Rottnest Island: Knowing the good life

By Fleur Bainger 27 June 2014
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History, nature and tourism collide on unique Rottnest Island, a long-time favourite with West Australian holidaymakers.

IT’S 3.30PM ON ROTTNEST ISLAND and rush hour is in full swing. Like a river running downhill, hoards of daytrippers wheel their bikes towards the last ferry, backpacks slung over skin smeared with sunscreen, their hair encrusted with salt and their thongs scuffing the jetty.

With a loud rev the boat is away, leaving a frothy trail behind as it starts the 90-minute journey back to Perth via Fremantle. Calm immediately blankets the island and those left behind bask in the fading light. People cluster on the sand, clinking glasses, erupting into laughter; teens play cards on picnic tables as ­wallaby-like quokkas sniff at their feet; couples gaze over their books at the metropolis on the horizon; sea lions roll on the sand and ospreys glide into their giant nests.

With no cars to be heard or seen, the scene is reminiscent of another era and its charm has stolen West Australian hearts for generations. Rottnest Island is a place where past and present overlap, where nature and people coexist. Known to locals as ‘Rotto’, the former labour camp for Aboriginals, boys’ reformatory and prisoner-of-war camp is as much a part of WA’s cultural history as mines, colourful entrepreneurs and untouched beaches. Its strange name – translated to mean rat’s nest – can be attributed to 17th-century Dutch explorers, who mistook the native quokkas for cat-sized rats.

Today, some carefully preserved, treasured buildings, which date back to the 1840s, are in everyday use, and Rottnest’s ­wildlife is so well protected that even ­wedding bouquets have to be approved. Such strict measures are in place to prevent pests being introduced into the precious ecosystem.

“Rottnest is a good blast from the past,” says Peter ‘Pedro’ Minekus, one of the few people permitted to live on the island, a privilege extended only to certain employees by the Rottnest Island Authority, a statutory body that manages the island and reports to WA’s minister for tourism. Private land ownership has been prohibited on Rottnest since 1839 and the resident population fluctuates from 150 to 200. Having spent 33 of his 50 years deliberately marooned here, Pedro, who works at the general store, is its longest-serving inhabitant.

“There’s nowhere like Rottnest; it’s really unique,” he says. “I meet people from all around the world and they’re just gobsmacked.”

Pedro’s home is a small, heritage-listed shack and he says Rottnest’s “back to basics” style is what makes it special. “It’s the simple life; kids can walk around freely,” he says. “The super-market still does home delivery and we’ll even put your groceries in the fridge.”

Boat skipper Sarah Ellis-Stott has a name for residents such as Pedro and herself. “We call the long-timers ‘the abalone’: they get stuck on the rock,” she says, smiling. Thirty-something Sarah has lived and worked here on and off since she was 18: first, she was at the bakery, then with the ranger’s team; now she runs her own canary-yellow charter boat. A devoted water lover, Sarah takes snorkellers to frolic with playful sea lions in transparent waters during the sunny tourist season, from ­September to November.

“Rotto is my favourite place in the world,” she says, enthusiastically. “I’m amazed that such a special natural place can exist so close to WA’s capital city.”

Developments in Rottnest

Rottnest has been referred to as “the brick on Fremantle’s doorstep”, thanks to the number of ships wrecked on its reefs. But so many sandgropers have passed carefree childhood holidays combing its 63 sandy beaches – or pedal-pushing along scrubby, limestone ridges – that it’s held in great affection. So keen are people to maintain Rottnest’s simplicity that saltwater showers in the visitor accommodation were only upgraded to freshwater in the 1990s and televisions weren’t introduced to rooms until 2007. About 500,000 people visit each year and nearly half of those have been to Rottnest 10 or more times.

“West Australians are very attached to Rottnest,” says Dirk Hessels. “That’s why every time [the authority] wants to develop something, people are against it. They want to leave it as is.”

Dirk, 83, has visited Rottnest every year since 1951, when he first started diving and fishing in its waters. “If you don’t like swimming and fishing, Rottnest isn’t the island for you. There’s no nightclub,” he says. “When I was younger, we’d see millions of crayfish in very shallow water. We’d put heaps of them in the boat, and we’d spear kingfish, grouper and snapper.”

The warm (23°C in summer, 19°C in winter) Leeuwin Current, which flows south around Rottnest, means diverse coral gardens and more than 130 tropical fish species can survive in this southern reach of the Indian Ocean. In contrast, the wider region’s coastal waters only support 11 tropical fish species.

