ESCAPE FROM ROTTNEST ISLAND

by Shawn on May 29, 2014 · 5 comments

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As we shuffled along with the fellow pack of daytrippers and tourists, something felt wrong. At the time, I thought it was the lack of ubiquitous wheezing of motor vehicles that we had been accustomed to in Southeast Asia that made things seem unsettled (cars aren’t allowed on the island). Maybe it was the sight of dopily grinning families riding bicycles in neat, synchronized lines on the pristine sidewalks. Perhaps the homogeneously dull butterscotch hue of the buildings.

We looked at each other and I sighed nervously. “It feels like we’ve wandered into a resort,” Carmel noted. “Yeah, I know,” I said, breathing in the cool, salty air from the Indian Ocean.

Graup…Auup…Auup….Awwww squawked several Australian ravens circling overhead.

With trepidation, we stepped off the landing dock at Thomson Bay and entered The Settlement. We had arrived at Rottnest Island.

It was a good idea. To give our hosts a break and explore outside of Perth, Carmel suggested we camp out at Rottnest for a couple nights. Located 18 kilometers off the Western Australia coast, it was a mere 30-minute ferry ride away. There are plenty of wonderful things said about the island—some view it as the ultimate vacation getaway. Seeing pictures of the pristine beaches, the aquamarine water and surrounding lighthouses, it seemed, at the time, like an easy decision. We borrowed a tent and sleeping bags, packed the essentials and left early on a sunny morning for the ferry downtown.

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Leaving Perth behind

Other than the surreal stillness and Hallmark™ in-motion surroundings, I began noticing warning signs, literally. Posts were set up signaling doom for various bad decisions and lurking menace ranging from: Don’t dive in! Don’t ride your bike without a helmet! Watch for snakes! Look out for rocks! Watch the cliffs! Don’t even think of feeding the seagulls and quokkas!

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One of the many ominous warnings

It felt that the otherwise tedious, hot ferry ride had mysteriously transported us into an upper-middle class American gated community. Strange.

After checking in at the front office, a woman gave us an island map, circling our campsite with a pen. We ate a predictably overpriced lunch at one of the many overpriced eateries before trekking to our site. Surrounding us were those ravens, brazenly perched on the railings, waiting for customers to leave before poking into the scraps of food on the plates.

Graup…Auup…Auup…Awwww!

At our table safely situated inside the restaurant, I couldn’t help but draw parallels to Hitchcock’s The Birds. Instead of maniac, bloodthirsty gulls, it seemed like the ravens had the run of this alleged paradise. One large bird caught my stare, and lifted its head up with its hypnotizing, beady eyes. Graup…Auup… Auup…Awww! it challenged me. I gripped onto my fork and stabbed several limp french fries drowning in a pool of ketchup.

The map the woman gave us was askew—the streets were drawn wrong, leading us around a labyrinth of paved sidewalks and dusty roads. We passed a series of small, antiquated (some would describe as “quaint”) cabins that looked right out of an 80’s slasher film, then more modern looking bungalows with laundry blowing dreamily on makeshift clotheslines, and an open, grassy area that could be used for bonfires or an impromptu rugby game.

Finally, we followed our instincts, tried the other side of the field we had already passed, and found the campsite. Each site was approximately 6 feet by 8 feet with a sand base. There were no fires allowed, of course, due to the dry conditions. A bathroom/shower building was up a hill about fifty yards. A communal cooking area was nearby.

We set up camp and walked around. There’s lots to do on the island: snorkeling, hiking, bicycling, ghost hunting. Ghost hunting! After digging into the online research trove, I read that Rottnest Island had once been a penal colony in the mid 19th to early 20th centuries. Over 3,700, mostly Aboriginal, boys and men were imprisoned there, usually for petty crimes. There are rumored to be as many as 369 inmate graves scattered around the island, most of those deaths resulting from an influenza outbreak. Additionally, the island was used as internment camps during both World Wars. The enticingly serene waters surrounding the island also contributed to its nefarious past, causing numerous shipwrecks over the years.

Rotto, as the locals call the island, apparently has a dark, lurid history.

The island offers a nighttime “ghost tour” as reports of paranormal activity were persistent throughout the years, presumably from its grim past, but I wasn’t willing to fork over the cash for an hour of spooky stories and alleged reports.

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On the surface, the island is picturesque

After taking a walk along the beach, we headed back to our site and prepared to get some food at the island’s general store. As we rummaged through our bags, I heard an unearthly howl, followed by equally eerie screeching.

