Visiting the quokkas on Rottnest Island

WILD AND WEIRD: The crossing to Rottnest Island can take more than your breath away.
WILD AND WEIRD: The crossing to Rottnest Island can take more than your breath away.

It is amazing how many regrets flash through your mind when you are head down in a paper bag, the sound of retching all around you.

Less than an hour earlier, as the waves started rising, I had relayed a hilarious story to my travel companions about a nightmare Cook Strait ferry crossing.

"It was so disgusting. Everyone was spewing, there were people groaning in the aisles . . ." I recalled. There was laughter, heads shaking in disbelief. It must have been terrible! A few minutes later, the talking eased. Gosh, it was getting hot. I shrugged off a layer. A man across the aisle had turned a peculiar shade of grey. A baby was crying and still the boat lurched. Why was it feeling kind of hard to breathe?

HAPPY ANIMAL: A quokka on Rottnest Island.
HAPPY ANIMAL: A quokka on Rottnest Island.

I stood up with the sudden clear knowledge that it would be better outside. There, a line of people gazed earnestly out across the stern, attempting to focus on a sliding, jolting horizon. To be fair, this morning our group's tour guides had done their best to convince us a trip to Rottnest Island, 18 kilometres off the coast of Perth, was a bad idea. "It's not fun when it's rough," one of them had said.

Being the hardened bunch of Kiwis that we were, we laughed off the idea that it was anything we couldn't handle. "It'll be fine," someone said. "I'm sure the weather will clear up later anyway," someone else agreed, and we all ignored the clouds rumbling past.

If only I'd known "it's not fun when it's rough" would actually mean: "Everyone around you will be losing their guts, and you'll feel like a butter churner is at work in your stomach." An hour and a half after departure from Perth, of which every minute felt like a lifetime, the ferry berthed on Rottnest Island. Passengers stumbled from the boat, some still clutching sick bags.

Our little group lay haphazardly on a grassy knoll, soft groans audible. But as the last of the queasiness wore off, out came Western Australia's sun.

Rottnest Island is the kind of place you imagine Robinson Crusoe would have washed up on. And in fact, the surrounding waters are home to many shipwrecks - more than 13, at the last count - victims of the rough coastline and rudimentary navigational instruments of early sea voyagers.

The island was inhabited by Aboriginals, until it drifted away from the mainland about 7000 years ago. So it lay uninhabited until discovery by Dutch navigators in the 17th century, who chanced upon it while searching for the survivors of another lost ship. Six years later, in 1696, Willem de Vlamingh was the next recorded European visitor to Rottnest Island. He named it "Rotte nest" (meaning "rat nest" in early Dutch) for the huge, rat-like creatures that inhabited the island - we'll come back to the quokkas later.

From 1838 it became a prison for Aboriginals and is thought to have held more than 3700 men and boys until the turn of the century. Prisoners were then used to build infrastructure and roads, and it became a hub for recreation and tourism - apart from a hiatus in World War I, when it was used as a prisoner of war camp for Austrians and Germans. During World War II, it was briefly reinvented as a military defence base.

An island with that much fascinating history, not to mention the existence of giant rat-like creatures, ought to be worth exploring. The best way is by bike, on hire from Rottnest Island Pedal and Flipper ($16 for a half day). A swift pedal and you're out of the town, cycling up sandy hills to the Wadjemup Lighthouse. One of the oldest lighthouses in Australia, it was built in 1896 and towers over what is, today, an extremely choppy bay.

Every corner seems to reveal another secluded, white sand beach, and you could spend all day - days, in fact - visiting each of the 20 coves around the island.

Instead, my fellow cyclists and I take a turn for the pub. Fish and chips may seem a risky choice, but the morning's stomach woes are by now all but forgotten. Aristos Waterfront affords views across the Indian Ocean, with fresh local seafood in a casual atmosphere.

Now for the quokkas. This furry marsupial, which has somehow gained itself a tagline on YouTube as the happiest animal on earth (its facial features do kind of make it look like it's grinning at you) is everywhere on Rottnest.

Around the size of a cat, with the tail of a rat, the quokka can only be found on Rottnest and a handful of smaller islands around the coast of Western Australia.

I'm torn between thinking it's unbearably cute and kind of gross. As tourists flock to take photographs, a small child reaches over to pat an animal. Her Australian mum comes stalking over. "Don't touch that, eet's deesgusting! You'll get diseases," she chides, pulling her daughter away. Decision made.

On the other side of the island, away from the lighthouses, is a quaint wee airstrip. If you wanted to avoid the ferry altogether, you could charter a return flight for around $100 per person.

Parking my bike and walking through the trees, I chance upon a surreal sight. The wind is whipping seafoam up from the waves, making the air look like a giant washing machine with soapsuds whirling. On the abandoned beach in the dim afternoon light, I almost expect a dinosaur to come crashing out of the forest.

Back to the land of the living, it's time for a quick stop for supplies at the Rottnest General Store (complete with quokka guards) and a whip through the museum, housed in an old mill store, to soak up some of the seafaring history.

With a sinking heart, I board the ferry for the ride home - but my fears are unfounded. The island recedes into the distance along with the gentle rocking of the afternoon waves, and it almost seems like this morning didn't happen.

Is that the wind, or the chuckles of salty old sea dogs I can hear as we dock at Fremantle? "Harden up girl," they laugh. "It's plain sailing from here."

The writer travelled courtesy of TFE hotels.


Staying there

Rendezvous Grand Hotel Perth Scarborough has just had a major makeover, and with a brilliant view across Scarborough beach is a prime spot from which to explore both Rottnest, the local beaches and Perth city. There are shops, day spas, restaurants and even a nightclub nearby, and it's just minutes from Hillary's Boat Harbour to catch the ferry.

Getting there

From December 6, 2014 through to April 26, 2015, Qantas will begin twice weekly services direct to Perth departing Auckland on Saturday and Sunday. Economy one way airfares start at $549.

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