Friday, 23 September 2016

Rottnest Island: A guide to quokkas, cycling and beaches.

Rottnest Island
It has only taken me 38 years to get back to Rottnest Island ('Rotto' - as the locals call it). I first went there in my early twenties and loved this tiny spec of land off the coast of Western Australia. We hired bikes and spent the day cycling from beach to beach in blissful car-free freedom. Automobiles are banned on Rottnest and, in the days before cycle paths, it was one of the few places in Australia you could cycle without sharing the road.

I don't remember how much it cost to get there but it can't have been expensive - I was more or less permanently broke in those days. I have always wanted to go back, but although David and I have since been to Perth twice over the years we never made it to Rottnest together - until now.  Not long ago I wrote a post entitled 'Why you shouldn't go back to places!'  I should have taken my own advice - next time I decide to return somewhere I loved the first time, would someone please tap me on the shoulder and say 'No, don't do it. It will only be a disappointment.'

The Lighthouse keepers house Rottnest Island
The lighthouse keeper's cottage on Rottnest.


Would I recommend a trip to Rottnest?


I am not trying to talk you out of visiting Rottnest if you happen to be in Perth. Let's face it Perth is one of the most isolated capitals in the world, so chances are you won't be headed there anytime soon - but if you are and you don't make it over to Rottnest, don't stress, you won't miss all that much. Rottnest has its attractions, but I think Trip Advisor gets it about right when it lists the island as 37th out of 59 outdoor activities in Perth. On second thoughts, Trip Advisor is probably being a bit harsh, but who am I to argue with the experts.

Picnic table on Rottnest Island
We found some great picnic spots.


Rottnest Island: Vital statistics - 

Rottnest is a small island off the coast of Western Australia, 18 kilometres (11miles) from the port of Fremantle, near Perth. It is 19 square kms (7.3 sq m) in area and the highest hill is 150 feet (46 m) above sea level - this is important to know if, like us, you are a cyclist.

Rottnest has a permanent population of about 100 people and annual visitors of 500,000.


Thomson Bay Settlement Rottnest Island
Almost all the accommodation and other services are clustered around the Thomson Bay settlement where the ferries arrive.

History: The dark past of Rottnest  -

Rottnest was once connected to the mainland by a land bridge. However, about 7,000 years ago rising sea levels separated it from the coast. Aboriginal people inhabited the island while the land bridge existed but not afterwards. Consequently the island was uninhabited in 1829 when European settlers first arrived.

In 1839 the Crown resumed all private land holdings on the island and turned it into an Aboriginal prison. Between 1838 and 1931 (10 prisoners arrived before the settlers were relocated) approximately 3,700 Aboriginal men and boys were imprisoned there - 369 died. Most of the deaths were caused by disease but five prisoners are said to have been hanged and a few disappeared, probably drowned during escape attempts. Many of the buildings which now exist on Rottnest were built during its years as a prison.

Rottnest functioned as an internment and prisoner of war camp during both World War I and World War II.


Thomson Bay, Rottnest Island.
Buildings from the prison era.


Quokkas - 

One of the main reasons tourists come to Rottnest is to see a quokka. Quokkas are small marsupials, about the size of a domestic cat. They are found only on a few islands off the Western Australian coast, including Rottnest. There is also a small mainland colony near Albany.

Google 'quokka' and you will find pictures of adorable little animals. Quokkas are not as cute in real life. You could be forgiven for thinking they look like over-sized rats. In fact the name 'Rottnest' is a derivation of the name 'Rotte Nest', meaning 'rat nest'. The name was given to the island by an early Dutch captain who mistook the quokkas for rats.

You can't miss seeing quokkas on Rottnest. There is a pedestrian only zone (no bicycles) in front of the general store at Thomson Bay, where the ferries dock. We saw half a dozen of the little animals hanging around there, presumably hoping to scavenge a few scraps of food.  Away from the pedestrian mall, keep an eye out in the scrub underneath bushes and trees and you are bound to spot a few more.

Quokka, Rottnest island
Quokkas - cute little fur-balls or oversized rats? You be the judge!

Quokka, Rottnest Island.
This little guy tried to get acquainted with David.

