Chillax with the city rats Down Under

View over the shore of Rottnest Island, Western Australia
View over the shore of Rottnest Island, Western Australia

TOM ADAIR on a journey of discovery to Perth and Rottnest Island

Chasing the sun is one of my reasons for visiting Perth, which has more than 300 ray-soaked days in any year. When I arrive the city is wallowing in its International Festival of the Arts. The festival Fringe is second only to that of Edinburgh in magnitude, a sign of the city’s expansion and ambition as it grows outwards (along the Swan River towards swathes of wineries) and upwards, a rush of high-rises, the tops of which seem to gleam like candle flames on the birthday cake of a giant. Overlooking it all is Kings Park, designed for barbecues and picnics, or for observing the celebratory panorama across the river while taking a treetops-level stroll along the new elevated walkway – well, new to me.

A quokka on Rottnest Island

A quokka on Rottnest Island

I came with my wife to Perth 14 years ago, fell in love with the city’s decencies, its personable, easy-going people, its relish of living in the moment, and vowed to come back. Now, as I walk the easy to navigate downtown grid, taking in Murray Street, leaving the newly opened, bijou Alex Hotel, my bed for two nights, I spot nearby the heritage grandeur of the old Treasury building, reborn as a five-star luxury hotel.

But some things last longer than stone and slate. To reboot my jet-lagged brain, I unwind with a touch of Australian antiquity, an Indigenous Tour of Kings Park, in the wake of Greg Nannup, from the Nyoongar tribe, who indicates plants and bushes used to make clothing or help build shelter or even for curing lethal snake bites. His mention of snakes kicks me into alert. But by now he is talking about creation myths. I drowse.

A single good night’s sleep is all I need. Next day I join the queue for the boat at Elizabeth Quay (another site of major development with new retail spaces, apartments and the creation of a high-rise Ritz Carlton hotel), a crowd of us heading to Rottnest Island, Perth’s weekend playground – “Where the city rats go to chillax,” says Des, a new immigrant from Cardiff, sporting a bottle of factor 50.

Slipping past the millionaires’ homes that line the widening Swan River, we hit the bigger waves of the ocean, crossing a strip of tidal blue towards the sugar-white beaches that delineate Rottnest itself. I recall the island as pristine, barely inhabited, famous for its uniquely native wildlife, especially the quokka, a fluffy marsupial whose decidedly rat-like appearance led to Rottnest receiving its name.

No-one who comes here should miss the Discovery Tour of the island, going by bus, with a guide who knows all the quokkas by name. Our guide is Damian, whose perfect 90-minute introduction to the island’s chapter and verse is laced with humour as he shows us the top ten vantage points for pictures.

Cars are banned from the island’s roads. Freewheeling cyclists and scattered pedestrians keep us company, groups of them squatting near straying quokkas to grab a selfie. We do the same, while warned by Damian not to feed them. “They’ll only get sick. And especially don’t touch. Some have been known to transmit salmonella.” The bus passes gun emplacements, reminders of the Second World War, then a rusting hulk engulfed by sea grass, and draws to a halt near a cliff-top outcrop, home to an osprey nest, but no chicks. “In the hatching season we watch them come and go. Feeding the young. Standing guard.”

The gentle switchback of capillary roads leads back to Thompson Bay and Hotel Rottnest, which has beachfront accommodation overlooking a perfect bay dotted with pleasure craft and swimmers. The hotel, brilliant in glittery sunshine, serves seafood, meats and salads under canopied pools of shade.

Amply satisfied, I walk to Pedal & Flipper, to rent a bike for the afternoon and cycle the mile to Segway Tours at Kingston Barracks where I indulge in soft adventure and learn something new. “It’s all about balance as well as confidence,” says Segway tutor Paul, as I step aboard the two-wheeled contraption. Sure enough it scoots and whizzes, turns on a sixpence, speeds up and slows down, all by simple, nuanced tilts of the body. We tour the back tracks and dunes for an hour of exhilaration. I might as easily have chosen to swim with dolphins or taken a speedboat trip round the island’s treacherous coast. But I crave the free-flow exhilaration of something new. A buzz on the Segway fits the bill.

Two hours later, the ferry disgorges us near the Belltower, at Perth’s main quay, and I follow the noise towards the Spiegeltent at the heart of the festival hub, where surrounded by fairground rides, I slip into the crowded tent to ooh and aah at the aerobatics of Limbo, a band of aerialists and musicians.

In days, the Spiegeltent will be gone, but Perth, now a year-round destination, has other attractions to allure. There is not enough time to visit the convict-built Town Hall or all of the galleries and gardens. A tour of Perth Mint clues me into the 1890s gold rush, the Western Australian Museum does the same for the complex history of the Aboriginal people.

Leaving the city, flying once more over lovely Rottnest, I know there are reasons to return. I open my notebook; begin my list.