Just Rottnest in Just Urbane (September Issue)

My feature in the September edition of Just Urbane is about an adventure for my son Tom and I on Rottnest Island. If getting there by seaplane wasn’t enough, exploring the island and exploring the sea above and below the waves had both of us exhilarated and exhausted.

If you can’t get your hard copy from your favourite newsagency in India, you can get an online copy of Just Urbane from Magzter.

Thank you to Swan River Seaplanes and the Rottnest Island Authority for the opportunity and hospitality.





6PR Interview: Rottnest Island


Enjoy listening to my story below about what do on WA’s most popular island destination; Rotto!


The Basin; Renowned as the best snorkeling for all ages

ANZAC Day Dawn Service, a very different Rottnest experience

Written for the Rottnest Island Authority and Rottnest Fast Ferries.

“But the band plays Waltzing Matilda, and the old men still answer the call, but as year follows year, more old men disappear, someday no one will march there at all.”

The line above is taken from the Eric Bogle song, ‘And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’. I remember a time in the 1980’s when there seemed to be a popular sentiment that ANZAC Day would fade away when there were no more old Diggers to march.

It didn’t work out that way. Across Australia, ANZAC ceremonies continue to grow and the sense of importance it has in our communities is encouraging people to travel to ANZAC services in communities abroad.

Maybe not quite ‘abroad’ but one of the dawn services in Western Australia that is increasingly resonating as a remarkable experience, beyond just the significance of the event, is the Rottnest Island ANZAC Day Dawn Service.

One of the best characteristics of a dawn service is that it takes a small level of commitment to get up at a time when you would rather be sleeping. There’s a feeling that the small effort you have to make to attend the service is part of the respect you are paying.

As a family, we arrive at Hillarys at 4:00am for the departure of the 4:30am ferry. The queue is noticeably different for a Rottnest bound ferry. There is no tangled pile of bikes being hoisted in cages aboard the boat. There are no fishing rods, eskies and towels slung over shoulders. It is also very quiet.

Speaking to people on board, it’s apparent that most of us are attending the Rottnest Dawn Service for the first time. Dawn, a rather apt name, remembers her father who had been in the merchant navy always saying he would have liked to have been out at sea and seen the sun come up over Australia on ANZAC Day. Merv, a Rottnest Volunteer Guide, is looking forward to preparing our Gunfire Breakfast after the service.

I haven’t been on a sea in darkness for many years. Standing at the stern of the ferry and looking down at the churning white wake and then looking up at the stars I thought I was about to reminisce about my younger days on sailing ships but with the moment at hand and on my mind I thought about the ANZAC’s making their way ashore in a variety of small craft, ill designed for the landing. At that moment, I thought what it must have been like to be heading towards an enemy shore, not just running around Blackboy Hill at the foot of the Darling Ranges.

It is the first time Rottnest Fast Ferries have taken a ferry from Hillarys for the Rottnest Dawn Service. Up in the wheelhouse I meet James, the skipper, and in between navigating in the darkness around bulk cargo carriers and cruise ships we talk about the appropriateness of Rottnest Island for a Dawn Service. In 1915, the first ships from the first convoy from Australia left Fremantle a day before the ships in Albany. Their last look at Australia was Rottnest Island.

Skipper James

Arriving at Rottnest just before 5:30am, we were directed to Thomson Bay beach where the service was due to commence. On cue, the first hues of orange began to rise from the east, backlighting the Perth city skyline, across the sea and land, 30km away.

While the roar of a crowd can be uplifting, the silence of a crowd can be more inspiring. I remember as a kid the Narrogin ANZAC Day Dawn Service, dark and cold, frost crackling under feet as we would make our way across the grass to the memorial, towards the orange glow of cigarettes being drawn on by old diggers, followed by a few raking coughs up and down the line. The lack of banter, the lack of chat. The will to gather in a silence that says so much.

All over the world, as the sun rises, those of us at ANZAC Day Dawn Services are quiet.

The service is held under the protection of flights of pelicans that glide overhead. The wreath laying includes representation from the Beaconsfield Primary School Rottnest Island Campus, 9 students who attend school on the island and who have also made a paper poppy display in the Old Salt Store.

Sunrise over the waves and over Australia

With the growing light I am able to look around at the crowd and I am stunned. I had thought that gathered around my family was about 500 people but clearly there is a crowd of at least 1500.

After the service I speak to Penni Fetcher-Hughes from the Rottnest Island Authority. We stand in the Gunfire Breakfast queue and after discussing the numbers of people who have attended we both agree to just enjoy what is unfolding around us. People are standing at the shore of Thomson Bay, hugging each other and looking out to the rising sun over Perth, others are capturing photos of the Australian flag with the dawn sky behind and in the long breakfast queue a bracing breeze passed over us, carrying with it on the air the promise of bacon, eggs and onion in a warm roll.

I also speak to the Chairman of the Rottnest Island Authority Board, John Driscoll, who was the Master of Ceremonies for the service. John makes the comment that the wreath laying in particular is an example of the deep and broad community feeling for ANZAC Day on Rottnest with a wide variety of government agencies and volunteer groups represented.

We depart the island for the trip back to the mainland at midday. As always, when it’s time to leave Rottnest it’s not the happiest trudge down the jetty to board the ferry. This time it’s a bit different. I feel connected to a new story, a new perspective and a new community of people so passionate about this remarkable event. Rottnest has given my family an engaging and enduring experience. We are all a bit tired but more than a bit proud to have been a part of a spectacular Centenary ANZAC Day Dawn Service that the Rottnest community made a lot of effort to deliver.