Cycling - 

Rottnest is, more or less, car free. Apart from a few tourist buses, service vehicles and the odd segway, the island's roads are bicycle and pedestrian only zones. David and I brought our bikes across on the ferry and spent the day circumnavigating the island. Our map had three suggested bike routes of 4 km, 10 km, and 22 km. Naturally, we chose the 22 km route. We took a wrong turn on the way back which shortened the route by a few kms, but with sightseeing, back-tracking and general wandering about we rode 29 kms in all.

Bicycles on Rottnest Island

Bicycles on Rottnest island
Bicycles are the main mode of transport.

Don't tell David, but next time I would hire an electric bike. Exploring the island in the morning was terrific fun, but as the afternoon wore on we had to step up the pace a lot to be sure of making our return ferry. The road around the island undulates up and down a fair bit and climbing hill after hill, with one eye on the clock took its toll on my personal enjoyment index.

Rottnest Island beach


Almost all the buildings and interesting sites are located on the eastern half of the island. Once you get beyond Geordie Bay the scenery becomes quite repetitive. The beaches and coastline are beautiful but each bay is much like the next. Rather than trying to see the whole island, choose one of the shorter cycles and enjoy what you see, especially if time is a factor. The only thing you will miss by not getting to the west coast is the seal viewing platform at Cathedral Rocks.



The cycling route we followed - more or less.

Beaches: surfing. snorkelling, diving and fishing - 

After quokkas, Rottnest is probably most famous for its beaches - all 63 of them! I may have gone swimming there 38 years ago but this time, in early spring, the water was just too cold. There is information about the best surfing, fishing, snorkelling and diving spots on the Rottnest Island website.

Tips and tricks and things to know:-


Getting to Rottnest - 

You can travel to Rottnest by air, private boat, or ferry.

David and I took the Rottnest Express ferry from Northport in Fremantle. The trip took about half an hour. The same ferry leaves ninety minutes earlier from Perth and cruises down the Swan river before arriving at Northport. If you like sitting on ferries and you want to cruise the Swan, this is the ferry for you. If not, do what we did - drive to Fremantle, park the car at Northport (there is plenty of secure paid parking) and jump on the ferry there. There is also a ferry from B-shed Fremantle which is a short walk from Fremantle Railway Station.

Accommodation - 

Click here for information on accommodation. Don't be fooled by the publicity photos, most of the accommodation we cycled past looked truly awful.

Accommodation on Rottnest Island
Most of the accommodation looked pretty basic.


Cost - 

Getting to Rottnest is not cheap. In fact cost is the main reason David and I have never been back until now.  With our two boys in tow, we weighed up the considerable expense of ferry tickets and bike hire and decided there were better things to spend our holiday dollars on. This time it was just the two of us, but even so the trip cost a total of $203, including car parking and bike freight.

The price break down was:-

  • 2 x adult day return tickets at $79 (this included an island access fee) 
  • 2 x bike freight return tickets at $15
  • $12 car park voucher for Northport ferry terminal
  • $3 credit card fee.
Both Rottnest Express and Rottnest Fast Ferries offer an array of deals and early booking discounts so it is worth doing a bit of research on fares. 

Bike hire - 

Having gone to the trouble of flying our bicycles to Perth, (Don't get me started on the hassle of flying with bikes) we were hardly going to not take them to Rottnest. However there are options for hire both with Rottnest Express and on the island itself. Book ahead if you are going during the summer holidays. One of the ferry deck hands told us they load 400 bikes onto the ferries each day during the Christmas period.

Rottnest Island Pedal & Flipper hires out electric bikes together with a range of child seats, surf board racks and child trailers.

Bikes on the Rottnest Island ferry.
 Bikes being transported on the back of our ferry. My bike is at the front left - the one with the light blue water bottle.


Don't miss - 

  • Lomas Cottage on Somerville Drive, Thomson Bay. Go inside to read the very sad story of its inhabitant John Lomas.
  • The island lighthouses. Wadjemup Lighthouse is in the centre of the island. You can take a lighthouse tour and climb to the top for $9 (adult) $4 (child). The fee is, frankly, extortionate so David and I gave it the miss. We have climbed a lot of lighthouses over the years. If you have never been up a lighthouse,  grit your teeth, pay the money, and enjoy the view. Bathurst Lighthouse, on the coast between Thomson Bay and Pinky Beach is not open to the public. You can walk around the outside and take some stunning photos though.