In deeper waters, crayfish thrive in an undersea trench known as the Perth Canyon, a place where blue whales come to feed on shrimp and humpbacks pass by on their annual migration. Closer to Rottnest’s shores, large seagrass meadows provide habitat for hundreds of other species. Seven marine sanctuary zones have been set up to protect them and form part of the island’s 3800ha of marine reserve.

The island was proclaimed an A-class reserve in 1917 and the RIA is “committed to striving to achieve sustainability in line with its vision that Rottnest Island is a model of ethical tourism based on financial, environmental and social sustainability”.

Roland Mau took over the management of the island’s land and ocean life a decade ago, the same year he proposed to his wife at one of Rottnest’s secluded bays. Employed by the RIA, Roland manages the island’s marine and terrestrial reserves. He and his staff walk the tightrope between protecting the environment and allowing visitors to enjoy it.

“I’ve found you can strike a balance,” he says. “It’s the playground of people in Perth but they’ve got a really strong sense of ownership over it.”

Aside from introducing environmentally friendly boat moorings, overseeing forest revegetation and building eco ­boardwalks that make coastal rehabilitation possible, Roland’s current ­projects include the Coastal Walk Trail.

Work on this $8 million, 50km track began in July 2013 and, when finished, it will circumnavigate the island via numerous points of historical and ecological interest. Part of its purpose is to conserve native habitat by keeping walkers to designated areas. “We’re hoping it’ll become a world-renowned walking trail,” Roland says. “It will combine inland trails and historical sites, and link up old farms and culturally significant Aboriginal sites.”

History and significance of Rottnest Island

ROTTNEST HAS NO SHORTAGE of significant sites. The island was part of the WA mainland 7500 years ago, during the most recent Ice Age, and artefacts discovered suggest Aboriginal people could walk back and forth across a land bridge before sea levels rose about 7000 years ago. ­

Harriet Wyatt, the RIA’s manager of cultural heritage services, says that a chert-flake cutting tool found here is 27,000 years old. “It’s significant because there’s no chert deposit on the island. It had to be brought from elsewhere,” she adds.

European settlement began in 1829. Rottnest was used to farm everything from livestock and grains to tobacco and fruit, and salt was harvested from its saline lakes. A decade later, it was transformed into an Aboriginal penal colony, where some 3700 men and boys were imprisoned during the century that followed.
Harriet believes the prisoners were chosen by the authorities with the aim of destroying indigenous communities.

“There’s historical evidence that the men brought here were leaders – medicine men and law men,” she says. Prisoners were forced into hard labour, quarrying stone and constructing most of the ­colonial buildings found in Thomson Bay. Hundreds died and were buried here and it’s thought that Rottnest accounts for more Aboriginal deaths in custody than any other site in Australia.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the Rottnest Island Reformatory for boys was opened next to the prison. The prison was closed in 1904, although prisoners were used to build roads and other projects until 1931.

After the last inmates moved off the island in the 1930s, it started to become a leisure destination. The change in purpose was signified by the painting over of the blindingly white lime wash on the buildings with the peach-ochre hue that’s now ­synonymous with Rottnest’s historical buildings.

During both world wars, the island was commandeered by Australian defence forces; in World War I it was used as an internment camp: in World War II it was developed as a fortress to protect Fremantle until the focus of defence activities moved north – the remnant cannons and barracks are now tourist attractions. All recreational activity was suspended in 1940 until 1945.

After the war, the military units were disbanded and, by April 1945, all Thomson Bay buildings had been vacated by the military except the bakehouse and garage. About 200 Italian internees were sent to the island for four months to carry out repairs and renovations. In 1967, the army returned most of its landholdings on Rottnest to the WA government.

The boys’ reformatory was converted to accommodation and the governor’s summer residence became a pub. The prisoners’ quarters, known as The Quod, are used as holiday accommodation, but, before 2018, the RIA will take them back for historical preservation. Despite Rottnest’s difficult history, Harriet believes the merging of past and present is an asset. “It’s not like a museum where things are all shut up. The history is accessible and open.”

Environmental conservation in Rottnest Island

HISTORY’S OTHER LEGACY is Rottnest’s ­environmental degradation. Native woodlands were cleared and, in order to revegetate, the RIA now runs a nursery, manned by volunteers, where thousands of seedlings are being grown for restoration of the dunes and woodlands.

