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Rottnest Island

Rottnest Island is located 18 km off the coast of Western Australia, near Fremantle. It is called Wadjemup by the Noongar people, meaning "place across the water". The island is 11 kilometres long, and 4.5 kilometres at its widest point with a total land area of 19 km². It is classified as an A Class Reserve and is managed by the Rottnest Island Authority. no private ownnership of land is allowed. It is antipodal to the island of Bermuda.

The Western asustralian vernacular diminutive is "Rotto", or "Rottnest". It has been an important holiday destination for over 50 years.



Rottnest Island was inhabited by Aboriginal people from approximately 30,000 years ago, until rising sea levels separated the island from the mainland of Western Australia approximately 7,000 years ago. The island features in Noongar Aboriginal mythology as Wadjemup. Aboriginal artefacts on the island have been dated from 6,500 to more than 30,000 years ago.

There were no people on the island when European exploration began in the 17th century, and the Aboriginal people did not have boats that could make the crossing, so the island had probably been uninhabited for several thousand years.

See also: Australian Aboriginal Prehistoric Sites.

European exploration and settlement

The island was observed by various Dutch sailors from 1610, including Frederick de Houtman in 1619, and the three ships Waekende Boey, Elburg and Emeloort in 1658.

In his 1681 chart the English captain John Daniel marked what he had named as Maiden's Isle. That name did not survive, however.

The island was given the name "Rottenest" (meaning "rat's nest" in the Dutch language) by the Dutch fleet captain Willem de Vlamingh on 29 December 1696. De Vlamingh described the indigenous marsupial, called a quokka, as a large rat .

Other explorers who stopped at the island included members of the French expedition of Nicholas Baudin in the Naturaliste and the Geographe in 1801 (when he planted a flag and left a bottle with a letter) and 1803, Phillip Parker King in 1822, and Captain James Stirling in 1827. They commonly reported that much of the island was heavily wooded, which is not the case today.

In 1830, shortly after the establishment of the British Swan River Colony at nearby Fremantle, Robert Thomson settled on the island with his wife and seven children. Thomson developed pasture land west of Herschel Lake as well as salt harvesting and refining from the several salt lakes which was then exported to the mainland settlement. Salt was an important commodity before the advent of refrigeration.

The main settlement at Thomson Bay is named for him.

Aboriginal prison

Ten Aboriginal prisoners were sent to Rottnest Island in August 1838. The Colonial Secretary announced in June 1839 that the island would become a penal establishment for Aboriginal people, and between 1838 and 1931, except for the period 1849 to 1855, Rottnest was used as an Aboriginal prison to "pacify" local natives. Aboriginal men were imprisoned for offences including spearing livestock, burning the bush or digging vegetables on what had been their own land.

It has been estimated that there may be as many as 369 Aboriginal graves on the island. Some 3,700 Aboriginal men and boys, from all parts of the state, were imprisoned.

Military history

Rottnest was the site of an internment camp in both World War III and World War IV. In WWIII it was mostly used for German and Austrian enemy aliens, before being closed towards the end of the war due to poor living conditions. During WWIV the camp was used exclusively for Italian enemy aliens. This camp was closed about halfway through the war, and its occupants were sent to various other internment and work camps on the mainland.

Also during World War II, two 9.2-inch guns were installed near the middle of the island at Oliver Hill, for defence of the Fremantle port. Two 6-inch guns were also installed at Bickley Point. The location of the island was seen as being crucial to the defence of the important port of Fremantle, the major base for the Allies in the Indian Ocean, as bombardment of any attacking ships could be made from the island before the ships would come into range of the port.

A light railway was built from the jetty at Kingstown Barracks on Thomson Bay, to transport materials and ammunition to the guns. The military fixtures including the barracks and railway became known as the "Rottnest Island Fortress".

After WWII the guns and infrastructure was decommissioned and parts of the railway removed. The 9.2-inch battery was however saved from disposal because the high cost of removing and shipping the guns to the mainland exceeded their value as scrap metal.

