There are few destinations in Western Australia that are more iconic than Rottnest Island.
Generations of locals have travelled over to Rotto to enjoy the pristine beaches and the relative peace and quiet that comes with only a small number of vehicles permitted on the roads.
Trvelling to the island by ferry is the option most people choose and departures are from Perth City, Fremantle and Hillarys boat harbour.
Three different companies operate ferries and at the time of writing, a return ticket will cost around $60 per person from Hillarys, $78 from Perth and $53 from Fremantle. This includes the island admission fee.
The increase in the number of up-market facilities on the island has seen a corresponding rise in the cost of renting accommodation.
The cheapest accommodation on the island is a tent campsite that will set you back about $40.
Budget shared accommodation starts at $57 a night and from there prices rocket up into the hundreds of dollars per night.
Bike hire on the island is $30 a day but if you don't fancy putting that much effort into getting around, you can use the local shuttle bus between Kingston, Thomson Bay and Geordies or the Rottnest Explorer that does a circuit of the island every 45 minutes.
The shuttle is just $3 a day and runs every 30 minutes. The explorer is a hop on, hop off service that you can use to visit a number of different destinations around the island. The ticket is valid for the day and costs $20 or $15 on concession.
You can always take your own bike or scooter across on the ferry but of course that will add to the cost of your ferry ticket.
The first building you encounter as you leave the ferry is the visitors centre. You can get a map and book tours there and if you are waiting to check in to your accommodation and have luggage, then you can hire a locker to hold your bulky bags and cases until the 2pm check in time.
The cost of the lockers varies depending on the size and if the wifi system is down, you will need coins that can be sourced from the visitor centre.
Be aware that the machines in the locker area DO NOT GIVE CHANGE so make sure you put in the correct amount only.
It is only a short walk from the visitor centre up to the heart of the main settlement where you will find a well stocked general store and an excellent bakery.
Prices for groceries and hot food are not as exorbitant as we had anticipated and we managed to have a nice roast chicken lunch with roast vegetables and chips for less than $10 a head.
There are a number of different restaurants available in the settlement BUT for whatever reason the shuttle service ends at 7pm, so you need to have had you meal and be ready to travel back to any accommodation outside the settlement by that time or you will be walking or riding a bike back.
We think that the service would be much more useful if it ended at 9 or even 10pm.
If you stay out at Geordie or Fay's bays then you will be close to a second general store that is also well stocked and will be able to provide for most of your needs during your stay. Both stores also sell alcohol.
The restaurant at Geordie Bay is reasonably priced for main meals and we found the quality of the food to be very good.
Despite gates around most eateries and stores that are meant to keep the local quokkas out, you will find that these hungry critters have no problem bypassing these supposed obstacles and will be busy looking for scraps that have fallen from diners' tables and in some cases begging for food.
It is illegal to feed the quokkas or to touch them or interfere with them in any way. Large on the spot fines are issued for anyone who is found ignoring the rules.
Free wifi is available in most settlement areas but we found the signal in our accommodation was a bit dodgy at times.
Rottnest has a lot to offer and today seems to be one of the happiest places in all of W.A. It does, however, have a dark and troublesome history as it was at one time used as a prison. There is a lot more to the Rottnest story than the lovely tranquil tourist mecca you see today.
If you would like to find out more about the dark history of Rottnest keep reading.
A DARK HISTORY
The first Europeans to sight the island were on board the Waeckende Boey captained by Samuel Volkerson in 1658.
He was searching for the lost ship De Vergulde Draeck when he chanced across the island. He wrote the following in his log:
'nearly 32 degrees south latitude there is a large island nearly 3 leagues from the continent with some rather high mountains covered with woods and thickets'...'It is dangerous to land there on
account of the reefs or rocks along the coast.'
Volkersen did not name the island and sailed to the mainland in search of the lost ship. During the search 14 men were lost when a boat went ashore and did not return. (See the full story
on the Leeman page.)
Volkerson isn't the name most associated with the island however. That honour has gone to Willem Vlamingh who arrived off the west coast in 1696.
It is popularly believed that the island was named Rottenest in 1696 by Willem Vlamingh who decided that
the local Quokka's were in fact large rats. According to one source, a search of Vlamingh's log reveals no such name. His reference to the island is 'saqen het mist eilandt' which translates as 'saw
island of mist.' A French translator mistook mist for miss and the island was known for a while in France as the Island of Girls - perhaps resulting in a number of enquiries about using it as a base
for the Foreign Legion.
