Rottnest Island, less than an hour by ferry from the Western Australian city of Fremantle, doesn’t have the world’s most pleasing name. In the original Dutch it means, simply, “Rat Nest”, which is an entirely sensible thing to name an island so densely populated by cat-sized, hairless-tailed, pointy-eared furballs that you actually risk tripping over them in the tall grass at twilight.
That said, quokkas – the eponymous and ubiquitous “rats” of the “Rat Nest” – are far from being rodents. Trolleying about sleepy-eyed at dusk in search of forage you’d be forgiven for thinking them some brawny and mutated escapee from a New York subway – that is, until they start hopping.
Spurred into their fastest mode of locomotion, the quokka suddenly bounces and bounds along in great two-legged leaps, betraying a now-obvious and previously hidden kinship to its macropod cousins: the kangaroos and wallabies.
No roo, however, would approach you as close as the quokkas do, sweetly stretching out their little noses to kiss your leg on the optimistic reckoning that your coconut-scented sunscreen smells an awful lot like food. Unfussed by humans, cars or – seemingly – much of anything, they’ve evolved a profound docility in the absence of either natural or introduced predators that, along with legion-like presence across much of the island, makes them Rottnest’s natural mascot and most adorable ambassador.
Rottnest, though, is much more merely quokkas. Rent a rustbucket bicycle and a snorkel set from Pedal & Flipper on the edge of Rottnest’s main settlement and point yourself south into the headwind whipping over the scrubby hills. Quickly the buildings of the settlement fall away and you’re left pedalling smooth asphalt over the sere dips and rises, the cobalt sea looming to the horizon, its colours broken into turquoise shallows and brown cliffs and long sweeps of alabaster sand. At Little Salmon Bay, 20 minutes from the main settlement, the headlands dip in to form a sheltered cove, and you lock your bike and shed your shoes and wade into the water.
This part of the Western Australian coastline is a full 32 degrees south of the equator, yet you find that, warmed by the Leeuwin Current swooping down from the tropics, the bay amazingly harbours corals, great stony pale lavender blooms encrusting the rocks all around you in the clear clear water, which is nearly as warm as the air. Fish swim around you, singly and in schools, and the waves pulse gently in the bay as you dive to explore the underwater nooks at its margins.
Back out on the rocks you drip-dry in the sun, wheeling overhead like some bright solar chariot and glinting off the dark sea like chips of mica, and then you mount your bike and are off again down the serpentine macadam ribbon, rising and falling along the lonely coast, past the long beach of big Salmon Bay and the smaller arcs of Green Island and Mary Cove. As you pedal, the Wadjemup Lighthouse rises white and tall behind you from the island’s centre – the first such stone structure in WA, its name coming from the Noongar Aboriginal word meaning ‘place across the water’ (the mythological Noongar name for Rottnest, and a great irony for the generations of Aboriginal people wrongly imprisoned here during its British-colonial heyday).
Turning, you pedal up onto the high rise of Oliver Hill and park your bike to explore the WWII-era artillery emplacements, bunkers and tunnels there with a local volunteer docent, learning about another era of the island’s history when the huge 9.2-inch gun emplacements protected the Allies’ submarine base at Fremantle on the mainland – at the time the largest in the southern hemisphere. You begin here to gain a deeper appreciation of just how many historical layers there are overlaying the island – from the days of Aboriginal prehistory to the landings millennia later by the earliest European navigators of the southern Indian Ocean; from its days as a squalid Victorian penal colony subjugating and ‘civilising’ Australia’s native peoples and on to its time as a 20th-century artillery battery defending the West Australian coast.
Gliding down from the hilltop in the heat, your tyres humming as you curse the feeble and squealing brakes of your trusty rustbucket, you come upon a long causeway crossing a series of shallow pinkish-hued salt lakes, home to nesting fairy terns and long ago a vital part of the colonial economy, when the salt was harvested, transported by rail to the ‘salt house’ in the settlement, and then shipped onward to the mainland. You turn north at the end of the causeway, rounding past the old settlers’ cemetery, and within a minute you’re firmly back in the present day – the island’s enormous, stately wind turbine churning like a latter-day Goliath on the hillside above you. A bit further along the road and soon you’re back on the primeval coast once again, parking your rustbusket and getting the mask and snorkel from your bag for a plunge in the great rock kettledrum of the Basin.
The eroded cliff walls here form a deep, sheltered underwater depression that’s popular for families with children, who mostly stay to the shallows along the edge. The walls of the drum, though, are a favourite hangout for fish, and you spend 40 minutes in the late-afternoon sun doing shallow dives to check out the plentiful sea life along its edges. This full day of swimming and cycling, of course, has left you completely exhausted, and you cycle briefly back to the main settlement to acquire a beer from the bottle shop before grabbing yourself a seat on the raised platform of the north coast’s Bathurst Lighthouse, to watch the sun set over the dunes of Pinky Beach.
As you return from the beach an hour later to your sandy-floored campground, the quokkas have once again gathered in the field across the narrow road – a real ‘rat nest’ – with two dozen of them out feeding together as dusk falls over the island. You read in your tent as the night gathers outside – David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks – and as you read you can hear the shush of the wind in the trees, the shush of the ocean across the dunes. Feeling tired and happy the great beauty and calm and tremendous specialness of the place envelop and enclose you like a blanket.
It is full night on now Rottnest, and in your tiredness the night swims with a sublime sense of depth – of time and history, of the eons of geology written in the trees and cliffs and beaches; and just as much in the depth of its human geography – the residue of souls transiting this ‘place across the water’: ancient Noongar, starched and sweating colonial, proud soldier on the watch, and now yourself as tourist. Yes, it is night on Rottnest and sleep is not far away, and in the half-moon silver light all is faintly mystical, and all is well.