Secret charms on Rottnest Island
There's this mottled slab on the horizon visible from Perth's coastline. Locals gaze at it dreamily, sighing as if thinking of a lost love, yearning to be reunited. "Ah, Rotto," they say with a gentle smile. "I wish I was over there again."
Only 19 kilometres across the ocean, Rotto, as they call it, is Rottnest Island: the island of "rats" - or so thought one of the early explorers from Holland - mistaking fearless, furry quokkas for rodents.
It's where West Australians spend their childhood holidays, where blushing teens steal their first kiss, where big-ticket entrepreneurs and mining magnates moor their streamlined boats and where bikes rule over cars.
They're head over heels about it, lifelong devotees.
So, as an import, a transplant, I was a tad perplexed when I first got there. Sure, the 63 bays with their honey-coloured sand and azure waters were a salve to the eyes, but what about the harsh limestone rock and the dry, brittle scrub that edges the coast?
What about the heat reflecting off the asphalt as I laboured uphill, muscles searing on my generic, hired bike?
And what about the annoying masses pushing to get on and off the bloated ferry in visors, thongs and singlets? It was nice, sure. But to me, this place was overrated. "West Aussies need to travel more," I silently surmised.
Subsequent day trips did little to dissuade my impressions. A ferry over mid-morning, rushing to snorkelling spots, queuing at the unbelievably busy bakery, then before I know it, back on the shuddering vessel as it bounces me back to Fremantle.
Then, a revelation. Friends who treasure their annual fortnight on the former penal colony suggest we join them for a few days - only a few, mind, lest we disrupt their blissful state.
I begrudgingly load my bike in our van, a box of booze and bags of groceries with bathers, T-shirts and sunscreen shoved in the cracks.
We arrive at their rented shack - no one's allowed to own property on egalitarian Rotto - a bare construction that's been there since the island replaced its prisoners with holidaymakers. Again, a singular eyebrow arches.
But somehow, without me noticing, Rotto lifts her veil. She winks at me around the time the day trippers are ferried off the island.
Wandering down to a quiet cove, chilled bottle of something Margaret River in hand, with deli cheeses and cured meats, we score the beach to ourselves.
The sunset coats the sand in peach and a century-old lighthouse broods silently behind us as the kids splash in the shallows, friends clinking glasses and laughing.
Thoughts of my busy life across the water evaporate in that moment and I too fall under the island's spell.
Rotto's transformative nature continues to work its magic for the next two days - slowing time so our "mini-break" feels like a week. Lazy rides to the tennis courts; cavorting underwater with sea lions; cruising the coast in a canary-yellow catamaran; fishing off the jetty; herring for breakfast.
Children are watched only momentarily - with no cars there's little danger and everyone on the island becomes a pseudo parent, watching after little ones experiencing a rare kind of pure freedom.
I sport only bathers and a sarong for three days straight.
Oh dear, a lump's forming in my throat just thinking about it. For I won't return to Rotto, never again. Unless I can stay.
Day trips just don't cut it, and Rotto won't love you back if your visit is fleeting.
Sydney Morning Herald