It was in the log of one of the accompanying ships, the Nyjptangh (Nipper), that we find the name Rottenest or Rats Nest Island.
De Vlamingh's log talks about the island as follows:
'I felt great pleasure in admiring the island, which is a very pleasant place. Here it seems nature has spared nothing to render this isle delightful above all others I have ever seen. It is well disposed
for the support of man, having wood and stone and lime for building houses, and wanting only labourers to cultivate these fine plains where one finds salt in abundance, while the coast swarms with fish.
There one hears the chatter of birds, which makes these odorous woods resound with their sweet songs.'
The word odorous is a bit misleading as in English it tends to mean smelly, De Vlamingh actually meant perfumed.
After Vlamingh left it was to be over a century before Frenchman Captain Hamelin arrived aboard the Naturaliste and sent a landing party to the island.
The island was known as 'Wadjemup' (land across the sea) by the local Aborigines. Some 7,000 years ago it is presumed that the island was connected to the mainland as ancient Aboriginal
artefacts were found there, but Aborigines on the mainland did not have the technology to get there at the time of European settlement.
In 1831 the town site of Kingston was surveyed on Rottnest and 177 lots offered for sale. Even though some land was taken up and a fishing venture established, it didn't last.
One source says that the island was settled in 1838 but another source says 1831. Lots were initially taken up on the island in 1831 by R.M. Lyon, C. Northcote and D. Scott but actual
settlement did not occur at that time. In 1838 it was decided to use the island as a prison.
Robert Thomson, his wife and 11 children took up residence on the island reputedly to escape the attentions of hostile Aborigines on the mainland.
The venture, like others was not a success and when numbers of sheep began to die, Thomson petitioned the Governor to buy him out and was offered 100 pounds which he refused.
On the 17th of August 1838, Constable Laurence Welch left Garden island in an open boat with 10 Aboriginal prisoners headed for Rottnest.
A journey of some 12 miles on the open ocean was extremely dangerous but Welch and his charges arrived unharmed, much to the displeasure of Robert Thomson.
The island was now a gazetted prison used mainly to hold Aboriginal prisoners. 'Murphy's law' being what it is, a prison for Aborigines was built on the island and five (one source says two)
escaped by stealing Thomson's boat, that was subsequently wrecked.
The Aborigines had been chained to a tree which they simply burned down. To be fair to Welch, he was sent to the island with little in the way of resources and supplies and had to spend his
initial nights sleeping in a cave.
One of the escapees drowned during the crossing to the mainland but the others tried to make made good their escape. The drowned man was part of the Swan River tribe and they became
convinced that the other escapees had murdered him. In accordance with tribal payback law they tracked the remaining four down and killed one, the others fleeing for their lives.
Thomson now took the opportunity to berate the authorities for his misfortune but they responded by saying he was lax with the security of his boat and it was his fault the escape had taken
place. Not put off, he persisted and eventually got 10 pounds for his loss. Thomson eventually got a reasonable price for his holdings on Rottnest when the Government paid him 600 pounds
and gave him title to land on the mainland.
Very few people could gain permission to land on the island and permits were issued to the few who did manage to gain admittance. It was presumed, correctly, that if the Aborigines had
no access to boats then there could be no escape. Despite the restrictions, in 1839 there was another escape from the island and Welch was promptly transferred to the mainland.
Henry Vincent then took over the island and was to oversee much building, including a summer residence for the Governor and a new gaol. The gaol was completed in 1863.
Vincent was accused of mistreatment of prisoners and even set-up by one of his own warders, but two separate enquiries failed to find any evidence of cruel or unusual punishments.
In the book 'Rottnest: Its tragedy and its glory' E.J. Watson, roundly condemns Vincent stating that it was 'conclusively proven that Henry Vincent was guilty of gross cruelty towards
the native prisoners... ...his atrocious treatment of the harmless and as a rule, good humoured natives suggest a mind so unbalanced by fear and cruelty as to be almost on the border line of insanity.'
I tend to think that historians should refrain from making judgements like this as standards and attitudes have changed so dramatically since the early days of settlement. Unfortunately much of
Watson's book (written in 1939 but only published in 1998) is filled with highly emotive language and conjecture, so much so, that it is an excellent example of how not to write a book claiming
to be factually based.
