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Perth, Australia: Quokkas, Bad Boys and a Rat’s Nest


I bought a scripted teeshirt today that pretty well sums up the sentiment of a traveler from the U.S. after they endure the lengthy (28 hours) flights to Perth, Australia: Perth, Western Australia: It’s a bloody long ways, mate! Perth, Western Australia, is a city with a little over 1 million people but has a friendly, small town atmosphere. Due to its isolated geographical situation, many Australians on the other side of the country live closer to foreign nations than they do to their own city of Perth. Cutting through the city and out to the Indian Ocean, is the romantic Swan River that curls its way to the smaller city of Fremantle, home of the America’s Cup battle where the Aussies triumphed over Dennis Connor a few years ago. We were in Australia during that sailing event and the publicity was overwhelming, leading off every newscast as well as being televised live throughout Australia. The Aussies thrive on competition and furthermore, take great pride in beating any other country in any sport, but they hold dear to their hearts any victory they can eke out over an American team. Since the world-wide publicity given to Fremantle during the Cup, developers have moved into Fremantle and it has grown from a sleepy little seaside city of 25,000 to over 100,000 stretched along the shores of the Indian Ocean for about 10 miles. But as our lodging point for this part of Western Australia we found Fremantle’s charm has not been diminished by its new found reputation. The streets are not crowded, roads are clear and there are more cappuccino shops and seafood restaurants than a sane person could work his way through in a couple of years. There are no skyscrapers to mar the exquisite beach skylines. However, what drew our attention to this area was the chance to go to an island off the coast, Rottnest, reachable by small plane or by a people ferry.


Rottnest Island lies about 12 miles off the coast of Fremantle. A roundtrip ferry ride costs $45AUD or about $32 in US money. The picturesque trip takes about 30 minutes one way. As no vehicles other than approved tour buses are allowed, the main mode of transportation on the island are regular bicycles, of which there are thousands. The island is nearly 6 miles long and around 1 mile wide. The varied terrain runs the gamut from luscious seaside beaches to brown hilly scrub trees and sandy hills that provide pristine views of the Indian Ocean. Rottnest Island was named by the Dutch explorer William de Vlamingh, who in 1696 saw the small creature called quokkas running around on the island and thought they were rats, hence the Dutch word Rottnest that literally means rat’s nest. Once near extinction, now through protection and disease control, the quokka is quite prevalent throughout the island with the population around 10,000. Up close, they resemble a kangaroo that looks like it has been micro-waved, quite a bit smaller yet their hop is very similar. The quokka is a marsupial about the size of a cat. It has a short gestation period of only 27 days, then carries the miniature newborn in a pouch for two months where it is suckled. If a tour bus does not run the little feller over, a quokka can live for ten years. Because of its isolation, Rottnest is a veritable paradise of colorful birds. There are 11 small salt lakes within the confines of the island that used to be the source of salt for all of Western Australia. Now these lakes provide salt water foods like shrimp that serve as attraction for all types of ocean birds, from the large, beak-heavy pelicans down to the miniature, red-necked stint that weighs only 30 grams. There are 17 types of frogs on the island, some that climb trees. Geckos, snakes and lizards round out the crew of creepy, crawling things to avoid on the island. Over the years, Rottnest has had 13 major shipwrecks nearby as it anchors a main shipping channel into Fremantle. In 1848, the Australian government set up a Pilot Station that was comprised of a few rough men who would jump into open boats a little larger than a sixteen foot Lund and would go out in all types of weather to guide ships into the harbor.


Duty was hard and accommodations on the island for the workers was spartan to say the least. Original cabins, now converted to lodging for visitors, still remain. The Aussies love isolated places for their prisoners. Rottnest joined Port Arthur down in Tasmania as a place the government shipped Aboriginal prisoners. In 1838, Aboriginals who had broken the law, began to be shipped to Rottnest to serve their sentences. Because of the distance to the mainland, officials felt escape from the island would be nearly non-existent due to predatory sharks that circled the island looking either for white or dark meat to supplement their diets. The Aboriginal prisoners built buildings, primitive roads and cultivated fields. For nearly one hundred years, the island served as a penal colony. The so-called success of this venture led the government to eventually establish a boy’s reformatory on the island as well and boys as young as twelve years old were banished to the island in an effort to curb offensive behavior. Today, Rottnest Island serves as a playground for local Western Australia folks as well as for international visitors that are drawn to this unique post of Australian history. Over 500,000 visitors a year visit the island, many of them taking advantage of the experience to mimic the laid back lifestyle of the couple hundred permanent residents.


Perth: Quokkas, Bad Boys and a Rat’s Nest  

A visit to an ancient prisoner's island near Perth, Australia.

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