One of Perth's favourite holiday and day trip destinations.
Located 19 km off the coast from Perth, Rottnest Island is the city's favourite holiday and day tripping destination. Only 12 minutes by air and 2 hours by water the island is an accessible location for those wishing to escape from Perth. There is a joke which Perth people tell against themselves about the island which is "Where do Perth people go?" to Rottnest island because there's nowhere else to go." It's hard to work out whether this is a comment on Perth or Rottnest Island.
The history of the island is ancient and exotic. It seems that as recently as the last Ice Age both Rottnest and Garden Island (see Rockingham) were connected to the mainland. So recent is this that the local Aborigines, even today, have a story explaining the origin of the island. In 1979 the prominent Western Australian Aboriginal poet and playwright, Jack Davis, incorporated the story of the origin of Rottnest into his play Kullark. The story of the origin of the Perth basin, the Darling Ranges and Rottnest Island is told by the character Yagan as a song of creation:
You came, Warrgul,
With a flash of fire and a thunder roar,
And as you came
You flung the earth up to the sky,
You formed the mountain ranges
And the undulating plains.
You made a home for me
On Kargattup and Karta Koomba,
You made the beeyol beeyol,
The wide clear river,
As you travelled onward to the sea.
And as you went into the sunset
Two rocks you left to mark your passing,
To tell of your returning
And our affinity.
The Dutch ships which sailed the Roaring Forties and nearly bumped into the Western Australian coast were aware of Rottnest Island as early as 1627 and by 1658 Dutch sailors from the Waeckende Boeij had landed on the island.
The island acquired its name from the explorer Willem de Vlamingh who mistook the quokkas (small wallabies which inhabit the island) for rats and named the island 'Rat's Nest Island; or, in Dutch, Rottenest Island. The 'e' was dropped.
A number of explorers stopped at the island during the early nineteenth century. Nicholas Baudin explored it in 1801, Louis de Freycinet in 1803, Phillip Parker King in 1822, and Captain James Stirling in 1827
With the settlement on the Swan River in 1829 there was a serious attempt to establish a colony on the island. By 1830 there were a few farmers on the island and in 1831 the town of Kingston was proclaimed. Thomson Bay is named after Robert Thomson who took up land on the island in 1831.
The white settlement failed and by 1838 Rottnest Island had become a prison for Aborigines from all over Western Australia. Thomson surrendered his land holdings in 1839 and was the last person to privately own land on the island.
There is a great diversity of opinion on the conditions of the Aboriginal prison. The English novelist Anthony Trollope declared that the Aborigines enjoyed wonderful conditions while Daisy Bates (probably more of a realist) wrote of the near genocide and the appalling conditions which prevailed. Rottnest remained a prison for Aborigines until 1903.
Over the years Rottnest has had a variety of functions. In 1848 it became a pilot station for Fremantle. At one point it was an internment camp. During World War II, with the threat of invasion down the coast a real possibility, it became a military post.
Today, as it has been since the nineteenth century, it is a holiday resort for Perth people. The absence of cars (everyone on the island rides a pushbike or walks), the historic buildings, and the charm of the huge Moreton Bay figs and the quiet waters around the island, have been a magnet for Perth people since the 1850s.
If you can get hold of a copy (it has been out of print for some years) the Rottnest Island Sketchbook with drawings by Paul Rigby and text by Kirwan Ward is a delightful account of the history of the island with evocative sketches.
Things to see:
Rottnest Island Heritage Trails
1. Vincent Way Heritage Trail
A 2 km walk which takes about 45 minutes. This is the most important of the Heritage Trails on the island as it includes all the buildings in the Rottnest Island Old Settlement which is National Estate listed and, as the National Estate Register observes "This historic group is integrated around an avenue of Moreton Bay fig and olive trees, and has the atmosphere of a 19th century village".
The Vincent Way Heritage Trail starts at the sea wall (built between 184649 by Aboriginal prisoners from limestone quarried on the island) and includes cottages F and G (built around 1840 by Henry Vincent as a residence for himself and his family and restored in 1986 by discredited Perth entrepreneur Laurie Connell), cottages H, J and E (built around 1847 to house the islandıs military guard), the Administrator's Cottage (late 1840s), the boatshed (1859), cottages K1 and K2 (1847), cottage with boatshed (1846), cottage M (1867), cottage L (1871), Buckingham Palace (1871 - it got its name because a warder named Buckingham living in it for a time), the Lodge Resort (which operated as a boyıs reformatory between 18801901), the Museum (1857-59) which was originally built as a store and mill and now houses an interesting exhibition of artefacts and memorabilia connected to the island's history, the Quad - an octagonal prison for Aborigines built in 1864 and now accommodation for visitors to the island, The Chapel (1858), the Ranger's Office (originally the salt store - 1856) and the Hotel (1859) which was built as a summer residence for the Governor and first used by Governor Hampton in 1864. It was converted to a hotel in 1953.
2. Cape Vlamingh Heritage Trail
A 1 km walk which takes a leisurely 30 minutes and includes opportunities to see the wreck of the Kiryo Maru, see some of the islandıs fauna including (if you are lucky) quokkas, dugites (they are poisonous), fairy terns, dolphins, investigate such flora as the sea berry saltbush and the coastal daisy, and visit Bridge Rock and the island's Blow Hole.
3. Oliver Hill Battery Heritage Trail
A 1.5 km walk around the Oliver Hill Battery which was built on the island in 1937. The walk combines a look at the fauna and flora of the area as well as the gun emplacements and observation posts.
4. Vlamingh Memorial Heritage Trail
A 1 km walk from the Lodge to the far end of Garden Lake which passes the small cemetery, the quarry where Henry Vincent cut the limestone for his buildings, and the Vlamingh Memorial. The trail brochure includes extensive information on the fauna and flora of the island.
5. Rottnest Wrecks Heritage Trail
And, the most unusual of Heritage Trails, The Rottnest Wrecks Heritage Trail (make sure you wear a snorkel). Around the island are the wrecks of the Transit (1842) a wooden two masted schooner, the Gem (1876) a 52 ton British cutter, the Macedon (1883) 562 ton iron steamer, the Janet (1887) a 211 ton 3 masted schooner, the Denton Holme (1890) a 998 ton iron barque, the Uribes (1942) a 188 ton schooner, the Lady Elizabeth (1878), the Raven (1891) a 343 ton 3 masted barque, the Shark (1939), the Anitra (1979) a French yacht which had been sailed from Plymouth - it is now outside the islandıs museum, the Mira Flores (1886) a 500 ton iron barque, the City of York (1899) an 1194 ton iron barque, the Miwok II (1983) an iron barge used for Army Training and the Kiryo Maru I (1984), a Japanese tuna boat which can easily be seen from Cape Vlamingh. The Heritage Trail brochure provides detailed histories of the wrecks and a map indicating where each one now lies.