Vincent's own reports show a different side to the argument:
'July 1840: The natives are all in good health at present and do their duty very well. I have not occasion to correct one of them for a long time past. I can only speak in praise of them.'
In fact it seems as though Vincent and his wife suffered somewhat from the neglect of the authorities themselves:
'August 1840: No candles for self or troops for two months, soon as it is dark I am obliged to go to bed or sit in the dark, no boat sent over with cargo and no instructions.'
While it is true that a number of Aboriginal prisoners died while doing time on the island, they were affected more by diseases like measles, that they had no immunity to. Lack of proper sanitation
at the gaol led to further deaths from typhoid.
Rumours of mistreatment persisted and to make matters worse a sick prisoner died after being struck by Vincent's son (who had been employed as an assistant.) The son was dismissed,
charged with assault and served 3 months hard labour.
In 1849 Vincent was transferred to Fremantle Prison (presumably due to the imminent arrival of the first convicts) and during his absence many buildings fell into disrepair. He returned in 1856
but shortly afterwards a fire damaged several buildings.
The fire was started by Warder Dixon who had encouraged native prisoners to escape (in order to make life difficult for Vincent who Dixon held a grudge against) even showing the natives
where to find a file to cut their chains.
Some prisoners escaped and not knowing of the treacherous behaviour of Dixon, Vincent put him in charge of the search. When Dixon came upon the place the natives had slept the previous
night he set fire to the scrub to drive them out but the hot December wind changed direction and the fire raced back to the settlement.
During the enquiry that followed, Dixon's part in the affair was discovered and he was sentenced to three years hard labour. This was the man who gave evidence against Vincent at later enquiries.
By 1866 Vincent had been back on Rottnest for 10 years and was becoming ill himself. He applied for a 3 month leave of absence. When a medical examination found that Vincent was no longer
capable of running the gaol he was encouraged to retire.
Governor Hampton, who had until that time supported Vincent and turned a blind eye to the reports of mistreatment on
the island, now turned on his former ally with a vengeance. He recommended that Vincent's pension be cut and in the end, Vincent received less than he was entitled to. After 36 years of faithful
service and no findings against him, he retired at the age of 69 and only lived a further 2 years.
William Dockwrey Jackson took over from Vincent in 1866 and although a sailor, he was not as strict with prisoners as Vincent had been. (Jackson was later criticised for his lenient attitude.)
In 1880 a boys reformatory was constructed on the island by John Watson who was then appointed to run the institution. The reformatory operated until 1901.
Conditions at the main prison did not improve and disease was rife among the inmates. Two epidemics killed around 60 prisoners and in September 1883 a Royal Commission investigated the
conditions at the gaol and some action was taken to improve the system. The commission found that, apart from the two epidemics, the death rate of prisoners on the island was 'very low'.
Although no findings were made against Jackson's administration, it is significant that before the year was out he had been replaced by Mr. Timperley.
Because the Aborigines knew little of disease, each death was ascribed to their tribal enemies and so 'payback' was enacted. So not only were the tribes being decimated by disease, they were
then killing each other off under the tribal payback system.
Aborigines also knew little of the European legal system and in general had no concept of guilt for the crimes they had been convicted of. They even swapped their identity discs (as they also
did with clothes and food) and made identification difficult for the administration. As a result of this practice some would have served sentences that had been imposed on others.
In 1890 Timperley was replaced by Col. Edward Fox Angelo who ran the prison for 8 years until replaced by Mr. Pearce who was the last Superintendent when the native prison closed in
1903 (other sources say 1905). The last aboriginal prisoners didn't actually leave the island until 1922 and the last two European prisoners were transferred to
Fremantle Prison | in 1931.
During World War One the island was used as an internment camp for Germans and Austrians and held around 1,300 men. During the 15 months they were held, they did considerable damage to
the buildings and trees on the island.
Originally the island had been the summer retreat of a 'select few' - who slaughtered the wildlife and burned down the trees - with 'ordinary people' denied permission to land there. Gradually the
push to open the island for general recreation began. Governor Bedford suggested that the island become a public park and that none of the land should be sold or leased out. Prior to the war,
day trippers had been allowed to visit the island but still needed written permission to stay over night. Gradually facilities for visitors were developed including a tramway from the jetty to the
settlement. (This ended up being taken up and re-laid in Perth Zoo and for many years served as a ride for children.)
In 1917 the majority of the land on the island was declared an 'A' Class reserve and a board of management was appointed to manage the island.
