) and flora such as the sea berry saltbush and the coastal daisy as well as visiting Bridge Rock and the island's Blow Hole. 

3. Oliver Hill Battery Heritage Trail
Oliver Hill Battery is located 3.5 km from the main settlement and the ferry jetty. The trail itself covers a distance of 1.5 km walk around the Oliver Hill Battery - comprising concrete gun emplacements, an underground magazine, engine room, plotting rooms and observation posts - was built on the island in 1937. The 9.2 inch counter bombardment coast defence guns were installed prior to World War II to protect the port of Fremantle from attack. 
The walk combines a look at the fauna and flora of the area as well as the gun emplacements and observation posts. In spring there are stands of coastal wattle and there are Nankeen kestrels which hover above the dunes, bobtail lizards, dugites, quokkas, swallows, red-capped robins, golden whistlers as well as prickle lilies, yellow flowered stilt plants, hare's tail grass, yellow daisies and an impressive stand of melaleucas.

4. Vlamingh Memorial Heritage Trail 
Located off Digby Drive (the road that passes the Rottnest Island Museum) this short walk up to Vlamingh Lookout and down to the far end of Garden Lake passes the small cemetery (only 13 people buried there have been identified) and past the tuarts (Eucalyptus Gomphocephala) and Melaleuca lanceolata and on to the Vlamingh Memorial. The location of the Memorial ensures good views to the east, north and west. The memorial honours Willem de Vlamingh who landed on the island on 30 December, 1696 and named it Rottenest because he saw large numbers of rats (quokkas). At the bottom of the hill it is possible to look over Government House Lake which, at its deepest point, is 7.6 metres and has water that is 7 times saltier than the ocean. It is populated by red brine shrimps (artemia salina). Further along the trail is the quarry where Henry Vincent cut the limestone for the sea wall, the hotel and the cottages which can be seen on the Vincent Way Heritage Trail.

5. Rottnest Island Lighthouses
Rottnest Island has a reputation as the "brick on the doorstep of Fremantle" because of the number of shipwrecks which have occurred on its rocky shoreline. The first lighthouse on the island was built by Henry Vincent, made from limestone quarried at Nancy Cove, cost £500 and was completed in 1851. It was a relatively weak light and was replaced in 1896 by a lighthouse built by C.Y. O'Connor - who was responsible for the famous Kalgoorlie water pipeline. This lighthouse, located near the original lighthouse, is known as the Main Lighthouse or Wadjemup Lighthouse. It is 30.4 metres high and 80 metres above sea level. It has a range of 26 nautical miles. A second lighthouse was built. The Bathurst lighthouse was completed in 1900. It is 12.2 metres high and 30 metres above sea level. It has a range of 11 nautical miles. For more information check out http://www.lighthouses.org.au/lights/WA/Bathurst/Bathurst.htm.

6. Rottnest Wrecks Heritage Trail 
To explore the Rottnest Wrecks Heritage Trail requires a snorkel and flippers. Around the island are the wrecks of the Transit (1842) a wooden two-masted schooner; the Gem (1876) a 52 ton British cutter; the Macedon (1883) 562 ton iron steamer; the Janet (1887) a 211 ton 3 masted schooner; the Denton Holme (1890) a 998 ton iron barque; the Uribes (1942) a 188 ton schooner; the Lady Elizabeth (1878) a wooden and iron vessel which was carrying sandalwood (1878); the Raven (1891) a 343 ton three-masted wooden barque; the Shark (1939) a hopper barge; the Anitra (1979) a French yacht which had been sailed from Plymouth - it was outside the island’s museum but was subsequently removed; the Mira Flores (1886) a 500 ton iron barque; the City of York (1899) an 1194 ton iron barque; the Miwok II (1983) an iron barge used for Army Training; and the Kiryo Maru I (1984), a Japanese tuna boat which can easily be seen from Cape Vlamingh. The Heritage Trail brochure provides detailed histories of the wrecks and a map indicating where each one now lies. It can be downloaded at http://museum.wa.gov.au/sites/default/files/Rottnest.pdf.


Other Attractions in the Area

Aboriginal Explanation for Rottnest Island
In 1979 the Western Australian Aboriginal poet and playwright, Jack Davis, incorporated the story of the origin of Rottnest into his play Kullark. The story of the origin of the Perth basin, the Darling Ranges and Rottnest Island is told by the character Yagan as a song of creation:

You came, Warrgul, 
With a flash of fire and a thunder roar, 
And as you came 
You flung the earth up to the sky, 
You formed the mountain ranges 
And the undulating plains. 
You made a home for me 
On Kargattup and Karta Koomba, 
Kargattup and 
Karta Koomba. 
You made the beeyol beeyol, 
The wide clear river, 
As you travelled onward to the sea. 
And as you went into the sunset 
Two rocks you left to mark your passing, 
To tell of your returning 
And our affinity.

