Rotto: Island of bikes

One of my favourite places in the world is Western Australia’s Rottnest Island. It’s also one of the best places to jump on a bike…

Rottnest Island, Western Australia

Rottnest Island, Western Australia

Taking a break from pedalling, we stop on the crest of a hill and gaze out to sea. There’s the reef, the sea and the sky – a trio of intense blues, broken only by splashes of white, yachts of all shapes and sizes floating in their own patch of paradise. The view is nothing short of postcard-perfect and exactly what I’ve come to expect of Rottnest Island after only 24 hours on its shores.

Situated 19km off the coast of Perth in Western Australia, Rottnest Island is a recreational gem where visitors can relax in the sunshine or don snorkelling gear and go swimming at one of the many bays. Here most people get around by bike, whether it’s a short trip to the bakery or a longer ride to a secluded beach (with more than 60 to choose from). Public vehicles are not permitted and it’s incredibly easy to explore the entire island by bike via a 24km loop.

Rottnest Island has a diverse history, including colonial, maritime, military and Aboriginal heritage. Over 6500 years ago it was part of the mainland until rising sea levels changed the landscape. Aboriginal people named the island Wadjemup, which means ‘the place across the water’, while many West Australians affectionately refer to the island as ‘Rotto’.

We catch the ferry from Fremantle and are fortunate to have several days on Rottnest. We drop our bags at the backpacker accommodation in historic Kingstown Barracks, formerly the island’s army barracks, and set off on our bikes to explore the main settlement of Thomson Bay. En route we spot the island’s resident marsupial, a tiny quokka.

The quokka is a tiny marsupial, generally only found on Rottnest Island.

Rottnest Island resident, the quokka.

In 1696, Dutch commander William de Vlamingh mistakenly noted that that the island was inhabited by thousands of rat-like creatures, which were actually quokkas. Not desiring to stay in such a place, and presumably to warn others, he named the island ‘Rottenest’, meaning ‘rat’s nest’ and quickly departed. These days’ quokkas are a protected species and they can be spotted hiding in the tall grasses or foraging in the shade of the Rottnest Island tea-tree.

In Thomson Bay, it’s a pleasant ride along wide streets in the shade of Moreton Bay figs and olive trees. Europeans first settled here in 1829 as they were interested in salt harvesting, farming and fishing, but this was short-lived as the Crown reclaimed the land in 1839 to establish a penal settlement for Aboriginal prisoners. Back then, the distinctive orange colour of the buildings was achieved by putting rusty nails into the whitewash in an attempt to reduce the glare on the buildings.

Thomson Bay, Rottnest Island

Thomson Bay, Rottnest Island

For Aboriginal people the island is considered a place of spirits but it also holds a sad history. The prison existed for almost a century and during that time 369 Aboriginal prisoners died; their bodies lie in unmarked graves in the island’s cemetery. In the early 1900s, when the prison was closed, developments began to transform Rottnest into the recreational resort it is today. Access was restricted only briefly in 1914 and again from 1940 to 1945 when the island had a military role during the World Wars.

The following day, we set off on a leisurely ride around the island, leaving early to get a head start on day trippers arriving on the 8am ferry. The forecast is for hot weather, but a light breeze keeps us cool and the gently undulating hills don’t require much effort.

First stop is Parker Point, where we momentarily have the pristine white sands to ourselves, and then onto Little Salmon Bay for our first swim. I float over an underwater snorkel trail – a series of 10 plaques explaining Life Below – and see plenty of colourful tropical fish and patches of brilliant pink coral.

Bicycles at Parker Point. Photo: Courtesy Tourism WA

Bicycles at Parker Point. Photo: Courtesy Tourism WA

The Leeuwin Current, which flows south along the West Australian coast and surrounds Rottnest Island, is vastly different to the cool currents off the coasts of Southern Africa and South America where the waters flow north. The result is a unique marine environment where tropical fish from the north flourish together with temperate fish from the south. This, along with the southern-most examples of coral and the presence of shipwrecks, make Rottnest Island a haven for snorkelling and diving.

We spend two hours enjoying Little Salmon Bay before continuing on to the turnoff for Wadjemup Hill Lighthouse. This is our only real challenge for the day and the views across the island are a fine reward. We also learn a little of the island’s maritime history. A plaque reads: Since the early days of Australia, Rottnest Island has been the ‘brick on the doorstep of Fremantle’ which trips up any drunken or unwary captain.

There are 12 significant shipwrecks near Rottnest Island and most of them occurred as the ships neared the end of a long journey. The island’s first lighthouse was built in 1851 and later replaced by another twice the height in 1896. Despite this, and a second lighthouse at Bathurst Point, accidents still occur.

In 1979, the French yacht Anitra, whose crew included a Western Australian navigator, was competing in the Parmelia race from Plymouth to Fremantle when it struck rocks near the West End. Ironically, the race was held to commemorate the arrival of the first governor 150 years earlier, whose vessel, the Parmelia, was also left stranded and badly damaged on the island’s rocks.

Rottnest Island, Western Australia

Yachts off the coast of Rottnest Island

From the lighthouse we ride to the West End and Cape Vlamingh. Fewer people go to the western-most point of the island as the bus stops at the junction and any passengers wanting to see the West End have a long walk ahead of them (8km return). Bikes are the best way to get there and I’m glad we make the effort. There is a rugged beauty about the windswept vegetation and the waters below the headland are choppy and rough. It’s an incredible feeling looking across the vast Indian Ocean knowing that the next major land mass is Madagascar, 6432km away.

After our picnic lunch, we head to the north coast. There are plenty of brightly clad bike riders on the road now, most toting snorkelling gear and boogie boards. At Geordie Bay, dozens of rust-red bikes from the island’s bike hire fill the bicycle racks. We wrap colourful scarves around the bike’s handle-bars for easy identification and head to the kiosk for mandatory ice-cream.

From here, it’s an easy pedal to The Basin (thanks to the west’s legendary breeze – the Fremantle Doctor) and we take another refreshing dip. We head back to Thomson Bay during the island’s peak hour; people of all ages heading back to the ferry for the trip home to Freo. Children are rosy-cheeked after their day in the sun, while most of the adults have that weary-but-satisfied look after a day well spent. After all, what could be better than relaxing with family and friends on Rotto?

Do you have a favourite cycling destination? Please let me know in the comments below. I’m always looking for great places to get on my bike.

Note: This article was first published in Ride On Magazine in Australia.

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