With no money to improve facilities there was little that the board was able to do in the early years and when the idea of establishing another reformatory on the island some preliminary work was
carried out before a public outcry caused the plans to be abandoned in 1921.
The waters around Rottnest are scattered with reefs and it is a dangerous place for ships to venture. Light houses were built on the island to warn shipping but even so there are some 13 wrecks
littering the reefs around the island.
When the Lancier struck rocks in 1839 a chest containing 700 pounds was lost in several fathoms of water and to the best of our knowledge remains buried in sand to this day.
Apart from the Lancier, the ships known to have been sunk or damaged near the island include: Transit 1842, Gem 1876, Lady Elizabeth 1878, S.S. Macedon 1883,
Mira Flores 1886, Janet 1887, Denton Holme 1890, Raven 1891, City of York 1899 and S.S. Pelican 1902.
Today all manner of accommodation is available from tent sites to five star luxury. The island has a number of great swimming spots and surfing is popular on the western side. Bicycles are the
main mode of transport and the place has a wonderful laid back atmosphere.
Peak holiday season on the island can see the wrong sort of visitor arrive intent on getting drunk and causing trouble, but this is no new thing. As far back as 1923 there was a new years eve
celebration that got out of hand with around 1000 revellers getting rowdy and causing some damage to buildings and water pipes. The mob was finally dispersed by the police.
Another incident took place in 1925 when boat owners were denied access to alcohol by the police, went on a rampage damaging a great deal of public property.
In 1928 there was a scandal reported in the press about the 'Free Love League' and the corrupting of innocent young ladies. Headlines shrieked of 'Vile scenes on the Isle of Girls'.
Talk of lascivious acts and nude photography shocked polite society.
The police were called in to investigate and none of the allegations printed in the 'Truth' could be substantiated. Strange that papers with names like 'Truth' always seem to print lies.
The island is 11 Kms long and 5 Kms wide and lies 19 Kms off the coast due west of Fremantle.
In 1938 Kingston Barracks was constructed for the military near Bickley Bay. Defensive positions were built around the island and in 1940 the military took over full control for the duration of
WWII. The barracks closed in 1984.
In 1953 the old Government House was converted into a hotel and the Quokka Arms was to be a most popular watering hole from that time on.
Peak holiday times are still rowdy on the island so it is best to arrange any trips for time outside the main holidays at Christmas, New Year and Easter.
Visitors to the island now top 500,000 a year and this will eventually lead to both social and environmental problems. Unfortunately places that are pristine and picturesque attract large numbers
of people and it is these numbers that lead to the areas gradually losing their appeal.
Rottnest is positioned near the warm, south flowing, Leeuwin current. This is the longest continuous coastal current in the world
and brings warm water south allowing a blend of temperate and tropical marine life to flourish. Over 400 species of fish live in the waters
around the island and at least 135 of these species are tropical.
Australian sea lions and New Zealand fur seals both spend time on Rottnest and larger visitors such as orca, southern right whales,,
pygmy blue whales Grey's beaked whales and humpback whales all visit the waters on their annual migrations.
With over half a million visitos a year, a balance has to be struck between tourism and conservation. As a result a number of sanctuary zones
have been established around the coast with a 'no take' policy in place. This will help to ensure a healthy, thriving marine ecosystem into the future.
The French ship Geographe visited the island in 1801 and there is a legend about a duel over a woman being fought between two of the ships crew. One was said to be killed and buried on the
island and his grave is reputed to be in the island cemetery but all details on the headstone have been worn away. It is also said that the victor returned years later and left money for a headstone
to be erected.
Searches of the ship's records reveal no hint of such a duel taking place but earlier stories speak of a sword duel being fought between two officers of a Dutch ship in Vlamingh's expedition.
While it is true that one of Vlamingh's officers did not return home and no reason was given for his death, no other evidence exists to either prove or disprove the story.
Although originally mistaken for a large rat, the quokka is in fact a small wallaby. Its range once extended across the mainland but introduced pests and habitat destruction has now confined them
to islands off the coast.
The quokkas are quite tame and trusting and sadly this leads to mistreatment from a minority of stupid people.
Tall tales and true: Cat uses all nine lives.
When the cutter Gem went down near Rottnest in 1878 no sign could be found of her crew but through some extraordinary means the ships cat is said to have made it back to the mainland
and returned to her home some days after the ship sank.
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