June 10, 2003
"Don't Count Your Quokkas..."
Biking around Rottnest Island this afternoon I had my column all planned out: the benefits of off-season travel to high tourist locals - the quiet, the tranquility, the lack of screaming children and vacationers hell bent on having a good time. I even had the title - "Off-Season Island Oasis." However, there is a reason the saying "don't count your chickens before they hatch" exists - though in my case, it would have been better to say "don't count your quokkas."
The Dutch "discovered" Rottnest island, located 19 kilometers off the western coast of Australia (near Perth), in the 17th century. They gave it the name "Rottnest," which means rat's nest, mistakenly assuming the island marsupials were very large rats. Of course, the Aboriginals had already known about the island, which they called Wadjemup (meaning "place across the water") and had their own name for the little animals - quokka. Quokkas are in the wallaby family (think a smaller version of a kangaroo), and are native to the island - the only place in all of Australia that they exist.
I had heard about the island and these friendly little animals, said to run rampant around the island and friendly to boot, so, my last day in Perth I decided to take the hour long ferry down the Swan river to the island. Though it was raining when I left Perth I had high hopes for better weather on the island. I was not disappointed - though still overcast, there was no rain and pockets of blue sky were visible.
I rented a bike - de rigueur on the island as cars are almost totally absent and visitors don't get the option of bringing their own or renting once there. Since the island is only 11 km long and about 4.5 kilometers wide, it was fairly easy to bike around the whole island in a day. For $20 I received a multi-gear bike, a bike lock and the mandatory helmet.
From the Thompson Bay settlement (the only thing resembling a town on the island) I biked north, stopping frequently to walk out to sandy bays, explore a lighthouse and check out the near-deserted vacation cabins and condos. Though I passed a few people here and there, my experience was fairly solitary. My first quokka experience took place within 10 minutes of my ride. The little fellow calmly posed for a picture and seemed nonplused by my presence - even though I was about three feet away from him. His eyes glazed over and he looked like he was half asleep. Later I found that quokkas are nocturnal animals - and, as it was about 12 noon, my little friend must have been sleepwalking when I came across him.
At Parakeet Bay, on the top of the island, I stopped to explore one of the many beaches. Though there were a pair of fresh footprints along the water's edge, I couldn't see a living soul in either direction from where I was standing. The water was turquoise blue intermixed with a deep midnight - reminding me of a much more tropical location - though the weather was brisk (about 15 degrees C, 60 F). Standing there, alone, I was thrilled by the solitude and calm - a product of the time of year more than the location. Earlier, at the bike shop, weaving my way though row after row of bicycles and helmets, I was told a story of a much busier time of year. I patted myself on the back for the "discovery" of this tourist-free time of year and congratulated myself on my off-season visit.
Continuing west I barely noticed the dark rain clouds that covered the sky - until they let loose a torrent of tiny raindrops. "No worries" I thought, putting on my raincoat and turning back toward Parakeet Bay and blue sky. Except there was no more blue sky. And now the rain was coming down in much bigger raindrops. As I peddled my mind suddenly remember something about the promised Mediterranean-like climate." While summer promise hot, sunny weather, winters are known for being mild - but wet.
I peddled as fast as I could toward Thompson Bay, a mere 20 minutes away according to one tourist sign. By now the rain was lashing at my face and hands, soaking the tops of my pants so they stuck to my legs like cling wrap. I peddled on while huge drops of water collected on the edge of my mandatory helmet and every so often splashed down before my eyes, temporarily blurring my vision. Not that I passed any other pedestrians or cyclists. Two service vehicles passed me along the way, and I managed only a half-hearted acknowledgement of their existence before pressing on. Suddenly, the solitude of the island and the lack of visitors made sense. Who in their right mind would want to bicycle around an island during a rainstorm?
Once back at Thompson Bay I took shelter at a cafe and ordered a hot tea. As I brushed wet hair out of my face I imagine I looked like a drowned quokka - which, by the way, I hadn't seen any more of since my soporific little photo model. Apparently, the little buggers are weather indicators too. I walked into the bathroom and surveyed the damage. My jacked had done a good job of keeping my torso dry but my pants were soaked. I leaned back on the edge of the sink, propped one foot on top of the trash can and tried to dry them as best as I could under the hand dryer. It was awkward at best and I quietly hoped no one would walk in while I was performing the balancing act. I would have taken the pants off completely but it somehow seemed more dignified to be found in the balancing predicament than standing there in my hiking boots and underwear.
By the time I saw down with my tea, the rain had stopped. By the time I finished writing this story, the skies had returned to a slightly overcast but pale blue hue. But, by then, it was near time for the ferry to pick me up and take me back to Perth. Damn. Like the Dutch, I spoke a bit too soon - there is a reason why location have a high -season and a low-season. Next time, I'll do more research before proclaiming "Eureka!"