Wine in your belly, stars in your eyes
The quokkas are everywhere on Rottnest Island, and so is their pellet-sized poop. Crushed and smooshed by the various vehicles and footfall, some have even flattened under the weight of tourists laid out, sun-tanning on the green. The poop, that is, not the adorable creatures.
A few months before this trip, two men were charged with abusing a quokka that they’d caught. On camera, one of them was seen kicking and flinging the terrified animal about. But it’s not a recent thing. The ’70s and the ’80s were filled with stories of “quokka soccer”, according to the guide on the bus tour. During the years when Rottnest was used as a prison for Aboriginal men under the racist colonial administration, qnokkas were game meat for consumption. Our ride around the island, relatively shielded from the blazing sun outside, revealed several quokkas hiding under the shade of low shrubbery And the tourists hunting them for an Instagram picture.
Beautiful as the island is, all sparkling azure seas and stark landscape of brushes across the land, it all gets pretty depressing after a bit of history and seeing the thin, patchy fur of the quokkas caused by tourists feeding them junk for a selfie. On the ferry ride to Fremantle, I chat with an older lady who regales me with stories of her travels, changing my earlier impression of the island. She’s been visiting Rottnest since 1965 and has choice words for the quokka abusers: “Ten minutes in a pen with dingoes as sentence. Good luck!”
The island is best experienced over a couple of days, according to her, and as far away from the day-trippers as possible. Perhaps another time.
On the road
Perth is the place you go to retire. Or so the Singaporean cliche goes. We landed in the capital of Western Australia at the tail-end of the Easter holidays, with shops shuttered and streets empty. Three days later, in Fremantle, it is no different. A quiet city greets us on our ferry from Rottnest, a ghost town of shops already closing up for the day and people going home. It is the third biggest port after Melbourne and Sydney, but doesn’t quite feel like it. We’re a long way from Singapore, five days by boat, to be specific.
The capital has its charms, of course. Perth city with its beautiful, colourful graffiti that lifts up the drab, squat buildings. Peeling posters advertising delights, which you could never publicly advertise in Singapore, are plastered on buildings sandwiched by Asian restaurants of different cultures.
The crisp, fresh air of King’s Park and the moderate bustle of Elizabeth Quay reveal more of the city’s inhabitants of the Swan Valley, including a lavish encampment for the rich by the river aptly dubbed Tuscany on the Swan. Settled in 1829, Fremantle is touted as the “best preserved 19th-century port streetscape in the world” by the tourism board of Western Australia.
Historic buildings housing trendy gigantic H&M in an old post office in Perth City, are practically de rigueur in Perth.
And Fremantle, in particular, has that aplenty. We have a hearty breakfast, the start of many more of this Australian institution, at Moore & Moore cafe, which operates out of the 177-year-old Moore building. A promenade through the streets to meet our ride reveals many more of the quirky bookstores and the cool eateries that populate the city, with plaques proudly carried on the building’s facade explaining its history.
We finally meet Gloria Mischewski of Perth Luxury Tours, our driver for the rest of the trip. Jovial and utterly hilarious, this Kiwi grandmother has many years of expert driving all over Western Australia. It’s a long drive, about three hours, to our stay for the next two nights in Margaret River. Western Australia is massive, and the best way to really experience it is to be on the road with several pit-stops along the way.
Our first outside Perth is the Bunbury Dolphin Discovery Centre. A purely non-profit, it’s been devoted to dolphin research and conservation since 1994. It is in the process of refurbishment, to better serve the needs of the community with a larger venue and more space for visitor education about the pods of over 200 wild bottlenose dolphins living in and around Koombana Bay. Set to be completed by 2018, the centre, nonetheless, continues to operate as usual with the high-light of its activities being a cruise.
Barely a moment out at sea, and we spot a mother and her calf swimming away from us. The day is bright, sunny and beautiful, and soon enough, we spot more dolphins frolicking in the sea. A group of (human) father and sons stands on a rock wall fishing for salmon, attracting much attention from the seagulls, the dolphins and the humans aboard the viewing vessel. A little while later, we sight the spectacle that we’ve all been unknowingly looking for: dolphins surfing. Not on boards, of course; they ride the waves, leaping out and into the surf as the surge propels them forward. They’re hamming it up for the spectators in rapt attention with our cameras out. There’s a small boat with tourists having a little swim out at sea, and one dolphin appears fixated on a man who’d earlier jumped off the boat to greet the dolphins. Man and cetacean curiously inspect each other at a respectful, safe distance.
Many miles later, we are back on the road again to Busselton. Its historic jetty is the main attraction here. Built in 1853, it is the longest wooden pier in the world, stretching almost 2KM out into the waters of Geographe Bay.
We have a quick lunch and I taste kangaroo for the first time at The Goose. I’m not sure I like its gamey nature, but after crocodile in Zimbabwe, it’s certainly not the worst meat that I’ve ever tasted, and at least, it’s definitely the healthiest, according to a range of experts.
A train ride takes you to the Underwater Observatory, with sights of the endless blues of the seas and charming seagull resting points along the length of the jetty. It is Australia’s greatest artificial reef with a diversity of more than 300 species of marine life that you can observe from the Observatory. Lucky ones spot a sea lion amongst the colourful corals curiously peeking into a window at the human gawkers. A pod of dolphins bids us farewell with a couple of leaps as we ride the train back to firm ground.
The sun is setting as we make our way to Margaret River town. A blaze of oranges, reds and purples peeks out through gaps in the dense forest as dusk starts to take over. The beauty of the scene prompts our guide in Margaret River, Brianna Delaporte of Australia’s South West tourism, to do a detour just to catch the sunset.
We make it just in time to Grace- town’s North Point where we watch the skies in silence. “Look! There are so many dolphins surfing!” An enthusiastic member of the team gesticulates excitedly at the sea where a group of surfers is riding the last waves of the day. Perhaps it is the magnificence of the scene—or the long day that we’ve had—for in a fit of beauty-drunk exhilaration one could possibly mistake humans riding boards as dolphins. If you squint enough, anyway.
The Wardandi people consider this area a sacred site, where the gifts of their creator god Ward an in the form of whales would come to shore during the right season. It’s not difficult to imagine why; the breath-taking environment inspires respect.