Were these faint echoes the lost souls of Rottnest Island?

Alas, equally as uncanny, were the anxious, unbridled yelps from a large class of co-ed teenagers that had descended into small cabins overlooking our meager site. A particularly loud, scrawny kid chased several girls around a picnic table, aimlessly flapping his arms in the air. Several other cliques settled onto the small front porches, windows and doors opening relentlessly from a steady stream of adolescent traffic and chatter. I sighed wearily, looking over at Carmel. She just shook her head and mumbled, “Great,” under her breath. It was our very own Village of the Damned.

We bought a bag of expensive groceries and sauntered over to the communal cooking area. Six propane-powered griddles coated with grease and leftovers from previous campers were lined up besides a couple of small sinks and stained, leaf littered countertops. Half of the griddles had small notices tacked overhead—“Out Of Order.” The other half looked battered, but functional. Carmel made one of them work, constructing delicious double cheeseburgers that eased the tension that increasingly began dropping down on us like an egregious blanket of fog. The sun was setting, the night approaching. A dangling lightbulb flickered over the grill. I half-expected the token crazy old kook of the island to suddenly creep around the corner, warning us of the killer with a shaky, near hysterical voice: “You’re doomed! You’re all doomed!” Nobody surprised us, however, and we sat down to an uneventful dinner at our site’s picnic table.

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Standing guard of the burgers

Earlier at the general store, we noticed a lone 6-pack of Portland beer. It had been a long, long time since we had decent beer…and this was Portland beer! Already sensing the weird vibes, we easily resigned with spending the ridiculously priced A$26 dollars for a 6-pack.

Comfort has a price but sometimes the price is irrelevant; those times it’s needed and appreciated.

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A little slice of hometown heaven

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And one of the more delicious burgers I’ve eaten

Meanwhile, the teenage wildings had simmered down a bit, scattering around the island like werewolves with pre-dinner activities. Carmel and I sat at the picnic table, enjoying our cold IPA and delicious burgers. Suddenly, I saw something scurrying behind a nearby tree.

Then more shadows on the small path.

Then even more inching closer to our campsite.

“Oh, crap,” I blurted, almost spilling my beer. “What are those?”

They looked like the unholy offspring of river rats who had mated with rabid opossums.

“Those are quokkas,” Carmel told me.

Quokkas are protected on the island and have no natural predators. Rottnest was given the strange name by Dutch captain Willem de Vlamingh in the 17th Century who understandably mistook the quokkas for giant rats (“Rotte nest” means “rat nest” in 17th Century Dutch). According to Huffington Post, these creatures are, “the happiest animals in the world.”

What I witnessed that long and fateful night couldn’t have been further than the truth. Although looking like refugees from Dr. Moreau, they initially acted innocently enough, poking around the sparse foliage.

These things are nocturnal (like vampires) and rumored to be herbivores, but as soon as the lead quokka sniffed cooked meat (I will refer to it as Cujo) he waddled over to the table and began to aggressively search for food around our feet.

We attempted to shoo the beasts away.

I gently shoved Cujo in his butt with my shoe.

Nothing deterred these creatures, they were fearless. Perhaps sensing Cujo’s assessment of the scene, others came scampering down the hill, joining the onslaught.

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Our essential blurry photograph of the enigmatic beast

With sheer desperation, Carmel and I gulped the rest of our food, secured all our garbage and took refuge inside the tent.

My heart was beating fiercely.

Outside, we could hear the scavengers grumble and squeak over scraps that had fallen to the ground. The quokkas sounded vicious out there, like a school of piranha devouring wounded cattle.

“We’re safe in here,” I informed Carmel, who rolled her eyes.

Suddenly, we heard a rustling sound from our tent flap. “What the—“ I began, before Cujo stuck his head under the flap, facing us. A mesh screen separated us, our food and our lives from this monster. To my surprise, it began gnawing on the screen with its bloody, jagged fangs. Its eyes glowed a possessed crimson.

“Get away!” I screamed, kicking at the screen with my shoe. Cujo snarled but retreated back to the veil of darkness.

We huddled with fear in the tent for what seemed like hours (okay, it was mostly me gripping onto Steve Squatch) and when it seemed quiet, I scurried out to the bathrooms to brush my teeth.

With due diligence, I scanned the area for the creatures. Knowing these creatures of the night could spring out from behind a tree at any moment, I adjusted my headlamp down towards the path.

The bathroom was empty and dark.

