Rottnest Island has a selection of bike and walking trails. Picture: Leyanne Baillie

The last time I visited Rottnest, I promised myself the next time would be much more active and I wouldn't spend the majority of my stay lazing on the beach or veranda. I vowed that instead of just cycling the 4km loop which takes you from the Settlement out past Geordie Bay and back, I'd try the 10km and 22km routes. I'd do the Oliver Hill Gun and Tunnel tour, a Quokka Walk and the Wadjemup Lighthouse tour.

Here I am, a year on and determined to make the most of my three-night visit. But realistically, how much can I fit into such a short break? One of the main reasons I come to Rotto is to relax, so do I really want to spend most of my time on the move? And will I manage to motivate my daughters, aged seven and 10, to depart from their usual routine of visiting their friend down the road and going to the shops on lots of "important" errands?

I figure I'll break them in gently with a trip by train to the top of Oliver Hill. I'm sure if I suggest a 22km bike ride I'll have a mutiny on my hands. But they are quite happy with a five-minute cycle from our base at Bathurst to the train stop just outside the Thomson Bay settlement.

Arriving at the stop, we discover we have to buy our tickets at the visitor centre near the ferry jetty and have a frantic cycle there to make sure we catch the last train of the day.

My husband, Andrew, and eldest daughter Nina speed ahead, with me bringing up the rear behind my youngest daughter Anya. Just as she takes the corner, she hits a rock on the path and comes flying off her bike, taking a layer of skin off her knee and elbow. The clock is ticking but we've no choice other than to hobble to the island pharmacy for a quick clean-down and patch-up.

With two minutes to spare, my brave little soldier and I make it back to the train stop and the four of us climb aboard for the journey to the former military defence point. Annoyingly, the last train of the day doesn't stay at Oliver Hill long enough to enable us to take the Gun and Tunnel tour, but we decide to go along for the ride.

As part of an expansion of port defences in Australia before World War II, two 9.2-inch guns were installed at Oliver Hill. In 1935, to assist with the movement of the guns, heavy equipment and ammunition, the army constructed 9km of rails from the Army Jetty to Oliver Hill via Bickley, where a six-inch gun was installed.

The railway was rarely used after the mid-1950s until an initiative to promote the military history of the island led to the restoration of the Oliver Hill Railway in 1993. A 1km spur was built to the Settlement to enable ease of access for tourists and the line opened to the public in 1994.

I must warn you, this is not luxury travel; the line was built to carry weapons and army personnel. The slatted wooden seats and the bone-shaking movement of the carriage are not kind on my bony behind but there is a cooling breeze blowing through the open windows and the views on either side are lovely.

We have stunning inland scenery to our right as we pass Government House Lake, sparkling aquamarine ocean views on our left. The bright green of native vegetation contrasts beautifully against both bodies of water.

The most enjoyable part of the trip for me is watching dozens of delightful little birds fly alongside the train as we make our way up the hill. The driver tells us the vibration of the train on the tracks throws up hundreds of insects which attract the welcome swallows for an easy feast.

We have 10 minutes to explore when we reach the top and are treated to a 360-degree panorama. We manage a quick look at the guns and discover a plaque paying tribute to the estimated 130 servicewomen who were posted to Rottnest, serving at Kingston Barracks and Oliver Hill and Bickley batteries from 1942.

The train takes the same route on its return, and Nina and Anya have great fun going from one side of the carriage to the other, trying to count how many swallows escort us back to the Settlement.

The following day I entice the girls on the ride out to Wadjemup for the lighthouse tour by inviting along our friend Garold, his daughter Lavender and nephew Max. The children are very excited at the prospect of climbing to the top, so I decide not to add that they will have to cycle 10km there and back. I'm not sure how the younger two will cope with the distance but we decide to give it a go.

We set off and soon I'm zooming ahead with Max and Nina, leaving Andrew and Garold to egg on the youngsters, whose little legs pedal frantically up the hills. And there are some steep ones. I give thanks for my 21 gears and the occasional bench and shade along the way. At least with large hills there's the thrill of coming down the other side and after 20 minutes we can see the top of the lighthouse through the trees.

I'm impressed that we've reached our destination so quickly. But I soon realise how near and yet so far we have come. The final stretch is very winding and takes us another 15 minutes. I'm impressed that we haven't had to get off and walk any of the way - until I see the final road up to the base of the lighthouse, which looks practically vertical. I have to admit defeat and push.

The stark white of the 30.4m lighthouse against the perfect blue of the cloudless sky makes for a beautiful picture. Almost as stunning as the view we see once we've climbed the spiral staircase to the top.

But before we get there, our friendly volunteer guide takes us through the history of the lighthouse, which is in fact the second lighthouse at Wadjemup. The first, built by Aboriginal convict labour, took nine years to construct. It was completed in 1849, measured 16m tall and its first light was installed in 1851. The lighthouse as it is now was first operational in 1896.

The light initially burned coconut oil, then kerosene, until 1936 when it was converted to electricity. The last lighthouse keeper left Rottnest in 1990 when the lamp became fully automated.

Both lighthouses were built using limestone quarried on the island and, as we make our way up, I'm struck by how difficult a task that must have been. The thick brick walls were put up by hand and it must have been back-breaking work.

We stop on each landing to learn a new fact and the children count the steps as we climb. When we reach the top, everyone has a different total, so we will have to take the guide's word that we've climbed 155 steps.

We move out on to the wrought- iron balcony and the kids have fun trying to be the first to spot the landmarks we shout out to them.

Peering over the railing, we see the former lighthouse keeper's house and the tiny specks below that are the next set of visitors waiting to come on the tour. There's also an unspoilt view over the sea to the skyscrapers on the mainland.

Full of information and fresh air, we are ready to make our descent and cycle back to our unit. As we ride, I make plans for tomorrow's trip to Henrietta Rocks, site of the remains of The Shark, a hopper barge which sank in 1939 after breaking its moorings in Fremantle.

I have a few things remaining on my Rotto to-do list but it's been easy to pack plenty into our mini break and still leave time to chill out on our favourite island.

FACT FILE

Wadjemup Lighthouse tours run every half hour from 11am-2.30pm. An adult ticket costs $8, children are $3.50 and a family ticket (two adults and two children) is $16.

The Oliver Hill rail journey costs $20 for adults, children are $13 and a family ticket is $41.

For more information, contact the Rottnest Island Visitor Centre at rottnestisland.com or 9372 9730.

The West Australian

Popular videos

Compare & Save