Thursday, August 5, 2010

Rottnest Island: Quokkas, Beaches, Beer

This is a quokka, a very small marsupial, er, monopod. They are very adorable and could not give less of a crap about your presence, unless you are carrying chips, in which case it's all big brown eyes and quivering little whiskery noses. Note that Rottnest's resident quokkas tend to the fatty side of the spectrum, and you will grok the efficacy of this tactic. Quokkas hang out wherever tourists with junkfood congregate, and are more then happy to take any available snacks off your greedy little hands. They used to be common on the mainland but were quickly killed off, as they are cute, slow, and tasty. They remain populous and just a little bit too smug on Rottnest.

Every single city in the entire world has some sort of Holiday Playground, and Perth has Rotto, which is perennially shortened (in classic Aussie-ese) to "Rotto". As Perth is roughly in the middle of nowhere and is at least a five hour flight from any city you'd want to buy a luxury condo in, Rottnest is also extremely, ridiculously popular. This flat little island's snorkeling routes, nice weather, and population of adorable furry native animals translates into 10 year long lotterys for villa spots in the high season, packed-up ferries, and a surprising array of concessions, ice cream vendors, and Violet Crumble wrappers near verdant salt-lakes.

Very aquamarine indeed.

But Rottnest is indeed worth a visit, and is mercifully under-crowded in the summer (you know, winter, because Australia is just wrong). Then, one can amble around some honest-to-god aquamarine warm water lagoons fondle quokkas with one eye open for the authorities who would love to fine you for doing so, and feed yourself on chili mussels and pints while contemplatively watching the waves. There is a pub on Rotto, of course. Australians wither and die without a proper beer-acquiring venue nearby. It's actually a biological fact.

Rottnest sheared off from Australia's mainland around 7,000 years ago, and was fairly studiously avoided by local Aboriginals not soon after. They called the place Wadjemup and considered it a place of the spirits - lacking the boats needed to make the trip over once the water level rose - and it was not occupied or used much until the 1600's. That's when the sea-faring and always enterprising (perhaps too much so) Dutch ran across the place way back in 1658. Samuel Volkerson, captain of the ship Waeckende Boey, came across Rotto while looking for survivors from another ship-wreck, exceedingly common in this locality of tricky and hard-to-spot reefs. But it was William de Vlamingh in 1696 who named the island Rottnest, due to a feat of remarkable zoological laziness: he figured the quokkas were actually a sort of bizarre hopping rat, and named it "Rat nest". The island soon functioned as a lighthouse point, and was then from 1838 to 1904 was converted, like just about everything in Australia, into a prison - in this case, an aboriginal gaoal, where the original inhabitants were put to work building stuff from ligthouses to garrisons.

There were also a few Europeans
who attempted to farm Rottnest island - a profoundly bad idea, considering the lack of water, dry climate, and heavy winds. After 1904, the Aboriginal prison was closed, and the island became devoted to both army and tourism use. It was used as a P.O.W camp in WWI, serving as a not unsalubrious holding pen for 989 prisoners. In WWII, Rottnest was a major military center, and housed some very large guns and a profusion of soldiers. The Army used the island as late as 1984, at which point it was finally declared to be a spot for vacationers only.

We thought the Rottnest Express ferry to Rottnest was all booked up, and then discovered that the Firefox browser has a tendency to list the ferries as full when they actually are not. So we loaded up for the thirty minute ride over, which was disappointingly low on high seas and pirates, though Mike is prone to sea-sickness and that would definitely have ruined his day. The little market area across from the Rottnest Express is sort of an incredible explosion of Australian kitsch in one convenient location - stop here to get a cork hat, a t-shirt bragging about the size of your genetalia, and 15,000 different kinds of stuffed Koala bear. I imagine every Australian home just slowly accumulates this stuff, slowly driving out the occupants. There can't be THAT many tourists out here.

The 1900 Bathurst lighthouse here pretty much looks like a lighthouse, though the tour guide did have a great tidbit to share with us. Lighthouse keepers have a historical reputation for insanity, and Rottnest was no different - at least five lighthouse keepers committed suicide on a nice wind-swept hill directly below it. (Nice view, out to the water. Might as well do such a thing in an aesthetically pleasing manner). Lighthouse lights rest in a small pool of liquid mercury, which, as any non-idiot knows, isn't very good for you. In fact, it has a tendency to make you crazy - the wacky first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang took it as a medicine - and it's thought that the mercury is what drove the keepers to off themselves.

Lovely cliffs at the end of Rotto.

As in any Aussie attraction worth a damn, there are big ass reptiles. These are King's Skinks, which are docile and quite pretty when the sun hits em' the right way. Japanese tourists love squealing when they see these.

Beaches here are lovely.

I didn't enter though let me tell you I SURE WAS TEMPTED. Seriously, though. Crumbly rocks, cold water, imminent death, entry into spirit world of Aboriginals, corpse devoured by quokkas, etc etc.

After the bus tour, I desperately needed calories. We headed over to the Rottnest Lodge, a surprisingly contempo establishment right on the water. The menu is high-end Australian eats. A peacock came inside and stared at us with little beady eyes while we ate and drank champagne. You know, usual stuff. I want to hit up the Quokka Arms next time I come down.

Chili mussels are on every single menu here. It's uncanny and amazing. Every menu has chili mussels, Caesar salad, some sort of faux burger, and salt and pepper squid. Also Caesar salads here are made with a mayonnaise dressing and a whole lot of weird Canadian-like Aussie bacon, which is just wrong on so many levels, oh my god. (Upcoming on this blog: How We Got the Local Butcher to Make Real American Bacon, And It was Tasty, and Australia was Forever Frickin' Changed).

Before we left on the 4:00 ferry, we went for a walk around one of the island's salt lakes, which are still, a bit smelly, and very attractive in a surrealist sort of fashion. The lake was Quokka Grand Central and populated by hordes of the little guys, who came up to us expectantly as we walked up the path, their little brown eyes pleading, pleading, for deep-fried potato snacks. Fat chance, beasties. My aunt and I did decide that I should go into quokka ranching as a backup career if this journalism crap doesn't work out. I'll hire a bunch of midgets (oh excuse little people), a few Shetland ponies, some trained corgis, and lots of teeny-tiny ropes. All I'll need is a couple of acres and a grandstand for spectators. I will run the quokkas across the mighty plains of Western Australia, and make lovely fashion hand-bags from their luxurious pelts. Well, not that luxurious.

Maybe this idea isn't as much of an economic winner as I had anticipated.

Damn it.

Next time I go to Rotto, I think I'll definitely rent a bike - seems like a leisurely way to see the island, now that I've done the bus tour and have a good overview. I'd suggest the bus tour to first time visitors or the profoundly lazy, though I certainly belong in both those categories. It's a pleasant place indeed, and doubtless even more so when the water is actually warm enough to swim in.

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