Checking out the Quokkas
One of the great attractions of Rottnest Island are the quokkas who, apart from giving the island its name, are commonplace and easily sighted, particularly in the early morning and late afternoon. The word 'quokka' is a Noongar name for these small wallabies. It comes from the people who lived around Augusta and King George Sound. They are characterised by thick, greyish brown hair, a brown face and black eyes and a black nose. Like all marsupials they are suckled in a pouch where they remain for about three months. There are currently around 12,000 on the island. They are attracted to the camping and accommodation areas. For more detailed information check out http://www.rottnestisland.com/the-island/about-the-island/quokkas-and-wildlife

Check out the Birdlife
Being an island with a number of lakes, Rottnest is a popular breeding ground for coastal birds. Twitchers can expect to see the pied cormorant, osprey, pied oystercatcher, silver gull, crested tern, fairy tern, bridled tern, rock parrot, reef heron, red-necked avocet, banded stilt, ruddy turnstone, curlew sandpiper, red-capped dotterel, Australian shelduck, red-necked stint, grey plover, white-fronted chat, Caspian tern and the crested tern. The island is an important breeding area which supports populations of the fairy terns (200-300 breeding pairs), over 1% of the non-breeding population of banded stilts (with up to 20,000 birds) and significant numbers of wedge-tailed shearwaters and red-necked stints. There is detailed information on the Birds of Rottnest Island at http://www.rottnestisland.com/the-island/about-the-island/quokkas-and-wildlife.



* Prior to the arrival of Europeans the island, known as Wadjempu, was inhabited by the Noongar Aboriginal people.

* As recently as the last Ice Age (7,000 years ago) Rottnest Island were connected to the mainland. 

* The Dutch ships which sailed the Roaring Forties were aware of Rottnest Island as early as 1619. The island was uninhabited by this time.

* By 1658 Dutch sailors from the Waeckende Boey had landed on the island.

* In 1681 an English sailor, John Daniel, recorded the existence of the island.

* In  1696-1697 Willem de Vlamingh mistook the quokkas for rats and named the island 'Rat's Nest Island" or, in Dutch, Rotte nest Island. 

* Nicholas Baudin explored the island in 1801. 

* The French explorer Louis de Freycinet explored the island in 1803.

* On his circumnavigation of the continent, Phillip Parker King reached the island in 1822. 

* The island was explored in Captain James Stirling in 1827.

* When the Swan River colony was established in 1829 there was a serious attempt to settle a community on the island. 

* By 1830 there were a few farmers on the island.

* In 1831 the town of Kingston was proclaimed. Thomson Bay was named after Robert Thomson who took up land on the island in 1831. 

* By 1838 Rottnest Island had become a prison for Aborigines from all over Western Australia. 

* Robert Thomson surrendered his land holdings in 1839 and was the last person to privately own land on the island. 

* In 1842 the two-masted schooner, Transit, struck Duck Rock and sank. It was the first wreck off the coast of the island.

* By 1844 there were 20 Aboriginal prisoners on the island.

* In 1848 Rottnest became a pilot station for Fremantle. 

* In 1856 fire destroyed a number of prison buildings.

* "The Quod" was built on the island in 1863.

* In 1881 a reformatory for boys was built near The Quod.

* A submarine cable from Cottesloe was laid in 1900.

* Rottnest remained a prison for Aborigines until 1903.

* In World War I the island was used as an internment camp for German and Austrian prisoners.

* During World War II, with the threat of invasion down the coast a real possibility, Rottnest became a military post. It was also used as an internment camp for Italian prisoners.

* Rottnest was declared an A-class reserve in 1917.

* The Rottnest prison was closed in 1931.

* In 1955 a huge bushfire raged across nearly two-thirds of the island.

* In 1971 the first Aboriginal prisoner skeletons were discovered on the island. Over 370 had been buried on the island.

* In 2015 a memorial remembering the Aboriginal prisoners who died on the island was unveiled.


Visitor Information

Rottnest Island Visitor Centre, Thomson Bay, tel: (08) 9372 9732. Open seven days from 7.15 am - 5.30 pm.


Useful Websites

There is an excellent official website. Check out http://www.rottnestisland.com

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