By the indigenous people it is called Wadjemup, which means “place across the water where the spirits are”. But among Westerners, this place is better known as Rottnest Island, or in short, Rotto. They are all names of a magical island located less than 20 km off Fremantle´s coast. Rottnest Island is Western Australis’s own rough diamond, resting in a gleaming sea surrounded by protective reefs. A place with lots of paradisiacal beaches that are ideal for snorkelling, protected by limestone formations. Rottnest is, mildly expressed, postcard-beautiful but at the same time a barren island with razor sharp rocks in a lukewarm turquoise water.
The island is a popular destination for families, pensioners and adventurous youngsters alike. A trip to Rottnest can be a day tour or a quieter trip over an entire weekend exploring the beaches and the simmering life beneath the water´s surface. With a hundred different species of fish, you will not be disappointed. Both simpler camping sites and finer resorts can be found on the island. Every day, ferries from Fremantle and Perth transport lots of people who are eager to discover what Rottnest has to offer. Since private cars are forbidden in order to protect the fragile nature, visitors arrive on bicycles. But there are buses here, stopping in many places if you can’t pedal around. However, visiting the island on school holidays is not recommended (publicholidays.com.au/school-holidays/western-australia/). The peacefulness disappears quickly, and the noisy young people become a nuisance.
The eleven-kilometre-long and barely five kilometres-wide island has a motley history. Thousands of years ago when the land was still connected to the mainland, the indigenous people lived on Rottnest Island. Artefacts have been found on the island that are believed to be 50,000 years old. As the water level rose and the island broke loose, the Aboriginals who are land-people moved away. In 1696 the Dutch explorer Villem de Vlamingh came to the island and named it Rotte-nest, rat-nest, after seeing cat-sized marsupials living on the island, which he believed to be big rats. In fact, the animals called Quokkas belong to the same animal family as the wallaby and they are still living on the island. When the Europeans came, a dark chapter in Rottnest´s history began. From 1830 to the beginning of the 1900s, the island was used as a prison for Aboriginal people from all over the country of who many met a painful end here. Since 1917, Rottnest Island is a protected area. Today, the island is important to the Aboriginals and is considered a place of spirits.
Sights and experiences
Discover and explore
Rottnest offers an abundance of nature experiences. The outdoor lover will not want to leave the island. So better to pack a filling picnic, plenty of water and cycle around the island to find your own favourite place to snorkel. There are more than 60 beaches to choose from.
At Salmon Bay is one of the island’s most popular beaches. Many families and snorkelers come here. Although it is a windswept area with sharp reefs, it is a beautiful beach and one of the best places for snorkelling. The beach is located directly at the bus stop and can get crowded, so plan for a little walk to get privacy. Come here in the early morning when the wind has not yet worked up its full strength. Limestone cliffs make up the cape of Fairbridge Bluff in the middle of Salmon Bay. Climb up here to get a nice view of the bay.
During the afternoon when the wind increases in the south, it is time to head north. Parakeet Bay is in the north, not far from Geordie Bay and Lake Baghdad. A bay with a long sandy beach protected by high dunes. Good water for snorkelling is available around Parakeet Point.
For many years, all the salt in Western Australia came from Rottnest Island´s saltwater lakes. During the summer months, the lakes can dry out to again be replenished with rainwater when winter arrives. The lakes attract many different bird species. One of the smaller lakes is called Pink Lake after its pale pink colour. The colour comes from a chemical reaction that is accelerated by the scorching sun.
At the island’s northwest tip near the campsite you will find the Basin. The reef is open at this bay and forms a natural basin of clear green water, perfect for a dip. This place is well suited for those who cannot travel far on their own. The best time to come here is during early mornings and forenoons. There are two basins, the west being the most popular of the two. The eastern one is larger and is visited by fewer tourists. Go up the hill at the western end of the Basin. From there you can view the Bathurst Point.
