Saturday, December 13, 2014

Qute Quokkas

Cargo Pods awaiting shipping
One of the ways to get to Rottnest Island is by ferry, and there are places to catch the ferry in Perth and in Freemantle. We chose to go to Freemantle, leave our car in the new, secure car park and catch the ferry at Rous Head. Finding the dock presented more of a challenge than we had expected because it’s hidden in an industrial area among a giant stacks of cargo pods that are either awaiting shipment or pick-up. The roads in the area are so new that the GPS didn’t have any idea where we were. Luckily there were signs that helped us get the last few miles. Once we got to the dock, we were greeted by a huge group of Year 3 children on an educational outing. They were bouncing off the walls because this was their first overnight trip; they all had a bicycle as well as their overnight bags. Parents were everywhere taking pictures, and teachers were trying to keep the children from pitching off the jetty into the sea. Once we were on the ferry it was almost standing room only; evidently picking a weekday over a weekend to go to Rotto didn’t make one bit of difference.
Rottnest Ferry


Rottnest Island was ‘discovered’ by Dutch sailors in the early 17th Century. Landing on the
Rottnest Harbor
island, they saw what they thought were giant rats, hence the name ‘Rotte nest’ or rats’ nest. Prior to the Dutch, the Noogar Aboriginal people had inhabited the island, naming it Wadjemup (Place across the water), but with the rising sea level, it was abandoned. The Aborigines would return again, but as prisoners forced to build roads and construct buildings. Over time, outbreaks of influenza killed most of the prisoners. It isn’t clear how much this disease contributed to the abolishment of the prison on Rottnest or whether it was the reports of prisoner abuse, but in any case, by 1902 the prison was gone. A reformatory for boys had also been established on the island in the 1800s, but like the prison, it was closed in 1901. Once again, Rottnest was used to house prisoners but these were enemy soldiers in World Wars I and II. However, housing prisoners wasn’t the only role the island played in the wars. Situated as it is, the island is in a prime location to guard Freemantle port. A signal house, manned by officers in the Women's Emergency Signaling Corps, vetted any ship entering the harbor. If the ship didn’t return the proper signals, it was fired on by the 6-inch guns that defended Freemantle port.  Currently, Rottnest is an A-class reserve because of the number of native and introduced
bird species nest there, the three endemic tree species (e.g. Rottnest Island Pine), one of only two areas of wild Quokkas, and colonies of Australian sea lions and southern fur seals. It has also become a resort destination, which has both good and bad implications for the maintenance of the native flora and fauna. Certainly, a much of the quaintness of the island is gone since the first time I visited some fifteen years ago.
Top:Kookaburra, Banded Stilts
Bottom: Ospry on nest, Duck


Always before I had only spent the day on Rottnest, arriving on the early ferry and leaving
Quokkas and joeys
on the last boat out. This time we decided to stay in one of the hotels, The Lodge. It had been a prison, ‘the Quod’; although it still maintains the outward appearance, it is nothing like the old prison.  The hotel has an internal courtyard that isn’t immune to quokkas or ravens, so sitting out in the sun is an open invitation to be visited by both these critters. The quokkas are quiet and polite, nosing around for anything visitors might have dropped; the ravens, not so much. Their rancorous, and many times incessant, calls split the air, only subsiding when they come swooping down to grab any food left unprotected on your table.

There are lots of hiking trails on the island and you will definitely need to wear something other than sandals to do this type of exploring. It is also possible to rent bicycles and ride
Hiking to lighthouse
from one site to another, but this doesn’t get you on to the hiking trails where the animals are. The other issue with rented bicycles is that they are not geared and Rotto has long, steep hills. One of the red-faced, panting, bicycle riders told us that we were smarter to hike than to ride! I didn’t know that I agreed with his assessment at the half-way point of our hike up to the lighthouse. It was only five km each way, but the first half we went around the salt lakes. These were, for the most part, sandy and weedy trails that wove in and out of the forest and up some stupefying steep, tall hills. The views were amazing, but the trails were long. Once we reached the lighthouse, we could see well out to sea. It was apparent why the military was so interested in this site. We walked back to Thompson Bay along the road, which was just as hilly, but not nearly as arduous.
Wadjemup Lighthouse and Hike back to Thompson Bay


There are many volunteer-led hikes that take you into areas you might miss and provide information that may not be in the guide books or on the information signs. Since one of my
Australian flowers
favorite things to do is to commune with the quokkas, we took this tour with one of the volunteers. Our group was very interested in flowers and birds, as well, so the volunteer was kind enough to satisfy our curiosity about fauna, flora, island history, and a myriad of things that probably weren’t normally included in the tour.  One of the pressures that keep the animal populations in check is the amount of fresh water available. On Rottnest, the lakes are saline. This is great for birds that feed on the brine shrimp, but the other animals must get their nutrition and their water from other sources. For most of these critters, water comes from the plants they eat and any water standing after a rain. Quokkas, ravens and seagulls have come to depend on humans to supply some of their food. However, just after dark, the quokkas emerge from under bushes and shrubs to feast on the lawns that surround the Visitor’s Center and some of the other buildings. Quokkas are marsupials, so their young live in the mother’s pouch until it is three to four months old. This means that the joeys are almost the size of the mother before they are out on their own.
Mother quokka and a curious joey


Many of the buildings from the prison years have been restored and turned into facilities for tourists. There is a tour of these buildings that gives lots of information about the history of
L: Salt House; R: Museum
Rottnest and the use of the structures. For instance, the Boys’ Reformatory is now a small, but nicely put together, museum; and the Lodge is the former prison. Other buildings remain intact, such as the Lomas Cottage and the Piolet Boathouse. Of course there are new buildings that house a Visitor’s Center, grocery store, souvenir shops, and eateries. The Dome Café was on the island 15 years ago, but has been updated. The quokkas still get inside to check-out the crumbs the customers leave, but the rest of the interior is modern. There has also been a change to The Church of the Holy Trinity that has been on Rottnest since 1975. It was established by Monsignor Sean O'Shea who lived on the island until his death in 2012; he is buried in the courtyard beside his beloved church. This is a peaceful place, perched on a hill in the center of the Thompson Bay settlement; it looks out over the lovely bay. The stained glass windows and bell tower add to the church’s charm.
Church of the Holy Trinity

There is another way to get around the island and that’s by bus. Although it’s fairly
Black Skink
expensive, the bus is a good way to cove the distances between interesting sites in a timely manner; also, the bus drivers have lots of information about each site that they will share with the group. Our first stop was at the west end of the island where the views are remarkable and the sea is rough. We spotted an osprey on a nest along with the requisite gulls and ravens. There were also a number of the protected black skinks out for inspection. The first few did a really good job of zipping away as soon as we had cameras ready. At other stops, along with magnificent views of the ocean, there were some nice native flowers that had to be photographed.  Of course, we saw a number of quokkas with babies; the farther away from the tourist area these animals are, the more timid they are. Several sites along the coast looked wonderful for scuba diving and snorkeling, but the spring is still a bit too chilly for us to venture into the water.
Top: Rottnest Pine
Bottom: Parakeet Bay; Cape Vlamingh
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