Rottnest Island

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Australia is a biologically distinct continent with many species of both plant and animal life that live nowhere else in the world. These include, of course, the kangaroo, the wallaby, the koala, the Tasmanian devil, the emu, and a wide variety of snakes and insects.

Some of these flora and fauna are particularly limited in their range. One of these is the quokka, a small marsupial about the size of a large cat that looks something like a miniature kangaroo.  The quokka is found only in Western Australia, and only in a limited range in the southwest of the state.

The quokka, a rare marsupial found only in Western Australia

The largest population group, estimated to be between 8,000-12,000 is on Rottnest Island. A smaller group of up to 1000 live on Bald Island near Albany. And about 4000 live on the mainland in scattered colonies in the Margaret River region.

Rottnest got its name because in 1696 the Dutch explorer, Willem de Vlamingh, thought the creatures were rats and called the island Rotte Nest (rat’s nest). Its native name is Wadjemup.

Today Rottnest Island is a nature preserve with about 100 permanent residents, but it is one of the most popular destinations for tourists with around 500,000 visitors annually. It can be reached by high speed passenger ferries from downtown Perth, Fremantle, North Fremantle and Hillarys Boat Harbour. Visitors are not restricted to day visits as there is a hotel on the island as well as cabins for rent.

One of the fast ferries to Rottnest Island

The island lies 18 kilometres off the coast from Fremantle. The nineteen square kilometre island has three plant species endemic to the island including the Rottnest Island Pine. The only predators that prey on quokkas on Rottnest are snakes, including the poisonous dugite. The mainland population was decimated with the introduction of dogs, cats and foxes.

The fast ferries land at a pier in Thomson Bay. On shore you’ll find the visitor center and a small collection of shops and restaurants. You can walk to many of the sites popular with visitors or you can book a bus tour of the island. You can also rent Segways, take guided walking tours and even board a small train.

On both of our visits we opted to walk around taking in the scenery before embarking on a bus trip to the other end of the island.

Walking along the streets around Thomson Bay

Our first priority was to see a quokka and we did not have to wait long. They are everywhere. They are not afraid of people and it is easy to approach them, though feeding them is prohibited. Local businesses sometimes find them a nuisance and one shop featured a sign with a stylized picture of a quokka with a “No” slash across it.

Daughter Sarah petting a quokka while Janis snaps a photo

Not far from the town is the Bathhurst Lighthouse, one of two on the island. The lighthouse overlooks a spectacular beach and the shoreline is a beautiful melange of sea and wind sculpted rock.

The sculpted shoreline near the Bathurst Lighthouse
Janis and Sarah on the beach near the Bathurst Lighthouse

The island has a varied history. It was at one time a penal colony, a military installation, and an internment camp for enemy prisoners during both World Wars. The island also has several salt lakes and was, at one time, the largest producer of salt in Western Australia.

The penal colony was used to house Aboriginal prisoners and closed in 1902. About 3700 prisoners aged from eight to seventy had been housed there over the lifetime of the colony. 369 died there including five who were hanged.

Lomas Cottage was used to house just one prisoner, John Lomas. His is an unusual story.

After exploring the area between the dock and the lighthouse, we hopped on the bus that takes you around the island. It’s a hop on, hop off affair with a number of stops along the way. We were only there for a day each time so we got off at the far end of the island near Cape Vlamingh.

This is a spectacular venue where you easily spend a couple of hours enjoying the scenery and wildlife. There are two sites to visit here. One is Cathedral Rocks. These are a series of small rocky islands just offshore that are home to a colony of New Zealand fur seals.

New Zealand fur seals on the Cathedral rocks

These playful creatures love to frolic in the water, often swimming on their backs with their flippers in the air, doing rolls and otherwise cavorting in the waves. We also saw a king’s skink on one occasion.

Cavorting for the tourists

A few hundred yards away is Cape Vlamingh. A wooden boardwalk leads to a lookout that commands a spectacular view of Fish Hook Bay as well as the open ocean at the west end of the island. The surf is strong here with rolling breakers crashing on the reefs and pounding through various nooks and fissures carved into the shoreline.

Surf crashing onto the shore at Cape Vlamingh

After catching the next bus back, we headed along the north shore of the island, passing the Wadjemup Lighthouse and the salt lakes before arriving back at the town.

One of the salt lakes with the Wadjemup Lighthouse in the background

In town we passed the old salt house, once a center of commerce on the island. And we passed the Rottnest Island Hotel, which used to be the summer home of the Governor of Western Australia.

The Rottnest Island Hotel

We decided to have lunch at one of the restaurants on the island on our first trip. The cafe had netting surrounding the large patio to keep quokkas out. While we were eating, the little fellahs would poke their noses up to the netting at our feet begging for handouts. One managed to get through the netting at one end and a waitress spent some time chasing the critter around trying to shoo him out. I asked her why she didn’t just pick the animal up and carry him out since they were relatively tame. She replied that it’s best not to touch them as they can carry salmonella. Oops – we had petted one earlier. Good thing we washed our hands!

This restaurant’s patio is surrounded by netting to keep the quokkas out.
But that didn’t deter them from visiting diners seated near the edge of the patio. I think they know how cute they are and use it to advantage.

On our second trip to Rottnest we encountered a special treat along the shore of Thomson Bay. Lots of boats tie up here, and the beach is popular with tourists. We saw a bit of a commotion nearby and went to check it out. It seems a stingray had swum right up to the shore, which amused a crowd of onlookers.

A tourist checks out this stingray that swam up to the edge of the beach.

There is a lot more to see and do on Rottnest and one could easily spend a week or two here checking it out. There are, in fact, 37 beaches on Rottnest. There are two military installations with  fortifications and big guns at Oliver Hill and Bickley Point, both open to visitors. There is a golf course and a wind turbine. And there are lots of cabins as well as campgrounds and the hotel for visitors wanting to stay longer. It even has an airport if you’d rather fly in.

A wildlife refuge and a summer playground, as well as a step back into history, Rottnest is a terrific venue for the explorer. Check out the additional photo galleries linked below as well as the official Rottnest Island website. You can just scroll down to the photo galleries if you are on the front page.

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Photo Gallery: Rottnest Island East End

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Here are some additional photos from the East End of Rottnest Island.

Overlooking Pinky Beach from the Bathurst Lighthouse
The Bathurst Lighthouse
Sculptured shoreline near the Bathurst Lighthouse
Some local residences on Rottnest Island. Some are available as rentals.
No quokkas allowed! 
Perth seen from Rottnest Island, 19 kilometres away.
Salmon Bay – actually not east end but more like the middle of the island.
The Wadjemup Lighthouse is also in the middle of the island overlooking Salmon Bay to the south. This photo is taken from the salt lakes west of the lighthouse.
The old salt store on Rottnest Island
Some outdoor seating near the Rottnest Island Hotel
Sarah and Janis head down to the beach on Thomson Bay
Lots of boats are moored on the bay.
Checking out the stingray that swam up.
The stingray
And a last look at one of those cute little quokkas!

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Photo Gallery: Rottnest Island West End

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Here are some additional photos from the west end of Rottnest Island including the Cathedral Rocks and Cape Vlamingh.

Janis and Sarah checking out the seals at Cathedral Rocks
Seals at Cathedral Rocks
A seal shows off
A king’s skink
Closer look at the king’s skink
Fish Hook Bay
Janis and I at Cape Vlamingh
Waves crashing through a rock cavern
Rock formations and waves


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