A Quest for Quokkas on Rottnest Island

Folks in Mandurah told us to be sure to visit Rottnest Island to see the quokkas. Quokkas? What the heck is a quokka? How can one country have so many animals (mostly marsupials) that we've never, ever heard of? How could we possibly miss out on seeing an animal that is rarely found elsewhere in the world? And so, a day at Rottnest seemed almost mandatory if only to seek out the island's most famous inhabitants.  



We worried that we wouldn't see one, but we didn't have to wait long for one to make an appearance. There are an estimated 10,000 of these cat-sized macropods (big footed) on the island and they're not particularly shy nor afraid of humans. Though there are a few places where they occur on mainland Australia, predators and loss of habitat have all but wiped them out. Here on Rottnest, they're free to live and thrive … and they do. They're primarily nocturnal by nature, but you'd never know it. They did tend to stay in shadier areas, but they were out in great numbers when we visited.




Peter was our knowledgeable volunteer guide, a human rights lawyer educating us about quokkas. The word quokka is derived from the Aboriginal Nyungar word, gwaga. Though they look like little kangaroos as they hop around, they can climb trees. They're herbivorous little critters and we saw them munching on grasses and Norfolk pine needles when they weren't begging for food from willing, but ill-advised, tourists. Though there are many quokkas resident on Rottnest, they're classified as a “vulnerable” species because of their restricted range and the fact that they only rear one offspring per year. It was that time of year fortunately, and we saw many joeys, or at least parts of joeys, in their mamas' pouches. Peter knew just the locations to check to find the quokka nursery.


joey hanging out of pouch


Rottnest certainly offers more in the way of animals than just quokkas. We saw lots of birds. Seagulls, raven and terns were nearly a nuisance at the waterfront restaurants, vying with the restaurant's patrons for their lunches. As we walked around the island and past the lakes, we spotted several other bird species. Had we been able to visit longer, I think our bird list would have grown significantly.

Clockwise from top left: Brush Bronzewing, Silvereye, Plover, Pied Oystercatcher, Australian Shelduck, Galahs, a not-so-native peacock and Shelduck ducklings.


rottnest island birds


One of the critters we hoped to avoid was the duggite, a poisonous snake native to the island. We saw one at the museum and that was sufficient.




We did, however, manage to see some of the other reptiles on the island. A King's skink, known as a wandy to the Aborigines, crossed my path most unexpectedly. I wasn't anticipating that they'd be quite so big, but this one was about 18” (46cm) long. I'm not partial to skinks, even little ones. We also saw a related skink called a bobtail or a Western shingleback. We can understand the bobtail designation. He reportedly has a bright blue tongue which he displays when threatened. We did not see his tongue unfortunately.


western shingleback or bobtail


We sat at the waterfront pub for awhile and nursed our pints while watching the seagulls do their thing. The sun was shining brightly. It was warm and lovely. A peacock strolled by and quokkas tickled our feet as they scrounged for leftovers under the tables.


quokka under our feet


We dragged the dinghy off the beach and motored back to Nine of Cups. She was rocking and rolling in the surge, but it was manageable. We hauled the dinghy and lashed it to the deck. We wanted an early start in the morning. We poured a glass of wine and toasted a beautiful, blazing Western Australia sunset. Some days are good … others are pretty great!


western australia sunset

Let a New Passage Begin

A two-day pleasant weather window with light winds in the forecast and we were heading out of Fremantle to begin our new passage: Fremantle to Cape Town.  

leaving freo


We've vacillated between just heading out and clawing our way north against the winds, waves and weather or perhaps just being patient and taking advantage of small weather windows, making our way north hopping from port to port as weather allows until we catch the easterly trades. No further discussion needed here, is there? David gave Neptune his requisite tot of rum and we pointed Nine of Cups west in the direction of Rottnest Island.


