THIS fellow is a quokka and you will only have seen one in the furry flesh on Rottnest Island, or Rotto as everyone here calls it. Quokkas live nowhere else.
Rottnest is a low-lying island off the coast of Perth and the ferry there takes about 30 minutes. Almost as soon as you step off the jetty, you will meet your first quokka. These marsupials are about the size of a cat, have hinged back legs like a kangaroo or wallaby, cute faces and a long tail.
Roos use their tail as another limb, and perhaps the quokkas do too, although you can’t escape thinking that it looks like a rat’s tail. That’s what 17th century explorers from Holland thought, and the island’s name comes from early Dutch for “rats’ nest”.
The quokkas are everywhere on the island and visitors stoop and kneel to photograph them, some even risking a $150 fine for stroking the creatures. The maximum fine for harming a quokka is $50,000, reportedly, and two years ago two French tourists were fined $4,000 each for burning a quokka using a deodorant can and a lighter.
That clearly served them right, but you can see that the quokka exists somewhere between being a feted cutie and a blessed nuisance. Or big rats with better PR.
Anyway, they are appealing, they are everywhere on Rotto, and although Wikipedia has them down as nocturnal, someone forget to tell the quokkas, as scores of the creatures were out in the daylight, although they did look a little sleepy.
We bought sandwiches from the bakery in the little port, where a gate keeps out the food-snuffling quokkas, and got on the bus. You can buy a ticket that lets you hop on and off around the island. That bus was hot and smelt of diesel. “Can we have some air in here, mate,” one of the passengers heckled the driver.
There are no cars on Rotto, just buses and delivery vehicles; and lots of hire bicycles. The bus set off and the ancient air-conditioning blew one puff of vaguely cool air towards our hot faces. We got off after a few stops, gulping the fresh sea air, and strolled up to Wadjemup Lighthouse.
When you walk through history, you often end up with something nasty on the bottom of your shoe. Rottnest Island today is a nature reserve, a place of great beauty, its coastline filled with picturesque sandy bays. But the island has a dark past, as it was used as an Aboriginal prison for many years, and the lighthouse was finished in 1849 by prisoners hauling the heavy stone into place.
A new lighthouse was built at the end of the century and was involved in saving some members of the crew after a British ship, the City of York, was wrecked off the island’s treacherous coast in 1899.
We climbed the lighthouse tower, led by a refugee from Liverpool, who told us not to have our hands in our pockets during the visit. As a hands-in-pockets sort of a guy, I was ticked off many times, but the visit was interesting, and the views from the top were great.
After that we walked for a while and found a deserted cove where we ate our sandwiches, then we popped on a different bus – cooler this time, thanks to the emergency exit panel in the roof being open – and drove along more of the coast, before stopping to walk the last part, and dozing on the beach below another pillar of safely, the Bathurst Lighthouse.
We bought ice creams before the mini-voyage back to Fremantle. The boat was full and no doubt the cameras were full of pictures of those quokkas and their friendly-seeming faces.