I searched the outer walls for a switch but couldn’t find anything. I sighed nervously and entered the bathroom.

Like a spell had been cast, my headlamp began flickering and then turned off completely as soon as I entered. “C’mon, c’mon,” I said impatiently, slapping it.

Suddenly, I heard a snicker and sharp clicks from behind me.

I spun around, instantly recognizing those glowing red eyes—it was Cujo the quokka!

I screamed.

Cujo stood defiantly in the urinals, lifting its talons briefly in the air before dropping his foot and sliding his claws across the metal basin with horrifying, screeching finality.

I fumbled for my headlamp and ran back down the path, careful not to trip over a root or wayward log.

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The similarities are uncanny

Luckily, we weren’t bothered by the beasts for the rest of that night, but were haunted by other monsters: the teenagers in the cabins.

The girls’ stereotypical, prolonged screams. The boys’ equally high-pitched, staccato laughter and continued hormonal driven provocation. It was maddening.

As it got later and the supposed “quiet time” at the campground came and went, the teenagers were relentless. “Where are the adults? Why aren’t they doing anything?” Carmel asked.

I imagined the adults had wandered off, to engage in some immoral and/or illegal activities, only to get slaughtered by a machete wielding maniac (or a pack of quokkas).

Perhaps the kids had disposed of them.

Carmel wasn’t in any mood to ponder or wait for the teachers, taking matters in her own hands. Right in the middle of some kid’s puberty-racked squealing, Carmel rushed out of the tent and approached the hill.

“Hey, quiet down,” she hissed up to them.

The kid’s squealing seemed to drown out all other noise.

With chilling authority, Carmel shouted, “Seriously, shut the F*#& UP!”

Finally getting she wasn’t messing around (and maybe noticing she was holding a battered hockey mask) the kids quickly went into their cabins. They didn’t quiet down for over an hour after that and the uneven, hard sand base underneath us didn’t help.

It was a sleepless night for the Montgomerys.

In the morning, Carmel said she felt bad swearing at the kids. However, while eating breakfast we finally spotted one of the teachers saunter over to the group, asking about the interaction with us. The teacher seemed non-committed to instruct or provide any sort of guidance on camping etiquette and one of the boys swore casually and dismissively at the teacher.

Carmel didn’t feel so guilty then.

During breakfast, we agreed to call it quits and take the ferry back to the mainland a day early. Another night on this island seemed maddening. Another sleepless night battling Cujo and his brethren, as well as the teenagers seemed too daunting. I wanted a roof over my head, locks on the doors, a mattress underneath my body.

Graup…Auup…Auup….Awwww, the ravens mocked.

And so, after a pleasant day swimming and sunbathing, we left Rottnest Island.

Much has been said of the island, much of it hyperbolically saccharine and gushing.

Which is fine.

In truth, Carmel and I have discovered we aren’t “Island People.” We prefer towns and cities. We prefer not being surrounded by water, at the mercy of island limitations and inflated island prices. They have a certain appeal to people, I know, but they’re not for us.

Doing some research about the island’s history when we got back to Perth, the whole holiday getaway vibe seemed inappropriate: a makeshift water park where shipwrecks occurred, ice cream stores and bicycle paths next to graves, campsites near internment camps.

Weird, unsettled energy.

So, in the end, the Montgomerys made it to solid ground safely; back to the quiet and peaceful streets of suburbia. Before going inside the house, I peered up at the treetops. Two ravens sat on a branch and squawked. “Not this time,” I mumbled, closing the door behind us.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Karen June 4, 2014 at 5:17 pm

Well, well, certainly a horror movie. Never let the beautiful waters fool you into submission.
Enjoyed the read Shawn, again, smiles and laughter.

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Shawn June 8, 2014 at 1:56 am

Thanks. Hoping that the swamp monsters of Upstate NY don’t come crawling out of the dark muck when we’re visiting.

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Maddie June 15, 2014 at 2:43 am

Thanks for giving me a Sunday morning laugh 🙂 Plus you’ve just made me feel a whole lot better that we didn’t get to Rottnest, I’d always thought we’d missed out.
Maddie recently posted…A little bit of posh in the Lake DistrictMy Profile

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Shawn June 16, 2014 at 7:02 am

I’m glad you enjoyed it, Maddie, thanks for reading it. I don’t think you missed out, but maybe our experience was just an odd one–but in hindsight, the inflatable slides, overpriced ice cream parlors, and scant, overcrowded beaches don’t comprise what I think as an ideal “paradise”, just another tourist trap.

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