Visiting Rottnest Island off the coast of Western Australia was something out of a dream. I had previously heard about Rottnest as being home to “the happiest animal on earth,” the quokka. Online, I had seen countless selfies with these adorable creatures, but I knew I would probably never get the chance to experience these happy, fuzzy marsupials first-hand.
I had decided I wanted to study abroad in Western Australia months before I saw all these selfies online, but figured it would be near impossible to go to the island myself. When I realized our group was taking a trip there, I was beyond ecstatic.
Of course, getting to interact with the quokkas met and exceeded my expectations, but I learned much more at Rottnest island than just about the quokkas and my reaffirmed passion for terrestrial wildlife.
With almost every native referring to the island as “rotto,” this is where I learned how much Australians love to abbreviate words as much as possible (the same goes for calling the city of Fremantle “freo”), which is one thing I have learned to love about Australian culture.
In contrast with it being “the happiest animal on earths’” native habitat, Rottnest island has somewhat of a dark history, as it became established as an aboriginal prison in 1838. I found this astonishing, especially since the prison was still in use as a forced labor camp somewhat recently; it was officially shut down in 1931. During those 93 years, an estimated 370 aboriginals died, most from influenza.
Since there are very few vehicles on Rottnest island aside from a few tour buses, emergency service trucks, and maintenance trucks, the main way to get around the 19 island is by bike. On bike, tourists can stop along their journey to snorkel at the Rottnest basin, hike up to the Rottnest lighthouse, look at the “pink” pond, whose colors are caused by small crustaceans, and stop along the road to interact with quokkas, who love to drink fresh water.
The main settlement on Rottnest, Thomson Bay, consists of a few restaurants, a bakery, a clothing store, a supermarket and a souvenir shop where tourists and quokkas alike eat and refuel. Off of the main town is the closed down aboriginal prison, called “the quod,” which may soon be turned into a cultural and historical aboriginal landmark and memorial. Across from the prison is the Wadjemup Burial Ground, where hundreds of aboriginals were buried. Aboriginal artifacts continue to be dug up on the island by workers doing renovations.
Perhaps the most amazing aspect of Rottnest is its lack of evidence of tourism. The island gets an estimated 500,000 visitors every year, yet pollution, trash, and ecological disruption is kept to a minimum. Much of the preserved flora and fauna are due to the efforts of the Rottnest Island Authority and various volunteer groups. Several sustainability initiatives are in place, including protected sanctuary waters, a plant nursery, proper waste management.
However, visitors also play a huge role in keeping the island pristine, possibly because visitors realize, appreciate, and want to preserve the islands beauty.