Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Rottnest Island

March 19th, 2006:

Being the seasoned island hopper that I am (!)(Koh Samui -> Koh Tao -> Koh Samui, Sentosa), I realized in (mock) horror that it had been a whole seven days since the last time I was on an offshore island, so todays excursion was to the picturesque "Rottnest Island" which is located 28KM off the Western Australia coast.

A number of tour operators provide one day tours to/around this island and I went with "Hillary's Fast Ferries" which conveniently collected me from my accommodation at Scarborough beach, took me to and from the island and dropped me back to my accommodation at the end of the day.

There are a number of ways you can view this historic (think late 19th - mid 20th century) island and considering it was scheduled to be 37C in the Perth area that day, most people took the air-conditioned buses. I, however, like to do things differently and so rented a mountain bike from one of the many bike shops so that I might cycle around the island, view things at my own pace and to be able to take more pictures.

I was initially dubious about my bike handling ability as I hadn't been in the saddle for ten-fifteen years, but I found that old saying about riding a bike to actually be true and had no problems. My partner in crime for the day was an American girl from Arkansas and together we set off to do our worst.

Our first stop was at one of the main settlements on the island. Here we viewed one of the main industries back in the day, salt mining, and there was also references to how the aboriginal people were integrated into the community: sadly it was the aboriginal jail and the aboriginal graveyard which were two of the more prominent facilities which remain. We hadn't bothered with a guided tour of the settlement but hopefully a guide would have shown that there was a more coherent and productive integration between the two communities.

So, after the settlement it was time to check the map to find the next place to visit. After checking, it had to be rechecked as neither of us wanted to have to use the soul-destroying words "we, uh, may have to turn around..." especially with the exertion of cycling in "the oven".

Once we were both satisfied, we were off. We gamely tried to ignore the smug looking tourists in the cool, moving fridges, aka buses-with-air-conditioning, and pressed on. Still, at the very next stop we had our revenge: we had found a site which the tourist buses didn't visit. The WW2 anti-naval guns at Oliver Hill.

It seems that in the 1930s, the British feared a possible problem coming up with Germany and Japan. They built anti-naval gun batteries through the commonwealth to bolster defenses. Throughout the years since the war, the guns were decommissioned, many being sold for ten shillings(!) and today only four remain, two of which are on Rottnest (the others are in Gibraltar and South Africa).

In the late 80's early 90's, lottery money was used to bring the Rottnest guns back to their former glory and today the three storey complex is in near-original condition (except for the live ammunition, naturally).

The magazine room with shells (sans-explosives) which weight 150KG+ is on the tour, as is the cordite (explosive used for propellant) room with its spark resistant floors and blast resistant ceilings, followed by the engine room (without the diesel generators), all of which are connected by underground corridors and finally the 9.2", 360 degree rotational, two storey gun itself. Sadly, test firing the gun was not on the tour but it was well worth the visit and we were expertly guided around by our volunteer tour guide.

The guns are located at the top of a big hill and it was near murder cycling up it, but the near break-neck speeds we managed on the way back down made up for it.

We pushed on, but right about the time we started seeing shimmering mirages on the road surface we stopped for the next activity: snorkeling. We had both rented the equipment and Deborah (the American) had done it before also so we were soon swimming and competing to see who could find the weirdest looking tropical fish (I had to tell myself afterwards that its not important who won: its the taking part that counts...(!).

In the bus back to the accommodation, after the ferry had dropped us back, most people were falling asleep which indicates how action packed the day was (and most of my fellow passengers had taken the easy bus option instead of the bike option). One piece of advice I would dispense is that the restaurants on the island were relatively expensive (captive audience & limited competition = increased expense) so if you can bring a packed lunch that may be best.

So, if you're looking for something to do around Perth, Rottnest may prove to be a fun and energetic way to spend the day.