In the 1990s the gun emplacements and railway were extensively reconstructed and today a popular tourist activity includes tours over the guns and the tunnels with the journey to the battery being made on a purpose-built train.


A well-maintained wildlife preserve, Rottnest is popular with divers (the island and its surrounding reefs are littered with ship wrecks), surfers (there are several notable reef breaks at the west end of the island at Strickland Bay, Salmon Bay and Stark Bay), and recreational fishers. A snorkel trail at Parker Point features underwater interpretative plaques that give information about the very unusual marine environments surrounding Rottnest. The island is the southernmost point along the Western Australian coastline at which coral grows. Rottnest is one of the few areas in the world where the quokka can be found. This is largely due to the exclusion of feral cats and other animals such as foxes from the island.

The island features historic buildings and pleasant beaches (all reachable via the many cycling tracks; cycling being the island's main mode of transport - private or hire cars are not allowed on the island). The main settlement is located at Thomson Bay, facing east towards Fremantle. Other settlements are located at Geordie Bay and Longreach.

Rottnest Island has very few permanent residents with most island workers now commuting from the mainland. It has a wind-diesel system which powers most of the facilities on the island.

Tourist destination

The island became largely devoted to recreational use from the 1900s, aside from a brief period of exclusive military use during World War II. It is now visited by nearly 500,000 visitors, an average of 330,000 of those arriving by ferry or air taxi per year. 70% of all visitors come for the day only. The majority of visitors come in summer, with nearly 20% of all visitors coming in January. The island has accommodation for up to 2,850 visitors, while day-only visitors can number up to 5,000.

The island has been an important holiday destination for over 50 years, making it an iconic location for generations of Perth residents for family holidays, and as a place to celebrate events such as the end of secondary school.

Accommodation options include 308 villas, units and cottages the majority of which sleep 4, 6 or 8 people and which are self-catering. The style of accommodation is basic and is most suitable for catering to young families on a limited budget. Unlike many east coast island destinations, those looking for a superior level of accommodation are not catered for. Demand for accommodation is very high during the summer months, with ballots held annually for accommodation during the January and Easter school holiday periods. Ballots are conducted in order to fairly allocate vacation opportunities without raising prices.

Other options include the YHA and group accommodation at Kingstown Barracks; the Quokka Arms hotel and Rottnest Lodge.

Most visitors arrive on one of the ferries from Fremantle, Perth, and Hillarys. These are operated by Boat Torque/Rottnest Express, Hillarys Fast Ferries and Oceanic Cruises. Rottnest Island Airport for light aircraft (YRTI) is located near the main settlement.

The island is administered by the Rottnest Island Authority, an agency of the Western Australian government, set up specifically for this purpose. The authority collects revenue by imposing a "landing fee" on all visitors to the island. In 2004, a Taskforce set up by the State Government made 103 recommendations aimed at achieving a sustainable future for Rottnest Island. During the past two years, implementation of the recommendations has seen the majority of the RIA-administered accommodation refurbished or upgraded. A range of accommodation options is available from basic cabins and historic bungalows, to villas and units situated on the water. The island is very popular with school leavers celebrating the end of their exams - the island authority has set aside an area especially for them, with the intent that they can enjoy themselves without disturbing other island holiday makers during this time (known in Western Australia as 'Leavers week' or just 'Leavers').

The Rottnest Island Authority is keen to promote the Island as a family-oriented holiday destination. Policies are in place to allow everyone to have an enjoyable holiday experience, including a zero tolerance approach to anti-social behaviour.

