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An island haven where bicycles rule the roads

Alia Parker's picture
Hire bikes on Rottnest Island, Western Australia. Cycle Traveller

There is a little pocket of Australia where no cars are allowed bar a shuttle bus. It loops along the roads that follow the pristine white-sand beaches and coral coastline, and once it has passed and the sound of the engine muffled by the wind, the road is left to the cyclists.

“While there were other people cycling, at times we felt like we were the only people on the island, riding in isolation,” said Janet Parker-Smith, who visited the island with her husband and two sons. “Being on the bikes also made it easy to get around to many of the beaches where we were able to snorkel and swim at our leisure.”

Cycling is the traditional way of exploring Rottnest Island, a secluded nature reserve which lies 19km off the coast from Fremantle, Western Australia. The island is a small gem – just 11km long and 4.5km wide – but with a stunningly rich array of flora and fauna as well as history dating back tens of thousands of years, there is no shortage of things to fill your weekend.

“The Wadjemup lighthouse was one of my highlights and it was easily accessible by bike but may have been too far to get to with the kids if we were on foot,” said Parker-Smith. “The view from the top was amazing.”

Quokka on Rottnest Island. Cycle TravellerThe island

There are many facets to Rottnest Island's beauty, which meshes coastal habitats with salt lakes, brackish swamps, woodlands, heath and settled areas. Salt lakes – such as Lake Baghdad, Lake Vincent, Herschel Lake, Garden Lake, Government House Lake and Serpentine Lake – make up about 10% of the island. In its wooded areas live the much loved Quokkas, which look like small kangaroos with rounded ears.

There is more to enjoy off the island's shores, which are surrounded by a coral reef estimated to have began to grow about 100,000 years ago.


Rottnest Island is a treasure trove of history. Cut off from the mainland between 6,500-10,000 years ago by a rise in sea levels, the land lay untouched for thousands of years until European settlement. Many artifacts have been found on the island pre-dating 6,500 years and some are believed to be possibly tens of thousands of years old. The island, which is known to the local Aboriginal people as Wadjemup, has 17 sites that are listed under the Aboriginal Heritage Act.

But the history of the island wasn't always as idyllic as it's laid-back recreational appeal of today, with the island serving as a prison, both in the early days of settlement and during the war years.

The first Europeans transformed Rottnest into a prison camp for Aboriginal peoples in 1838 and it remained that way for almost a century. Around 3,700 Aboriginal men and boys were imprisoned on Rottnest Island between 1838 and 1902 and they built many of the island's structures, including the seawall, lighthouses and other heritage buildings. Access to the island by outsiders was highly restricted during this time.

It is reported that 369 prisoners died while on the island, mostly of disease, but five were hanged. Visitors can pay their respects at an Aboriginal cemetery at Thomson Bay Settlement.

Getting there

There are two Ferry companies that serve Rottnest Island – Rottnest Express and Rottnest Fast Feries, with transfers available from Perth City, North Fremantle, Victoria Quay and Hillarys Boat Harbour. It takes about 25 minutes to get to Rottnest on the ferry from Fremantle, or 45 minutes from Hillarys Boat Harbour, and 90 minutes from Perth.

Bike Hire

Bikes can be hired at Rottnest Pedal Flipper starting at $13 per hour for an adult bike, or $29 a day.

Images from top: 1. Hire bikes at Parker, Point, Rottnest Island. 2. Quokkas. (Images courtesy of Tourism Australia and Tourism Western Australia)

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