neptunes rum


We not talking a big start to the voyage mileage-wise. Rottnest … Rotto to the locals... is only 10nm miles away. It's a small island, ~7 miles long (11km) by ~3 miles wide (4.5km) at its widest point, but it's been an Australian A-class nature reserve since 1917. The Aborigines lived here possibly as long as 70,000 years ago based on artifacts found and before rising sea levels separated the island from the mainland. It figures into Aboriginal mythology as Wadjemup, “place across the water.”


aerial photo  wiki commons


The Dutch were the first Europeans to note the island on their maps and visit. Rotte nest (meaning rat's nest) was named by the Dutch captain, Willem de Vlamingh who explored the island in 1696 and thought the endemic quokkas he saw were giant rats. The name stuck. As we approached Rottnest, we could see the island's two lighthouses from miles away. As we neared the island, Wadjemup Light dropped out of view and Bathurst, sitting sentry on the point, looked staid and solitary.


bathurst lighthouse


We arrived mid-morning and picked up a mooring. A northerly swell worked its way around the reefs and surged in to create a rolly anchorage. We launched the dink, headed into to shore and beached it in a designated area. We paid our landing and mooring fees at the Visitor's Center ($66 … ouch!), picked up our island map, checked out the times for free guided tours, then struck out to see what we could see.


cups moored


Visiting the island has two sides … the historical and the natural. Rottnest offers a lot of history and we thought we'd start there. The island's inland salty lakes were used for salt harvesting and the pasture land for grazing since 1831, just two years after the Swan River Colony was founded. Beginning in 1888, the island became an Aboriginal prison until 1931. It also served as a boy's reformatory in the late 19th century and as an internment camp during WWI and WWII. Many of the buildings have been restored and several are available as visitors' lodgings. There's a row of iconic limestone houses along Vincent Way which line the shore at the main settlement at Thomson Bay.


iconic cottages


The island is a fine place to wander. Other than a couple maintenance vehicles and a tourist bus, the only method of transport is by bicycle or on foot. We thought about renting a bike, but decided the walking would do us good. We visited the old Salt Store first, which, believe it or not, was used for storing salt. It now houses historical photos and island exhibitions.


salt store


We headed down the lane to the Lomas Cottage which was open to the public. Originally built in 1871 for prisoner, John Benedict Lomas, a scoundrel with a long record of law-breaking, it's a bit of a mystery as to why Lomas was afforded such treatment. Several folks have pondered it, but the official story is that “the government took pity on a poor old man”. Doesn't make sense when you consider how other prisoners were treated. This would make a good Rottnest Island mystery novel.


lomas cottage


We strolled past numerous cottages and buildings over to the Rottnest Island Museum, housed in the Old Mill and Hay Store. Its three rooms are full of pieces of the island's history, flora and fauna. One room is dedicated to the Aboriginal prisoners who were incarcerated here. Another room contained memorabilia from those who lived here and subsequently the island's transition to a tourist destination. Interspersed was information about the island's native, non-human residents


museum display


The chapel across the street was simple and stark … small and serene as island chapels tend to be.




We walked to the cemetery and learned it was the European cemetery. A monument states there are only 13 identifiable graves at the site. We counted a total of 22 … mostly children. Many of the headstones are rough and have no inscription on them or the inscriptions have worn away.There is another cemetery on Rottnest that contains the bodies of around 350 Aboriginals. None of their graves are marked in any way.


rottnest cemetary


There's a bit of touristy stuff mixed in with the history. A mini-golf course and a Country Club that offers 9 holes and a bowling green. You can rent bikes or kayaks or snorkels. There's a pub or two and hotels in addition to the historic cottages available. There are a number of small restaurants including a Subway and coffee shops. I bought a postcard in the General Store and was amazed to see a Ben & Jerry's free-standing freezer full of B&J's ice cream. There was David's favorite … New York Super Fudge Chunk for $13.99/pint. We paused for nanosecond and moved on.


ben and jerrys


It was time for our quokka tour … our primary reason for visiting Rottnest Island. Check back tomorrow for a look at Rottnest's most famous residents.