Rediscovering Rotto – Rottnest Island, Perth, Western Australia, Australia

Rediscovering Rotto
Rottnest Island, Western Australia

Rocky Bay

Rocky Bay
Photo by Danielle Prowse

There are easier ways than swimming to get to Rottnest Island from Perth. By light aircraft it takes 15 minutes, by high-speed ferry 30 minutes, and by small boat 45 minutes.

Nevertheless, once yearly, in late February, packs of swimmers set off solo or relay-style in duo/quad teams. Aided by paddlers and support boats to keep them on course, the 20-kilometre stretch between “Cott” and “Rott” boils with activity.

The solo women’s record stands at 4 hours/10 minutes/3 seconds, 10 minutes behind the men’s at 4 hours/0 minutes/15 seconds. Our quad team does it in double that.

Wild and woolly seas prevented us from starting in 2003. In 2002 we battled stingers, seasickness and sunburn. In 2001 the boat broke down. Who knows what is in store for us in 2004?

Whatever happens I’ll come back with a bag full of stories to recount – like that of the 66-year-old man who celebrated his birthday by doing the swim. He had been swimming for around 13 hours and could barely walk once he reached the shore.

Then there was the blind swimmer who was guided across by his paddler blowing a whistle. And the bloke from the bush who trained by swimming around his rainwater tank. And the fellow who did the butterfly, all the way across because “it felt good.”

When it is not playing host to the largest open water swim in the world, Rotto welcomes tourists, daytrippers and holidaying sandgropers. They flock there for the laid back atmosphere – surfing, snorkelling, swimming and scuba diving.

It was known as wadjemup or “place across the water” to the local Aboriginal people and rotte nest or “rat’s nest” to Dutch explorers. It has served as an Aboriginal penal settlement, an internment camp during the world wars, a military installation in World War II, and a summer residence for State Governors in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Eleven kilometres long and covering 1,900 hectares, it is very easy to find solitude once you leave the main settlement of Thomson Bay. Well, away from other humans at least. Quokkas, conversely, are a dime a dozen.

Mistaken for rats by early Dutch explorers, the lack of feral animals ensures these marsupials have the run of the island. Supposedly nocturnal, they are actually quite easy to spot, scampering under bushes in the daylight hours as well. In fact, one of their favourite hangouts is the Rottnest Island Hotel, a veritable menagerie with quokkas under the tables, emus above it (Emu Bitter, that is) and the odd peacock strolling around.

Dusk sees the emergence of many more quokkas – joeys too, never straying far from their protective mums. Except in the case of one joey we spotted dashing about chasing birds away – much like their human counterparts.

From the Bathurst Point Lighthouse at the top of the Thomson Bay settlement, the view stretches across the ocean to the Perth skyscrapers. Seeing them, the heart gladdens knowing you have escaped the rat race, even for a day.

The Basin swimming spot

The Basin swimming spot
Photo by Danielle Prowse

Down from the lighthouse, the sandy white beach stretching from end to end of The Basin offers the perfect vantage point to catch some rays, while deciding whether to snorkel or swim.

Around the corner you’ll find the welcoming waters of Longreach Bay, another ideal swimming and snorkelling spot. Let the gentle waves carry you around by the million-dollar yachts moored close to the shore. Lose yourself in the reverie of one being yours – one day.

The Basin and Longreach Bay are only two of 20 bays around the island featured in a Snorkeller’s Guide, available at the Visitor and Information Centre in the main settlement. For those who want to get down in amongst it all, there is a multitude of diving operators in Perth offering trips to Rottnest as well as one on Rottnest itself.

“The best dive location of any capital city in Australia” seems quite a high accolade, but my diving instructor assured me it was quite definitely the case. Mention Rottnest and his eyes would light up as he started waxing lyrical. In this marine reserve you have myriad species of temperate and tropical fish, limestone reefs comprising soft and hard corals, sponges, shipwrecks and cavern diving.

Rottnest is car-free, leaving the roads for buses, bicycles and quokkas. Even the police are on treddles. The hop on/hop off Bayseeker bus runs clockwise to 16 points around the island ferrying surfers, snorkellers and leisure-seekers to their chosen destinations. It costs $7.00 for adults and $3.50 for children up to 12 years of age.

At Stop 10 down towards the West End, you will find a real treat, Rocky Bay. Picture a deserted stretch of pristine beach, sparkling ocean sprinkled with moored boats, and a flock of birds bathing in the breaking waves on the shore.

At the southern end is Abraham Point from where, after clambering to the top, you have postcard-perfect views across Rocky Bay to your right and Marjorie Bay to your left. Maybe you will even spot the two chairs table set in a cave in Marjorie Bay so placed, no doubt, to take in those splendid West Australian sunsets over a bottle of Margaret River wine.

Enjoying a coldie at the Quokka Arms

Enjoying a coldie at the Quokka Arms
Photo by Danielle Prowse

If you are on a day trip, before leaving be sure not to miss a session at the Rottnest Island Hotel, aka Quokka Arms. Looking out over the bay from the beer garden with a middy in hand, it is easy to lose track of time, your worries and woes.

If you are staying for a long time, the Rottnest Island Authority (RIA) offers units, villas and bungalows. Otherwise, you can choose the Rottnest Hotel, Rottnest Lodge, Kingstown Barracks YHA, or bring along a tent to pitch in the camping area.

Getting There
Oceanic Cruises
Telephone: 08-9430 5127

Rottnest Express
Telephone: 08-9335 6406

More Information

Rottnest Island Visitor Information Centre
Telephone: 08-9372 9752