Rottnest Island should be about getting away from it all, about feeling the stresses and strains of the smart-phone age drain from you as the ferry pulls out of Hillarys or Freo — about going back to the simpler holidays of your childhood, when all you did was walk and cycle everywhere without having to worry about cars.
So why am I having so much fun on one of the world’s most high-tech transportation devices?
It’s called a Segway but you might know it as that machine with two big wheels which a person can zoom about on, standing upright and seemingly cheating the laws of physics. Segway Tours WA has been operating along Perth foreshore for a while and now they’ve made it to Rotto.
Their home on the island is next to Kingstown Barracks, about a kilometre south-east of the main settlement, and on this Saturday morning I’m cycling there with my friend Gary for the one-and-a-half- hour Fortress Adventure. Gary is a Rotto veteran, a surf dude who has been heading here for the same two weeks every year since he was a kid. He has persuaded a relative WA newbie like me of this little outcrop’s charms, so I’m intrigued to see what he makes of these mechanical incomers.
He’s also the type who leaves his thongs in the car at the ferry terminal and walks about barefoot among the quokka poo for a fortnight but today he’s been forced to stick on trainers as a prerequisite of riding a Segway. We also need a helmet and an earpiece to hear our guide Paddy, and then it’s time for a lesson on how to ride our trusty steeds.
First, Paddy and fellow staffer Kat give us a quick rundown on what is an impressive piece of kit. Our model, the Segway X2, has two computers that make lots of little adjustments to help you balance, is fully electric and costs about $10,000. On Rottnest their speed has been limited to 10km/h (in Perth it’s double that) but they have been fitted with off-road tyres, which means they can charge about sandy tracks and up hills. You move by leaning forwards or sideways from your ankles and the sensors and motors do the rest (we’re advised it’s not a good idea to try going backwards). The handlebar attached to the main column that rises up from the base is only for spinning around, so one wheel goes forwards and the other back. You really can turn on a sixpence.
Then it’s my turn to step up on to one and try and navigate through some orange cones . . . at which point my mind goes blank. All I have is the image of that cameraman crashing off a Segway at the 2011 Boxing Day Test at the MCG (check it out on YouTube). And didn’t the company’s owner, Jimi Heselden, die when he drove one off a cliff? Maybe it is the rarefied air that affects your brain when you’re suddenly seven feet tall, but anything Paddy asks of me, I do the opposite. My hips are all over the place, I’m pushing my shoulders forward, my backside is sticking too far out, I’m going down a little hill and I can’t stop. I’m going to crash.
Paddy’s seen it all before, though. He wonders if we’ve stayed too long at the hotel the night before, and perseveres. Twenty minutes later we’re slaloming through poles and bouncing over humps like we’ve been doing it for years. And I can even stop on a slope.
So off we go for the tour proper, which looks at the history of the barracks, the fortifications on the island and the role played by Rottnest in World War II. It turns out this role didn’t amount to much — not a shot was fired in anger here — but we are still given a fascinating insight into the thoughts and fears that guided Allied preparations. And with a grandfather who served in the Royal Navy and spent time in Fremantle during the war, suddenly a trip on a big wheelie thing takes on an extra poignancy for me.
In a nutshell, with conflict looming during the 1930s and Freo a key port — and later the Allies’ submarine base for the Indian Ocean — it was seen as a genuine target.
To protect against a naval assault, guns were situated on the mainland, Garden Island and Rottnest to provide a semicircle of protection.
So our first stop is up a hill at the former governor’s residences, which are now hired out by big groups of holidaymakers. From here we get a fine view of Thomson Bay, the sea and the mainland beyond. And Phillip Rock which, we are informed, was once much taller until the troops, fearing an enemy ship could lurk behind it, blasted its top off.
Next we’re off to the barracks proper, where we learn that the six-inch gun on display, which had a range of 17km, was found in pieces in nearby bush. Apparently, a budding entrepreneur had chopped it up with the intention of shipping it back to the mainland to sell, only to be put off by the transportation cost because it was so heavy.
Now we get to do some offroading and charge up a hill, scoffing at the amateurs forced to push their bikes, and come to the Bickley command post, which over recent years has been restored.
So there’s the map room, which once housed a map made of gold, the artillery store with its original wire used for camouflage, the observation deck with 360-deg. views and clever window stickers explaining what we are looking at, such as the bigger 9.2-inch gun on Oliver Hill that had a range of 28km.
There’s also machine-gun pits to stop enemy invaders and the housing for that gun which is now down in the barracks. Stand in the middle of this and talk, and the surrounding walls create an eerie stereo effect. Suddenly, I’m transported back to when I was a boy, playing with my toy soldiers in my room and imagining scenes such as this.
My plastic marines had some action, though. The Japanese bombers only got as far as Port Hedland, while the German navy only made it to near Carnarvon and the fateful meeting with HMAS Sydney. The 2500 soldiers on Rottnest were, we are told, bored rigid, with the only distractions a concrete cricket strip and members of the Australian Women’s Army Services.
Military lesson over, we are off again and hurtling along Parker Point Road, stopping only to look at some impressive golden orb spiders, to our most westerly spot, the site of the Shark shipwreck. In 1939, a storm caused this hopper barge to break its mooring in Fremantle and it drifted out until it hit Rottnest’s Henrietta Rocks. A few bits of it still stick out above the waves and it’s a big draw for tourists. Luckily, it is the only shark I see during my stay.
Now it’s time to turn for home and Paddy gives us free rein to lead the way down a fire trail. This gets “Mr Rotto” Gary all excited as it’s a rare area of the island he hasn’t explored, so we speed off along more rough tracks, then past the airport and Bickley Swamp, which has dried up for the first time in memory.
By now our time has dried up too, although as we stop, start and steer without thinking, it’s hard to believe that just under two hours ago I was like Bambi on ice on this thing.
So we gallop back to base, with Paddy regaling us with tales of the best crashes he’s seen and graphic details of the injuries, which generally involve a lot of lost skin.
Thanks goodness he didn’t tell us this when I was going down that first hill — I might have opted for the simple way of life and walked.
The Fortress Adventure costs $129 for adults and $115 for children and seniors. The one-hour Kingstown Explorer costs $89/$79. segwaytourswa.com.au or 1300 808 180.
The Rottnest Island Museum has a fascinating display on the area’s military past, among other interesting historical and geological displays. Entry is by gold-coin donation. www.rottnestisland.com/about/ museums-galleries or 9372 9781.
The train to Oliver Hill has now reopened after conservation work on the military sites. Once there, you can do the one-hour Guns and Tunnel Tour. www.rottnestisland.com/about/tours.
Andrew Baillie was a guest of Segway Tours WA.