Wadjemup Lighthouse, Rottnest Island
Wadjemup Lighthouse


Would we go back to Rottnest? - 

Probably not! I'm glad we went because I wanted to see if four decades had changed the island since I was first there (without David) but I don't think I would bother returning, at least not for another four decades or so.

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Other posts from our road trip in Western Australia: - 

Click on the titles below for other posts from our road trip in Western Australia: - 

54 comments:

  1. It is refreshing to get an honest, warts and all, opinion of a travel destination for a change. I have been to Perth a couple of times and almost made the trip to Rottnest on the first visit. After reading this I doubt whether I would bother to go there, even though I love beautiful beaches and lighthouses. Thanks for the heads up.

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    1. Hi Kathy, I probably would have enjoyed it more were it not for the time pressure. If I ever went again I would take a chance on the accommodation and stay overnight but I would book the best place I could find - the overwhelming majority of the accommodation looked horrible.

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  2. Refreshingly honest! You've almost talked me out of going. If not for my obsession with quokkas I wouldn't go after reading this!

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    1. Check out the website for the ferries. There are discounts for booking early which help a bit. We didn't book early because we were watching the weather forecast for a good day.

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  3. I didn't realise how expensive it was to get there. I am not in a great rush to go there and loved that you were fair about it.

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    1. I'm still glad we went but I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as I expected and if you aren't going to cycle or swim or snorkel, I wouldn't bother.

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  4. We had a really nice day there, and I think it is worth doing but of our 3 weeks driving around WA, it wasn't really one of the highlights...

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    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it. The highlight of WA for me was Esperance. We did a particular cycle there which was just fantastic but it was a long way to drive for what was essentially one day's cycling. We only went to the south-west corner. Next year we are off to the Coral Coast and then, on a separate trip, the Kimberleys.

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  5. Rotto by day is a place for tourists, locals tend to do as a holiday getaway for a long weekend or a week or so. I haven't been there for over 20 years, and was surprised when you mentioned how much it costs now, but still believe it is a great place to leisurely spend a few days, rather than push to see all in a day.

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    1. I absolutely agree. If D and I go again we will definitely look at staying a few days, if we can find some decent accommodation. I think it often happens that the places the locals love because they can spend more time there are disappointing to tourists who don't leave themselves enough time.

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  6. It's surprising someone hasn't taken the opportunity to build new accommodation on Rottnest Island to cater for people who like to stay in nicer places. It's a place I've always wanted to visit, but maybe just a brief day trip would do it. Those quokkas are awfully cute.

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    1. There may be one or two nicer places hidden away. Looking at the Rottnest Island website under accommodation I thought a couple of the premium places might be okay. I wasn't impressed with anything we cycled past though.

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  7. We love Rottnest.We spend most of summer there on a boat in a stunning bay. Yes, it's expensive to get to but having just taken ferries through the Greek Islands, it is no more expensive than some of these for the same distance. The accommodation is not horrible. It's basic but adequate and many that want a beach holiday go back year after year. Most people that visit for a day seem to enjoy the experience and the fabulous beaches, especially in summer. There is a hop on, hop off bus that goes around the island for those who would like to go to west end and the other bays. There are great bays on the south side near Salmon Bay as well, with snorkel trails It's not a perfect island, it's not luxurious but for what it is, Rottnest is fun and a great summer holiday or day trip for many.

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    1. It is great to hear from someone who loves the island. I am an avid snorkeller and I can see the attraction of going there for a beach holiday. Having your own boat would certainly help.

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  8. My husband is from Perth, although not living there anymore. I really want to visit when we go back. I am after that elusive 'quokka selfie' shot!!

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    1. Haha - we saw quite a few tourists trying to get that one!

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  9. I didn't realize that the island had such a dark past and I'd never heard of the quokkas, they're adorable! Thanks for such an informative article

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  10. Thanks for your review. A trip to Rottnest was recommended if we visited Perth. I think I'd take a closer look before going there.

