From the air it looks arid and almost deserted, surrounded by water of a startling clarity and colour. But deserted it is not. The ferry from Perth to Rottnest Island is packed with day-trippers and weekenders. They range from whole families taking their bikes with them to a gaggle of women celebrating “Sharm’s 50th”.
Never have so many tattoos been gathered in one place.
It’s all a bit alarming.
But Rottnest is not the obvious. It’s so much more than a party place which breeds “I love Rotto” bumper stickers.
Away from the busy settlement near the jetty, where ferries land, it is kilometre after kilometre of white sand beaches (63, to be precise), rocky cliffs, aquamarine water and bays dotted with yachts.
There is a 50km walking trail, 24km of tarred roads for cyclists (there are no private vehicles on the island), scrub vegetation that is reminiscent of the Cape, central salt lakes, historic buildings and gun placements.
It is also a poignant and, for many, spiritual place, important in the history of the area.
Once part of the mainland, the island is thought to have been separated from it by rising sea levels nearly 7 000 years ago. Archaeologists have found aboriginal artefacts on it dating back more than 30 000 years.
Uninhabited for several thousand years, it was first noted by English captain John Daniel in 1681 and called Maiden’s Island.
But in 1696 Dutch captain Willemde Vlamingh landed there, saw the quokkas (marsupials related to the wallaby), which still roam the golf course and gardens in numbers, and thought they were giant rats. He called the island Rottnest, or rats’ nest.
Eight years after it was settled in 1830, Rottnest became a prison for aboriginal people. In the next 90-odd years about 3 700 men and boys were imprisoned there. Many died there. Although they are not represented in the little formal graveyard on the island, 17 areas have been listed under the Aboriginal Heritage Act, some of them burial sites.
Their spirits live on – especially in the Quod, an octagonal prison which is now part of the hotel lodge – and there is also the presence of the young boys who were housed in a reformatory there between 1881 and 1901.
In the museum – housed in a mill and haystore built by aboriginal prisoners in 1857 – there is a tribute to them, the list of their crimes extending from the theft of a loaf of bread to being “uncontrollable”.
During World War II the island was seen as important for the defence of the port of Fremantle. Two 9.2-inch guns were installed near the middle of the island and two 6-inch guns at Bickley Point. A light railway was built from the jetty at Thomson Bay, to transport ammunition to the guns.
After the war the 9.2-inch battery was saved because the cost of removing and shipping the guns to the mainland was more than their value as scrap metal. In the 1990s the gun emplacements and railway were reconstructed and, with tunnels, now provide a popular three-hour tour.
Rottnest has been a tourist destination since 1902, when ferries started carrying day-trippers there on Sundays – kept away from the prisoners, of course.
Today it is a beacon for thousands of visitors each year, an A-class nature reserve. For some Perthsiders it is an annual holiday destination.
Many travel there in their own boats, and at weekends the bays are studded with sleek, white yachts. There is fishing, scuba diving, snorkelling, surfing, biking, body-boarding, sailing…
Then the settlement area bustles, with cafes, restaurants and shops doing big business. But get away from that central village and there is an over-riding sense of peace, of being at one with nature – and the past.