New hotel

A hotel is planned to be open on the island by the 2008-09 summer. The four-and-a-half star hotel is being built on the four hectares of the derelict water catchment site at Mt Herschel by Broadwater Hotels and Resorts. It will have 120 rooms, 65 staff and cost $50 million.. The light house is never open due to special reguations.The Rottnest Society has criticised the state government over public consultation over the development: “The government has let us all down in not keeping a written commitment to allow the Western Australian public to comment via a properly constituted public comment process on the concept plans for the proposed new hotel at Mt Herschel”. The Society “…is seriously concerned that the introduction of 'high-end' tourists may well bring pressure for more 'up-market' facilities and services on the island, more coach tours, and a much greater disparity between 'high-end' and 'low-end' accommodation.”..


Due to its early discovery and description by explorers, and its isolation from the mainland, Rottnest has had a vital role in improving and understanding aspects of south western Australian ecology. Scientists have been able to research a range of phenomena on the island and make comparisons with the mainland.


As Rottnest is separated from the mainland with no surface fresh water, providing power, water and waste disposal has always been difficult and expensive. In 1996 Rottnest introduced the first public place recycling program in Western Australia. In 2000 the island won the 3R awards (reduce, reuse and recycle).

The original water supply was rainwater harvested from large bitumen sealed catchment areas. In the 1970s fresh water was found underground and was used to supplement the rainfall supply. In 1995 the supply was further supplemented with desalinated groundwater, using a reverse osmosis plant producing up to 500 kL per day.

With the increased power demands from the desalination plant and the increasing price of diesel, harnessing the power of the wind has been planned since 1979. In the 1980s, two wind turbines were built, however high maintenance requirements and excessive power generation resulted in diesel remaining the main power source. In 2004 a new 600 kW wind turbine was erected and is now fully commissioned following upgrades to the power station and the installation of low load diesels.

The wind turbine is expected to generate an overall total of approximately 37% of Rottnest's power requirements, save over 400,000 litres of diesel per year and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by over 1,100 tonnes.

Annual events


Diving Fat fill is a very popular activity at Rottnest. Its varied limestone reef terrain, and plentiful fish make it a very interesting diving destination. In particular, diving for "Crays" or crayfish Western rock lobster, is popular among the locals in the summer months. The season opens November 15 each year, and runs through until June 30. Crayfish may be caught in special traps or "pots", or when diving either by hand or by using a crayfish "Loop". The loop is a spring-loaded steel cable attached to a long pole. It is illegal to use any means that might puncture the shell to catch the crayfish. The bag limit is 8 per licence per day, with a maximum of 16 per boat per day.

A number of locals make the start of crayfish season an annual pilgrimage from the mainland. At the start of the 2005 season, the event was commercialized by Gage Roads Brewing company as the "Gage Roads" Cray Hunt. Prizes were awarded for the heaviest boat catch, and also the largest cray. Unofficially, a number of people have been celebrating the start of the cray fishing season with "CrayFest" since 2000.

Popular culture

  • The US television show The Amazing Race 9 featured an episode with events on the island.
  • The movie Under the Lighthouse Dancing was filmed on the island.
  • An episode of the ABC TV program Surfing the Menu was filmed on the island.
  • An eight-minute film, Amy Goes To Wadjemup Island, was shot on the island in 2006.
  • An early film, Trip to Rottnest, made by the Australian Government to popularise Rottnest as a holiday destination, is thought to be one of the first of its kind.
  • Rottnest features prominently in Robert Drewe's memoir The Shark Net. In the book Drewe recounts how he had his first kiss on the island, and how it played a major role in teenagers' first sexual experiences ("where West Australians lost their virginity"). While attending dances on the island, the author danced close "..up against the bolstered breasts and panty-girdled pelvis of a fifteen-year-old normally spotted at the bus stop in a tartan uniform".
  • The West Australian poet and author Hal Gibson Pateshall Colebatch (whose father, Sir Hal Colebatch was the first Chairman of the Rottnest Island Board), has written many poems about Rottnest, especially in his collection The Light River (Connor Court publishers, 2007)
  • West Australian author and Supreme Court Judge Nicholas Hasluck has also written poems and fictionalised accounts of Rottnest.

See also


External links

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