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    1. If you do decide to go think seriously about hiring electric bikes. It would add to the cost but I think that is by far the best way to see the island. There are no cafes outside the main areas on the eastern side so if you go exploring take lunch with you. I would be interested to see your photos of quokkas. I am sure you would do them better justice than I did.

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  11. Appreciate your honest review Lyn. I must say the quokka does resemble a big rat. Not sure if I am keen to see one or not!

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    1. Lots of people take really cute photos of them and we did see one with a baby in its pouch, which was cute.

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  12. Lyn, Seeing a quokka in real life is so high on my list I cannot even tell you. So darn cute!

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    1. Then you will love Rottnest Island. The one thing it doesn't disappoint on is seeing quokkas. They are easy to find.

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  13. I've never heard of a quokka before, so thank you for educating me about this cute little marsupials. There is so much to see in Australia, I feel a visit on this continent is long overdue for me. Thank you for joining #TheWeeklyPostcard blog link-up this week-end, Lyn.

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    1. If you ever decide to come to Australia, let me know. I would love to show you around Sydney and help you plan your itinerary. Western Australia is fantastic but it is a long, long way from America. I can put you in touch with other Sydney Travel Bloggers as well who would no doubt be happy to give you lots of advice on where to go and what to see.

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  14. Thanks for this Lyn. Rottnest has long been on my list, as we didn't get the chance to go over when we visited Perth before (also it was winter). However I'm thinking twice now after looking at the cost - that is a lot indeed! Also I headed over to the accommodation page and as you say, it is indeed quite grungy - but still expensive! A bed in a dorm for $50 a night??? We had such a great time up the coast for a fraction of a cost of this that I'd be reluctant to splash out so much. Thanks for your honesty, it's very helpful!

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    1. I think it is worth the trip if you really want to go, but if you are just looking for something to do and you don't have any great interest in Rottnest then perhaps think twice about it.

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  15. This sounds like a very fair and honest review. I've never been to WA, but I've read about Rottnest in other people's blogs. I always did think that it sounded like "Rat Nest." I suppose that this might be something I'd visit if I was in Perth long term or at least a few weeks and had already exhausted the other places there are to visit. I've never rode on an electric bike, but they do seem like a fab idea when you want to take it easy.

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    1. My brother has an electric bike and I have ridden it once. They are tremendous fun and make going up hills a lot easier. As avid cyclists David and I normally wouldn't consider e-bikes but it would have been nice to have been able to see the island without worrying about getting back in time for the return ferry.

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  16. We visited Rottnest Island when my husband was in Perth for a conference. We rented (hired) bikes and I enjoyed not having to share the road with cars. In fact, we didn't even come across many other cyclists. I recall getting fairly hot and not enjoying some of the hills. I had the chance to try out an electric bike in Tarragona, Spain. Unless you're looking for hard core exercise, I heartily endorse having the option to make the hills as strenuous as you like. The rider controls the amount of assist generated by the bike.

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    1. I have ridden an e-bike and I don't think they compare to ordinary bicycles in terms of exercise - it is just too easy to give yourself that little electric boost - but for a day's sightseeing somewhere like Rottnest I think they would be great.

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  17. Thanks for the honesty! I am getting ready to plan our trip to Australia for 2107. I'd love to know your top picks for 2 months in Australia in March-April.

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    1. Sydney, of course. One of my fellow Sydney bloggers writes a blog called SydneyExpert. It would be worth checking out her tips. I should warn you that the Bridge Climb is really expensive, unless you absolutely want to climb the bridge I would consider a helicopter sightseeing flight instead. Click on the tab on my blog headed 'Sydney - My City' and you can read my blog post on helicopter flightseeing.

      If you want to see koalas and little penguines, you can't go past Phillip Island. The koalas are not wild but they are in a very natural environment. For koalas in the bush, think about the Great Ocean Road or Raymond Island. I have blogged about both under the tab 'Australia & New Zealand' then click on 'Vic'. You have to go through Paynesville to get to Raymond Island and you can see kangaroos there. Kangaroos are just about everywhere but you need to know where and when to look.

      I love Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef but bear in mind that the reef is actually a long way out. You can't just step off a beach and see great coral, except from a few of the Great Barrier Reef Islands.

