Boardies, bikinis and a bicycle

Andrew Bain joins peak hour on Rottnest Island - with surfboard, snorkel and flippers strapped on.

If ever an Australian landscape was made for cycling, it is Rottnest Island. Ringed by roads yet traffic-free (private vehicles are banned on the island), it's flat, comfortably compact and has an infrastructure built around bicycle travel.

Bike racks line every beach, which are often just a turn of the pedals apart. Ferry services from Perth and Fremantle double as bike-hire outlets and a hire business on the island rents a further 1300 bikes. The island gift shop even sells a "Rottnest Island Cycle" board game, celebrating the island's reputation as a virtual velodrome in the sea.

On any day, hundreds of cyclists might be trundling about Rottnest or "Rotto" as it's universally known in the west. Bikes buzz about with surfboards strapped to them, the pointed boards looking like heavily starched sails. Snorkels and flippers bounce around on cyclists' backs and cycling fashion is more likely to be board shorts and bikinis than bibs and braces. Cycling here isn't the poor-man's option; it's the transport of choice.

While many visitors use bikes simply as a means to get to their favourite beach (of which there are said to be 63), a loop around the drumstick-shaped island covers little more than 25 kilometres. There are few hills to climb, just a sand dune here and there, and if the wind isn't a blessed relief the distance from the simply titled Settlement can be.

Bunched along Rotto's north-eastern shore, the Settlement has long been one of Perth's favourite beach-holiday playgrounds. Such is its popularity there's now a ballot for summer accommodation, with expressions of interest accepted up to a year in advance. Even so, it is a good place to escape from on a bicycle; head west and the crowds thin as the buildings do.

I begin riding along the north coast, past the popular beaches at The Basin and Geordie Bay (where the grounds of the general store offer the surest chance to spot Rottnest's Lilliputian masters, the wallaby-like quokkas). The two beaches are connected by a dedicated bike path, even on this island where the roads themselves are in effect bike paths.

The scenes along the north coast approach beach perfection, with the ocean's piebald pattern of white sand and dark reef almost tropical in its contrast. There's a temptation to stop and laze every few minutes but there's also the knowledge that the loop of the island offers step-off-the-bike access to about 20 beaches.

At Stark Bay, a reef-rimmed beach with arguably the finest setting of any on the island, I share the sands with nobody and, suddenly, I'm going nowhere fast. There's just me, a pelican and a flotilla of anchored boats that half-resembles a secondary reef. By the time I reach Lady Edeline Beach, on not-so-narrow Narrow Neck, there's a bike in the racks already - just the one but for the moment even that seems a crowd.

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I head back towards the Settlement along the south coast. The crippled lean of the few trees leaves no doubt as to the direction and force of the prevailing winds, though today it's no more than a cooling puff. The main road beelines to the Settlement but the finest bit of island-riding comes by veering away to Parker Point and Little Salmon Bay and following the shore of Salmon Bay, where a mosaic of reefs heads out to sea like stepping stones.

Just six kilometres from the heart of the Settlement, Little Salmon Bay is a jewel, though not a hidden one. The bike rack is overflowing when I arrive and it's suddenly clear where all those flippers and snorkels have been heading. Pinched between low limestone cliffs, Little Salmon Bay is Rottnest's spot of choice for underwater exploration, with a snorkelling trail leading over 10 information plaques laid out on the sea bed.

I drift over bronze explanations of "life below" and the so-called "vegetarians of the sea" (buffalo bream) before rummaging through the bike rack - which one is my bike? - and beginning the cruise back to the Settlement inside a swarm of bicycles. Nobody here has ridden a long way - it is almost impossible to do so on Rottnest - but for some it has still been too far.

People stop to push their bikes up inclines no taller than themselves and there's a girl sitting atop a folded beach towel to cushion her sore bum. The aching beauty of Western Australia's cycling paradise is behind her; now there are just the aches.

FAST FACTS

Rottnest Island is a 30-minute ferry ride from Fremantle. It is served by three ferry operators: Rottnest Express (rottnestexpress.com.au), Rottnest Fast Ferries (rottnestfastferries.com.au) and Oceanic Cruises (oceaniccruises.com.au).

Each service charges about $60 return and all hire bikes. On the island, Rottnest Island Bike Hire has bikes for about $26 a day; phone (08) 9292 5105. It also hires tandems, child trailers and surfboard racks. For island and accommodation information, see rottnestisland.com.

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