Friday, September 23rd, 2011: Fremantle, Australia
It’s our first of three straight port days here in on the Southwest corner of Australia. As we explore the state of Western Australia, our first stop is the port of Fremantle. As we dock alongside the river front (we are actually at the mouth of the Swan River), we take a short walk into town and grab a picnic lunch for the day from the local supermarket before we return to the port to bard a high speed ferry to Rottnest Island, an Aussie vacation spot, located 19 kms to the southwest of Fremantle.
We’re on the 9:45am Rottnest Express ferry for the 30 minute trip to Thompson Bay, the main settlement on the island. As Rottnest is only 11kms long by 4kms at it widest points, it is not a terribly big place, but one of rugged and pristine beauty. The island allows no passenger cars at all, and bicycles are the main form of transportation for everyone. If you happen to need a taxi, you can hire one of the electric golf carts or take the shuttle buses that operate entirely on natural gas. Steps such as these make Rottnest a very clean and enjoyable day trip or holiday spot for the Australian people.
The name seems to get everyone thinking of a stinking pile of eggs, but in fact, the island got its name from a Dutch explorer to the region who saw a number of creatures on the shores of this island and made the immediate assumption that they were rats. Hence, “Rat Nest Island” became Rottnest and though the name stuck, the animal the explorer actually saw, was not a rat, but a marsupial, called a Quokka, which is actually quite mellow and has none of the dislilked characterstics of a rat.
As we arrived onto the island, we picked up our tickets for the Bayseeker Hop On Hop Off bus shuttle service. Operating in a 45 minute circuit loop around the island, it runs once an hour, between 10:30am and 4:15pm (when we were there in September) and allows passengers to get on and leave the bus at any of 18 different stops along the circular path.
We boarded our bus right at 10:30am and began heading south and west from the main settlement. Once you leave the settlement boundaries, you are basically entering a park like setting and creature comforts like toilets and drinking water are few and far between, so everyone is requested to pack in and pack out everything they need and very few garbage bins are available outside of the settlement. Strange enough, this actually keeps things cleaner as with the winds on the islands much of the garbage would blow away from the bins and make a mess of the place. This way, all that folks get to enjoy are the 20 beaches and 63 bays of the island in their completely natural and undisturbed form.
Our first stop of the day from the Bayseeker service was to visit the highest point on the island — the Rottenest or Wadjemup Lighthouse. Though the lighthouse has been rebuilt a few times on the site, the current lighthouse is over 150 feet high and provides a commanding 360 degree view of the island, the ocean surrounding, and on clear days a view all the way back to Fremantle and Perth. Today was an exceptionally beautiful day with blue skies, some big white clouds, and lots of sunshine. Though it didn’t top 80 degrees, the sun was unforgiving as the island had little natural shelter or shade, with few trees native to this location. When we arrived to the base of the lighthouse, the volunteer guides were on hand to escort a group of no more than 10 up the 155 steps of the circular staircase to the top and provided a history of the island and the lighthouse along the way.
Once we reached the top, we were permitted to watch the massive prisms of the lighthouse lens rotate around the current light beacon and then, we opened a huge, heavy, metal door and went out to the balcony walkway just below the light itself. From here, we had a 360 degree view of the entire island from a height of over 300 feet above sea level as we carefully maneuvered ourselves around the catwalk. We got nearly 20 minutes up on the top taking in all of the beaches, the waves, the ocean, and the island as a whole as the cameras snapped non-stop from most of the folks in our group.
Once it was time to return to the base, we thanked our guides and walked back down to the bus stop, where we picked up our bus and headed to the “West End” of the island, which is also the most isolated area of the island. With the exception of a one lane road running through the area for pedestrians, bicyclists, and the occasional park service vehicle, there is nothing else out here, except for secluded beach coves, shaped by years of ocean waves crashing onshore and creating the most amazing white sand beaches. We walked to Mabel Cove, about 3 kms from our bus stop and found an empty spot, with no one else around, to enjoy our lunch as the waves crashed into the rocks and we enjoyed the sounds of the ocean, the breeze, and the occasional gull. Beyond that, it was simply quiet and relaxing. We could easily understand why the Aussies would come here to get away from it all.
After a nice lunch and plenty of sun, we walked our way back to the bus stop and picked the bus back up and worked our way to the northern shore where we made a stop at Little Parakeet Bay. This bay was quite small and yet again, we shared it with only 3 people, and they left shortly after our arrival. The crystal clear water crashed against the rocks as we put our foot into the Indian Ocean for the first time. We spent almost an hour here and then walked towards another cove called Little Georgie Bay.
We picked up the Bayseeker one last time and returned to the main settlement of Thomson Bay, where we just relaxed on the manicured green lawns of the waterfront park area and awaiting boarding our ferry back to the mainland. It was a fantastic day on the island and would welcome the opportunity to return again.
As we arrived back into Fremantle, just after 5:00pm, we headed into the center of town and got to see the main town square and the history of the city of Fremantle. Originally a settlement for colonists in Australia (which was quite rare for Australia, given that it started as strictly a penal convict colony in many locations), believe it our not, it couldn’t survive as a colonist settlement as so few people came to the location, so they had no choice but to ask for convicts to begin populating the area. And so they came… One of the first requirements though was to build a jail for these convicts — the Fremantle Prison.
It took nearly 7 years to complete the massive 4 story structure to house 1000 convict prisoners, but by the end of the 1850s, the Fremantle prison was in place and housing some of the more dangerous men, women, and children that violated law and needed to be punished and reformed. A working maximum security prison for Western Australia until 1991, the Fremantle Prison had some tough rules and a life as an inmate was designed for one of two purposes — serve your time and never return, or finish your days in prison and leave in a complimentary cardboard box.
Our visit to the prison was in a most unique fashion… On Friday nights, the prison is open late into the evening and the tours take a more interesting turn as the lights in the facility are lit only minimally and each visitor is provided a small flashlight to provide all of the lumination for the prison… The guides provide the rest of the ambiance as we walked through the facility after dark, with only our guide’s stories and the absolute minimum of light from the tiny pinky sized flashlights of our group to light the way.
Our group numbered 30 people and we needed every single little flashlight to guide us through the reception room and into the main prison building. Here, we had a chance to see the cells, the kitchens, the exercise yards, solitary confinement, and the morgue (apparently the morgue is a special addition to the night tour — not available during the day… Lucky us!). As the prison was first built, the cells measured a mere 4 feet by 7 feet in size. Prisoners in the massive stone prison froze in the winter, baked in the summer, and struggled with the miserable food provided to somehow keep them fed. It was not a pleasant place.
As we visited the gallows, we learned that nearly 50 people that been excuted by hanging in the prison, all men and one woman… Corporal punishment is still legal in Western Australia and whippings with cats of nine tails and lashes for disciplinary action were commonplace, right up until the prison finally closed down. Our guide, Andrew, provided plenty of good tales and the group itself had plenty of fun navigating their way through the dark and twisting hallways of the prison and it made for a fun and educational evening.
With a late departure, we walked back to the ship shortly before 9pm and had a late dinner in the dining room. It was a great day in Fremantle and a great start to our visit to the southwest corner of the country.