      For top picks I would have to say Sydney, Ayres Rock and Alice Springs (if you are into giant rocks - lol - but it gives you an idea of how vast Australia is), Canberra (ironically - it gets a lot of bad press but it more interesting than it sounds), Melbourne (because it is there) and definitely hire a car and go for a drive - don't just see the cities. Victoria is a great state for driving in because it isn't as vast as the rest of the country.

      I have left off Western Australia, even though I love the place, because it is five and a half hours by plane from the east coast. If you've got any questions feel free to DM me on Facebook or send me an e-mail. My contact details are on this blog.

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  18. Sounds pretty cool to me, besides, we love to bike. As a huge bonus I could see a new animal that I have never heard of... Quokkas. I vote cute. If we ever find ourselves in Perth we are definitely going to Rottnest Island.

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    1. Haha - I know what you mean about the new animal thing. I love doing that. Australia is a great destination generally for 'new' animals which no-one has ever heard of. We saw a few Barnaby's Cockatoos while we were in Western Australia. We see lots of white cockatoos but Barnaby's are black with a white flash under their tail. They are a threatened species. I am not usually a bird person but it was thrilling to see these.

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  19. A permanent population of 100? Rottnest island sure sounds like an interesting place to go!
    If I ever make it out to Western Australia, I will go

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    1. David and I once lived on an island in the middle of nowhere. It had a population of under 2,000 people. We seek out islands wherever we travel. There is something fascinating about living on islands.

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  20. I always love a place where bikes are the main mode of transport. I don't think the quokkas are cute....

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    1. Haha - the quokkas are cute when they run in front of your bike though!

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  21. Love that you were so honest. So many people I speak to rave about Rotto. We visited on about day 5 of arriving in Perth, and to tell you the truth I wondered what all the fuss was about. It's lovely of course, but (for me) not that lovely and WA has some stunning beaches without the need to go to Rotto.

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    1. Hi Jo, I am still in two minds about Rottnest myself. I suppose I just didn't want people to think it was an absolute 'must-do' destination.

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  22. Australia has so weird and at the same time cute animals like the Quokkas, I love it! I hope I'll be able to meet them myself one time.

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    1. If you ever plan a trip to Oz drop me a line and I will give you my tips on where to find kangaroos, koalas and platypus in the bush.

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  23. Being a west Aussie I feel I should be apologising for your disappointing trip.
    I haven't been to Rotto for over 10 years, but am planning a family day trip next month for the family festival Rottnest Carnivale. I wonder if I will fell the same as you.

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    1. Please don't apologise. David and I loved Western Australia so much we have already booked two return trips for next year. One to the Kimberleys and one to the Coral Coast. Perhaps my expectations of Rottnest were a bit too high.

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  24. Now having seen a quokka and having read your very comprehensive review, I guess I really don't need to go??:-)

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    1. Haha - Perth is such a long way from where you live, I might have saved you a very long journey.

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  25. I love that there are no cars, it's a cyclist heaven! Especially cycling from beach to beach, that's my kind of island! Never heard of quokkas so will be looking out for them in future! Thanks for the information.

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    1. You won't see quokkas anywhere in the world other than a few islands off the coast of Perth in Western Australia and a small area near Albany - but if you are anything like me you'll look for wildlife just about anywhere - lol.

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  26. I love your honesty. I have seen Rottnest Island in every Perth itinerary and I thought it was a must. Looks like if you are in the area there are other activities than deserve more attention. Is that right?

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    1. It probably depends on how much you want to see a quokka. Rottnest Island is realistically the only place you will see them. I haven't been snorkelling on Rottnest so I can't tell you whether that is worthwhile. Certainly I wouldn't be too worried if you don't get to Rottnest. The real drawcard with Western Australia isn't Perth, although Perth is lovely, it is the beautiful landscapes.

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  27. Those Quokkas remind me of the "R.O.U.S" from the Princess Bride - rodents of unusual size! I'm not so sure I'd be keen to run into one of them! I have to admit the name of Rottnest Island doesn't really sound all that appealing - but I'd love to know what the diving & snorkelling is like.

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    1. Haha - I have never seen Princess Bride . I'll have to rent it on DVD and watch it now. I love to snorkel too but it was the wrong time of year when we were there.

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