Sighting Rottnest

Rottnest Island (Wadjemup) 32°S 115°31'E – 18 km off shore Western Australia




rough serious blue sea

pale sky, pale spire

green grey island


All that year I caught the train to and from work, swaying silently, waiting for the stretch between North Fremantle and Cottesloe. Or Cottesloe and North Fremantle. A glimpse of the Indian Ocean and sometimes of Rottnest.


the sea and the sky too shiny

there should be an island

Rottnest, I came to believe, is a drifting island, not attached to the ocean floor. In some weathers it floats close to the mainland. In some it disappears altogether.

There is a lot of weather on this far western shore. It is a place of sand and wind.

I kept a log.

sunset sky

black silhouette island


For tens of thousands of years the island was part of the mainland, a place where people lived. Then the sea level rose and the island was formed. An exile, doomed to float empty on the horizon.

silver sea

grey clouds

dark horizontal line


I dream that I am standing on the beach. The sea has completely receded, revealing an ancient forest of fossilised trees.


Will the wet sand hold my weight?


dark train window

reflected carriage

lighthouse flashing in my knee



strip of brown smog

island lurking beyond


In 1838 the European newcomers made Rottnest a prison, a racially segregated prison. By 1931, when it closed, thousands of Aboriginal men and boys had been incarcerated there. Concentrated.


Did the mainland see?


the island drifts behind distant rain


Many of the men came from the north-west, imprisoned for minor theft or for spearing cattle. Or for resistance. Nothing could have prepared them for the southern cold, the howling westerlies. Nothing in the prison protected them. One grey blanket was not enough.


Hundreds died.


ragged dark clouds

angry water with a turquoise edge

the island has gone


strip of orange sun

deep aqua night

pale sickle moon


Once there was a man who swam every morning at Cottesloe. He swam straight out to sea, a long way. The lifesavers were concerned for his safety and he was spoken to. He continued to swim towards Rottnest every morning. Letters were written to the West Australian.


We were sixteen. Romance and ethics were our lifeblood. We argued passionately. It was his right. Who did the authorities think they were?


celestial rays of pale gold

no island


Eventually he disappeared.


His bones sank down to join the others in Gage Roads. The sailors who didn't come back. A whole family once, sailing home from a holiday.


mirage island floating in six transparent sections




white caps

bunchy clouds

brilliant white spire

green wedding cake island


The old prison became a guesthouse. Holidaymakers dropped salty towels on the floor.


I had a job as a housemaid, making beds, washing sheets. I was told to iron the boss's underpants. Excessive, I thought.


At night I prowled the old gun emplacements that threaten an empty Indian Ocean. I crossed the island and stared at the lights of the mainland. I wondered what my friends were doing.


I told the boss my grandmother had died. I caught the ferry back to Fremantle.


blue sky

blue sea

white lighthouse


white yachts

red spinnakers

red freighter


When we were young Rottnest nights meant sex in the sand.


Later, for a clan of middle-aged dykes, nights were not so serious. We pedalled up the hill to the lighthouse and lay with our heads against the tower, forming a ring of spokes. The light above swooped round, a collective and individual benediction. One blessing for each of us every 7.5 seconds.


five lines of light:

four ships

one island


I see now that the light stops the island from drifting away into the ocean, the beams of light a loose mooring.


Sea-rising times have come again. Rottnest will shrink. The mainland will shrink. There will be many more islands.


We will be needing lights.


an island floats on the horizon

sometimes close enough to jump

sometimes distant as a dream.

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