The ferries arrive at Thomson Bay facing the mainland on the northeast side of Rottnest. It is often lively here when ferries and private boats come and go all day long. In the vicinity is a fine three-kilometres long sand beach. Over the years, many ships have been wrecked by the reefs surrounding the Rottnest. At Thomson Bay, a shipwreck not far from the beach is visible.
The cute little marsupials Quokkas can be found all over the island. Closer to 10,000 quokkas calls Rottnest their home, so there is a great chance of seeing some of them even though they are nocturnal. They are accustomed to people and will happily come out for a peek. However, remember that they are wild animals and you are not allowed to feed them or touch them. They may get sick if you give them food, so respect this.
Art and culture
Rottnest Island Museum (rottnestisland.com/see-and-do/Island-tours/museums-and-galleries) is located in an old limestone building that was built by Aboriginal prisoners in 1857 on Henderson Avenue. It is a large museum that among other things tells the story of the island’s early years, about how the Aboriginals lived here before the Europeans came. The museum has a guide that sits and reads while waiting for a visitor to come up asking questions. Officially, they take no entrance fee, but you will be asked to donate a dollar at the entrance.
Thomson Bay is The Salt Store Gallery and Exhibition Centre (rottnestisland.com/see-and-do/Island-tours/museums-and-galleries) built by Aboriginal prisoners in the middle of the 1800s. This building was originally used as a storage room for salt bags in waiting of being transported to Fremantle. Today, works of art and photographs are exhibited here. Free entrance.
History and parks
There are two lighthouses on the island. Bathurst Lighthouse is located on Gem Road in the northeast and was built after several ships got wrecked outside Rottnest. Wadjemup Lighthouse is located at a height in the middle of the island’s southern part. Getting here is something of a challenge with a sweaty uphill climb but you are rewarded with a splendid view from the top of the lighthouse.
Studies and work
During the summer there are job opportunities connected to the island. The ferry companies recruit extra personnel every spring. On the mainland, among other things, extra staff is needed to help with bookings. On the island, staff are hired to work at the information centre, in the hotels, and to manage the rental of bicycles and other equipment. Look for work early since it is popular to work on the island. Contact to the company you want to work with directly (ria.wa.gov.au/about-us/employment-opportunities). Also, contact the ferry companies Rottnest Fast Ferries (rottnestfastferries.com.au) and Rottnest Express (rottnestexpress.com.au).
Good to know
There is a Visitor Information Centre on Henderson Avenue at Thomson Bay and another one in Fremantle at Victoria Quay. Lots of activities and guided tours are on offer on and around Rottnest Island (wotif.com/discover/australia/western-australia/perth/rottnest-island.d3047).
Warnings and preparations
There are two supermarkets on the island, one in Thomson Bay and one in Geordie Bay (rottnestgeneralstore.com.au). It is possible to order your goods online and this will be sent to your accommodation. Shipping is free. There is no drinking water or food outside of Thomson Bay and Geordie Bay. Plan your trip and bring a lot of water and some strong sunscreen.
In addition to Quokkas, you may encounter snakes on the island. Watch out where you put your feet to avoid treading on one. During the summer, temperatures can rise to over 40 degrees Celsius. This may be worth considering if you intend to cycle over the island. Rottnest is mostly flat but there are some slopes that can pose great challenges in the heat. Bring a sun cap with good shading and a white shirt to cover yourself with. On large areas there are no trees to shade you from the burning sun.
At graduations and exam times the island can become full of young partygoers. Also avoid holidays when too many choose to visit the island. Keep in mind that the water can have very strong currents. Don’t swim out too far and be careful even if you are considered an experienced swimmer.
Private cars are absolutely forbidden on the island. Instead, you have the choice of cycling, walking, or riding a bus. Rottnest Island Pedal & Flipper (rottnestisland.com/pedalandflipper) rent different types of bikes and snorkel equipment. You can also rent a bike in Fremantle and bring or rent one via the ferry companies. Cycling around the entire island takes about three and a half hours (wotif.com/things-to-do/full-day-bicycle-hire-rottnest-island-ferry-trip.a421605.activity-details).
