Getting to Rottnest Island in Western Australia begins with a fast ferry from the port city of Fremantle. I noticed a number of travellers load bicycles onto the ferry. I didn’t know why until the ferry docked.
As I rushed to get a good view of the expansive water body, bicycle owners hurried to offload and swiftly rode away. Cycling, I came to realise, is a popular activity when touring Rottnest Island especially for those who love to keep physically fit.
For environmental conservation, privately owned vehicles are not permitted onto the island, but there are Rottnest Island Authority buses available to get around in.
Rottenest is separated from Perth, on mainland Australia, by 18km of sea. The island is 11km long and 4.5km at its widest point, covering an area of approximately 1,860 hectares.
On a tour, one can take a scenic flight, use a seaplane or have fun walking around the island.
Our journey on a Sunday morning turned out to be great. The weather was clear and sunny in spite of the winter season. Rottenest Island experiences a temperate climate — cool, wet winters and warm dry summers.
Coming from Uganda where wildlife safaris are about lions, elephants, rhinos, gorillas and birding, Rottnest Island presented a new experience.
The sea is sky-blue in stark contrast with the white sand.
The island is clean, so I asked the authorities how they manage their trash.
"We do not have a dumping ground at Rottnest, so a lot of waste generated here is taken back to Perth for proper disposal. Only 44 per cent of the waste is recycled on the island. We have a duty to keep this environment clean," said Michelle Reynolds, the executive director of Rottnest Island.
Rottnest Island’s 2017/2018 data on tourist arrivals shows that they received 735,000 visitors with a 70 per cent annual average occupancy of serviced accommodation.
Rottenest Island is the largest and most northern of a chain of limestone islands off the coast near Perth. The islands are the emergent features of a limestone ridge that was once part of the coastline before the sea levels rose, approximately 10,000 years ago.
It has 12 salt lakes. While the picturesque turquoise bays have essentially remained unchanged through time, the vegetation has been significantly altered over the years.
The island has endangered quokkas that are a major attraction to the tourists.
These small marsupials, baout the sizze of a domestic cat, are friendly and a darling on the island; many tourists take selfies with them. However, they are highly threatened on the main land.
“This is why we do not allow private vehicles on the island. Accidents could occur and wildlife could get killed or injured,” Ms Reynolds said.
The Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh described Rottnest Island as a terrestrial paradise when he visited the island in 1696. He described it as an island covered in woodland with rich wildlife.
Since then human influence has drastically altered the natural features of the environment. Rottenest is now covered by low-lying vegetation with small patches of woodland.
Prior to the European settlement, Rottnest Island was covered with native trees like Rottnest Island pine and Rottnest tea trees which provided habitat for local wildlife like snakes, geckos, lizards, frogs, bats, quokkas and other fauna. Salt-tolerant species are however dominant like the samphire.
The island’s authority is working to restore the woodland dune, swamp and hinterland environments. Since the 1960s, efforts have been made to preserve native species like the Rottnest Island pine and the Rottnest tea tree.
Visiting school children pick the seeds and seedlings and inmates at the Bunbury district prison propagate them during winter.
The wind is strong on Rottnest Island because of its position out at sea. The average wind speed is 26km per hour, however gusts of up to 118km per hour are common.
These frequent strong winds have affected the growth of many trees, particularly the Rottnest Island tea tree. It is common to see wind sculpted tea trees growing almost horizontally.