Rottnest Island: beyond the quokka selfies

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Rottnest Island or Wadjemup (its Aboriginal name) has long been a playground for Perth’s outdoorsy population. A short ferry ride across the Indian Ocean, Rottnest remains popular with locals and travellers alike. However there’s more to Rotto (as it is colloquially referred to) than sandy beaches, cute quokkas and a laidback-holiday vibe. The island has a fascinating – and often grim – history to discover.

Bike to the beach and back

Aside from service vehicles, Rottnest Island is car-free. Roads are paved and the terrain not severely hilly, so the bicycle is king here. You’ll see people on bikes, which are available for hire on the island, everywhere from The Settlement – the main town area in Thomson Bay where you’ll arrive by ferry – to the island’s most westward point.

Rottnest IslandA secluded cove on Rottnest Island © Tim Richards / Lonely Planet

While cycling Rottnest you may well spot the island’s famous marsupial: the quokka. Technically nocturnal, near The Settlement these small furry creatures have learned to come out by day to eat food scraps left by tourists. Do resist the urge to feed them as human food is not great for their health. So many travellers pose for a selfie with one it has its own hashtag #quokkaselfie.

Though Rottnest is always popular, it isn’t hard to find a quiet piece of its coastline to enjoy in relatively peace. The jagged outline of the island contains a large number of bays and beaches, from long stretches of sand and aquamarine water, to tiny beaches fringed by rocks.

Of the best places to have a dip in the ocean, The Basin is close to The Settlement, and Ricey Beach is in the west. One of the nicest small beaches is at Little Parakeet Bay, close to the island’s second township at Geordie Bay.

Western AustraliaThe adorable quokka, only found on Rottnest Island in Western Australia © Auscape

Water sports and walks

Surfing, bodyboarding and stand-up paddling are big on the island, with waves commonly two to three times higher here than at mainland locations. Strickland Bay is an acclaimed surfing break, along with Salmon Bay and Stark Bay.

Fishing is another popular aquatic activity, as Rotto’s waters contain a variety of species. If you haven’t brought your own fishing gear, you can hire or purchase it in The Settlement.

Underwater, you can see fish, coral and shipwrecks by joining a diving tour; though most of these operate from the mainland. An on-island alternative is the Rottnest Island Snorkelling Cruise, which includes an hour of snorkelling in a selected bay.

If you’d rather explore on dry land, head out along the Wadjemup Bidi, a series of walking trails which take in natural highlights.

Cyclists at Rottnest IslandCyclists cruising the empty roads of Rottnest Island © Tim Richards / Lonely Planet

A challenging history

Before Rottnest was a holiday hotspot, it had a grim history as a colonial-era prison. From 1838 to 1904 it was used as a place of imprisonment for 3,700 Aboriginal men and boys.

These prisoners built much of the island’s infrastructure, including the lighthouses. They were housed in the building known as the Quod. Until recently the Quod was used as accommodation, but there are plans to repurpose it, along with the nearby Aboriginal Burial Ground, as an official memorial to those who lived – and died – here. Visit the Rottnest Museum to learn more about this period.

Nearby is the Salt Store, a remnant from a period when salt was produced from Rottnest Island’s salt lakes and transported to Fremantle. Rebuilt in 1997 to be used as a gallery and convention space, this store house was originally constructed by Aboriginal prisoners in 1868.

Rottnest also saw a flurry of activity during wartime. In World War I the island was used to house internees and prisoners of war, and in World War II massive guns were installed at the Oliver Hill Battery as protection should Perth come under attack.

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