If you do not feel like cycling in the heat, take the Rottnest Island Explorer bus. Buy a day pass from the information centre and let the bus driver do all the work. Just get off when you see a promising beach. The buses run all day. Grab a timetable and a map from the information centre or download one here (rottnestisland.com/the-island/visitor-services/getting-around).
Two ferries run from the mainland to Rottnest Island. Rottnest Fast Ferries and Rottnest Express (wotif.com/things-to-do/shared-ferry-rottnest-island.a227067.activity-details). The timetables and prices vary greatly between summer and winter. Rottnest Fast Ferries sometimes have different offers and package rates (wotif.com/things-to-do/rottnest-island-bus-tour-with-ferry-train-ride-package.a421652.activity-details), just like Rottnest Express (wotif.com/things-to-do/rottnest-island-day-trip-by-bike-from-perth.a238877.activity-details).
There is a campsite on Rottnest called Allison Camping Area, located on Maplesons Road at Thomson Bay. They have barbecue grills, toilets, showers and washing machines. It is not worth trying to put up your tent anywhere else on the island. It’s illegal, and the island’s rangers are sure to knock you on your shoulder and give you a juicy fine.
Rottnest Island Hostel is another good budget option. With 50 beds, a fully equipped kitchen and TV. Bed sheets are included but bring your own towel or rent one on site.
The most popular option for groups and families is to rent a cottage on the island. There are over 200 to choose from, all equipped with their own kitchen and bathroom. The standard varies with pricing. There are more luxurious villas near the beach with sea views and smaller cabins further inland. Book in advance as they quickly get booked up during the summer months (hotelscombined.com/Place/Rottnest_Island.htm).
Hotel Rottnest (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Hotel_Rottnest.htm) is the island’s most expensive but also the island’s finest place to stay at. The hotel has a splendid location overlooking the harbour and is close to restaurants and the island’s only pub. However, the price is high. The rooms are nice and some of them have an unbeatable sea view. The in-house restaurant serves fine cuisine and has a fresh and lush outdoor terrace.
A Saturday on Rottnest Island
08:00 – Cast off
Board the earliest ferry from the mainland to get maximum amount of time on the island. You have both bike and snorkel equipment pre-booked via Pedal & Flipper (rottnestisland.com/pedalandflipper). Enjoy feeling the wind in your hair as you approach the island with a tea or coffee in your hand. Once in place in Thomson Bay, it’s time to get ready for a full day at Rottnest. Visit the information centre to grab a map and check the weather and wind forecasts for the day. Then get up on the bike saddle and head south to find a sandy beach to your liking.
11:00 – Snorkel mecca
Stop at Salmon Bay. Continue further west if there are lots of people on the beach. Put on your snorkel equipment and swimwear and head into the water. Explore life beneath the surface and look for different species of fish on one of the island’s best snorkelling-beaches. Once you’ve had enough for the time being, look for Quokkas on land. Before the sun gets too high, they might still be active. Enjoy an early lunch-picnic and lots of water before continuing your journey clockwise around the island.
13:00 – Natural swimming pool
Get back on the bike and continue further west before turning north. Now you will meet the most challenging road-stretch, be prepared to get sweaty. Pedal past the glittering salt lakes until you get to Little Parakeet Bay. Stop for a cooling swim break. Try snorkelling here and then move on to The Basin, one of Rottnest most beautiful places where the reef opens and forms a perfect turquoise basin. Here, the reef is not as sharp but best to be careful.
17:00 – Viewpoint and refreshments
When the skin tastes like a saltshaker and the hair has been equally entangled, continue eastwards towards Bathurst Lighthouse. Here you can admire stunning views of the island. Maybe even the island’s best place to take photos on. Then head the short distance back towards Thomson Bay. Park your bike outside Rottnest Hotel to reward yourself with a cold beer in the afternoon sun before embarking on the very last ferry taking you back to the mainland.