In another case of past and present intermingling, inmates from Bunbury Prison propagate woodland seeds collected on the island. In 2013, 20,000 trees were planted. Ironically, the quokka, another island icon, is often responsible for eating seedlings – posing a threat while simultaneously being protected because of its “vulnerable” status. After cats were eradicated in 2000, numbers have recovered. But they still fluctuate, so studies are under way to find out more about the animal.

Meanwhile, other research studies are probing topics as diverse as visitor interaction with seal colonies, the island’s osprey nests (the RIA says one at Salmon Point is about 70 years old), rock lobster movements and the visitation of wedge-tailed shearwaters, or ­mutton-birds, which breed in a colony of burrows on the island’s windy western tip.

“We have to manage this place for recreation and conservation,” Roland says. “So we ask, ‘To what degree can you do that without impacting on the environment?’”

Much of the environmental monitoring is conducted by volunteers and their goodwill extends to the preservation of Rottnest’s culture. Wearing their signature yellow T-shirts, guides take the ferry across the channel each day to give free tours of the points of interest.

Richard Fox, 70, helped start the Volunteer Guides Association in 1986. Today it has 300 members. “It’s just another way of sharing in the island, it’s a privilege to do that,” Richard says. His father worked variously as Rottnest’s relief lighthouse keeper, postmaster and island manager. Richard has observed many changes over the decades but most alarming to him was former WA premier Brian Burke’s desire to “turn Rottnest into a Club Med-style place”.

Rallying against the plans, Richard’s resolve to continue running the free tours was cemented. “One way of protecting the place is to show people what’s there,” he says. “If people know birds fly in from Siberia to be here, they’re more likely to want to keep it how it is.”

Visiting Rottnest

Some of Rottnest’s charm lies in the fact that it is virtually car free; other than a few island staff, people use bikes to get around. Jody McDonald manages the island’s bike hire, a business that operates out of a tin shed. In peak season, about 700 of the 1300 bikes are used daily – including tandems and child trailers that parents attach to the rear of their cycles. Jody moved from what she now calls “the big island” to Rottnest more than two years ago, when she made a spartan WWII-era cottage her home.

“[The island] teaches you how nice it is to live so simply,” she says, adding that her commute to work takes just one minute. “It’s about being in a pristine environment and not having a care in the world.”

Her father, Des Dans, was a former tourism minister, so her childhood was filled with regular visits to Rottnest, a custom that Jody continued with her own children.

“We’re happy it hasn’t been totally commercialised,” she says. “There are no high-rise buildings. You don’t have to have a lot of money to come here… Just 25 minutes [from Fremantle] and you’re in a different world.”

The cost of holidaying on Rottnest is a hotly debated issue and West Australians claim it is moving beyond their reach. Ferry tickets for a day trip cost $75 for a standard adult pass. Built into that is a $16.50 contribution to the RIA – more for extended stays – to cover the expense of running an island independently of the mainland. Electricity, water and sewage are all handled on site, largely using eco-friendly strategies, such as a wind turbine and desalination plant. Only rubbish is shipped off the island, much of it for recycling.

Paolo Amaranti, the RIA’s chief executive, is accustomed to – and perhaps a little tired of – defending the price of a Rottnest holiday. Maintaining the island’s strict environmental standards while developing tourism is undoubtedly a key driver of prices. The state government provides $3 million each year, which Paolo says all goes to Roland’s environment team. Funding for the island’s utilities and 50km of roads has to be raised through other means. It’s a non-negotiable reality, he says.

Efforts have been made to provide visitors with better value for money – accommodation and campsite upgrades are ongoing, new events are being added to the calendar and, this year, free wi-fi has been introduced. Public signage is planned to thank people for their contribution to the running of the island and to explain where the money goes.

However, in mid-October, the RIA board proposed that the authority withdraw from all commercial operations on the island, a suggestion backed by the WA Tourism Council. The government is yet to respond and the board will make its plan available for public comment before there are any changes.

Paolo believes visitor numbers, which have varied from 450,000 to 550,000 a year in the past decade, will grow as more accommodation, a new camping ground, marina and golf course are developed.

“The aim is to increase visitor numbers by 20,000 per year, but not in peak periods,” he says, adding that Rottnest’s major asset is its peace and quiet, and the way it combines a major tourist attraction with a nature reserve.

And he’s not wrong. The deep affection that the island inspires is perhaps best summed up by UK expat Harriet. “Rottnest offers so many different things to so many different people,” she says. “You feel a million miles away from home, but you’re not. It’s like a jewel: it’s multifaceted, and no matter which way you turn it, there’s more to see.”


The full story can be found in Australian Geographic #118.