We left from Freo early Friday morning. Rottnest Island is only 18 kilometres off the coast of Western Australia so we arrived a short twenty-five minutes later. I pressed my face against the window while I waited to disembark, and took in the electric green-blue water licking the stark white shore.
We walked along the jetty, backpacks strapped to us. One of the first things we noticed were no cars, no roads. In place of automobile transportation were hundreds of bikes and bike paths everywhere. The small settlement was populated by little bakeries with picnic tables out front, and cafes with umbrella’d tables on the walkway. Rows of bicycles were lined up outside of every establishment and as we walked past them all, I lost count.
My dad held open a door for us all and we hopped inside a shop underneath a jingling bell. Bike rentals. We paid for four and headed out to grab them. I rode in circles as my dad hovered over a map with the rental shop attendant and in a few minutes, we were whipping down a bike path on this nineteen square kilometre island in the Indian Ocean.
We were staying in the Kingstown military barracks, which dated back to the 1930s. Built of red brick, much like the Freo prison back on the mainland, the accommodations were cool and clinical and functional. The barracks were a c-shaped building with a large clock tower in the center, settled near a point on the shore. We could walk briefly and be on the white sand beach, which was all but deserted. The water was a rash of cobalt blue and vibrant turquoise, and when the tide was low you could walk pretty far out on the spit. Each time we made our way out there, someone inevitably saw a shark.
After a quick lunch in the barracks, we hopped on our bikes again and rode down the paved roads, which were vehicle-free save for the odd tourist shuttle. They were lined with sun-scorched grass and brush and nothing else. No buildings, no houses, no shops, nothing. Just dead grass, dry bushes and little hills as far as the eye could see.
We pointed at a snake in the road as is slithered as fast as it could to get out of our way, and just a few minutes later we were on the South shore of the Island, in a place called Porpoise Bay. It was a small stretch of blinding white sand and the water was dotted with anchored sailboats. I leaned my bike up against a post and ran to the beach, where I got my snorkel gear on as quick as possible. Walking backward toward the water so as not to trip in my fins, I grinned. I knew I’d see something amazing, and I was right. Fish every colour of the rainbow surrounded me before I was in past my hips. I frolicked with them, feeling the harsh sun beat down on my back and I dipped and dove and kicked and swam.
It was when I was following a parrot fish around that I felt a burning sensation on my shoulder. It rapidly became so painful that I had to call for help. I felt like I was on fire, and it was spreading down the length of my arm. My Dad made his way toward me and that’s when I saw a jellyfish, barely visible. Clear, with clear tentacles. It swam back towards me and I began to scream. Having been many places in my short life where jellyfish were a problem, I knew that a lot of them could be pretty venomous. I was terrified I was going to get sick, or worse, die. My Dad finally reached me and took me to shore, where he told me there were no killer jellyfish at Rottnest and I would be fine. The panic subsided which made my pain feel less intense. In another half an hour, I was back in the water.
We headed back to the Barracks for dinner and walked along the spit again out back until dusk fell, when we retired to our military rooms and slept amongst the ghosts of Rottnest.
Exploring Rottnest, we rode along the roads, stopping at all the little coves and bays. There were little islands that dotted the coastline, which were really just rock formations we could swim out to. The water all around the island was a swirl of dark and bright colours like a map of the reefs below. Each of those reefs proved to be teeming with sea life, every time we stopped to dip our heads in. We made it to Mary Cove and Nancy Cove and Strickland Bay. We saw Rocky Bay and Catherine Bay and Little Parakeet Bay before we found ourselves back at the settlement. We bought a cool drink, an ice lolly and sat under an umbrella to cool off before we headed back to the barracks for our last night on Rottnest.
I left the small Island the next day, watching out the back of the ferry and the bright white sand and gemstone water disappearing behind us. I’d never been to a place like Rottnest before that weekend, and that moment, watching it shrink in the distance as we got closer to Freemantle, was the last time I’ve seen it since.