Also from ‘And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’;

“And the young people ask, what are they marching for? And I ask myself the same question.”

I think we’re all marching. We’re all marching to ANZAC services all over the world. We’re all marching to remember.”

The West Australian newspaper: Treasure Hunting for a New Generation on Rottnest Island

Originally published by the West Australian Newspaper and on the Rottnest Island Authority website http://www.ria.wa.gov.au.

Do you remember as a kid going to a classmate’s birthday party and as an outdoor activity, because they were all outdoor activities, being given a treasure map? Was it tea stained, burnt around the edges and perhaps missing an entire corner because whoever had used the match lost their concentration for a second?

The best maps were those of fictional islands. What’s not to love about islands with small coves and sweeping bays all ringed by a vicious ship eating reef with only one small, deep passage through? On the island would be palm trees laden with coconuts, a mountain or volcano and lots of sneaky quicksand. It’s possible I’m now channelling the old television program, Danger Island, so I’ll leave it there for island descriptions.

Surely I’m not alone in finding all maps exciting but it’s the hunt that is even more exciting. The competitive challenge to outwit your friends was always more rewarding than a shoebox full of musk sticks and clinkers.

Back to channelling television programs, I have recently discovered an activity that closely resembles the immunity idol searches on Survivor. That frustration of knowing you’re in the right area but can’t pin down the location of an object you know must be there but you don’t know what it looks like.

Geocaching. It’s a great name for the modern day treasure hunting activity. The worldwide geocaching mantra seems spot on; if you hide it, they will come.

It’s more than treasure hunting though. There’s a different reward at the end which brings me back to the hunt being almost more fun than the find. With geocaching you find something but it’s not valuable and you needn’t take anything from it. In fact, you’re invited to contribute something to it.

Found at last!

Geocaching is the search for registered small stores of items or written notes that are generally very well hidden or where they’re not hidden may be very tricky to open. Using a smart phone or GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) device, geocaches can be found worldwide and registered through Geocaching.com which is managed by Groundspeak. The goal of Groundspeak is to ‘make everyone an explorer and to put an adventure in every location’ and ensure caches are appropriate and safe for people to search for.

It’s the ideal activity for anyone who likes the outdoors and their smartphone but especially for a family whose young members have an insatiable appetite for technology and whose older members love the outdoors.

Think about the line in ‘What A Wonderful World’ where Louis Armstrong sings, “I hear babies cry, I watch them grow, they’ll learn much more than I’ll ever know”.

I know what he means. My kids, Matilda 11 and Tom 5, are so adroit with technology and the absorption of information.

With that memory of the best treasure maps being islands and wanting to get really stuck into geocaching, what better opportunity could there be than to explore Rottnest Island and its trail of registered geocache sites?

While Rottnest has become renowned for its snorkelling and dive trails, embarking on the geocache trail is a land based adventure that gets you exploring the island and seeing things like you’ve never seen them before.

Before we travel to Rottnest I catch up with Griffin Longley from Nature Play WA. Despite Tom’s reluctance to accept Griffin’s invitation to make a cubby by the river’s edge near Nature Play WA headquarters, the CEO of Nature Play WA accepts my declaration that my kids really do enjoy the outdoors.

Griffin explains that geocaching is supported by Nature Play WA because of the benefits that align with so many of the activities they promote and undertake across Western Australia.

What I’m really taken with is his description of community awareness and connection. By geocaching you gain a greater understanding of what’s in your community and a greater connection to your community by knowing more about it, including of course where things are hidden.

GPS units are available for hire from Nature Play WA. While a smart phone has the capability of locating geocaches, a GPS unit has many advantages; they’re straightforward with easy to navigate menus, they are rugged, splash proof (some are even waterproof) and, particularly for children, they represent yet another technological device that they can master quicker than I could manage to open the battery compartment.

Our first search is out near Kingston Barracks and the swinging arrow on the compass of the GPS directs us to the coordinates of a geocache and then it’s up to us to scramble, peek, prod and scrape for an object that fits the description on the Rottnest Geocache Register.

We find what we’re looking for and it’s exhilarating! While the cache itself is not remarkably exciting I come back yet again to the hunt being more fun than the find.

One thing that is clearly apparent even at this early stage of our weekend but we keep coming back to in our observations is that it’s so important to remember that when you’re searching for caches in bush locations you need to be careful about where you put your hands and feet. Geocaching heightens your awareness of your location, particularly the beauty of the bush, so making sure you don’t damage flora and fauna is important.

It can be tough though. Some of those caches just about demand whoops for joy and jumps of elation. I’m being very mindful in this article not to give spoilers but when an online hint suggests that a cache is located at waist height and ends up being found on the ground I’m just glad Matilda didn’t log my comments on the accredited geocache website.

Not a geocache and a lot easier to find

The geocaches I most enjoy are the ones where we all search and then one by one our enthusiasm falters as we reach our point of perplexion. Tom is always the first, particularly when we explain the geocache is never found on bugs, or in bugs.

I’m normally next, I like to have a quick squirrel about and then under the guise of, “Best I leave it for the kids!” I back away to observe proceedings as Matilda and her mother stoop low, stretch high, check coordinates on their GPS’s, look around and then start the routine all over again. I think there’s an opportunity to label this the ‘Geocache Dance’.

At last count over two million geocaches have been hidden all over the world. Wherever you travel, just search online for geocaches in your location and see what you can find. In Western Australia there are hundreds of registered geocaches in the Perth metropolitan area and throughout the state; from Rottnest Island to Quairading, Busselton to Denmark, Wedge Island to Grass Patch, Corrigin to Karajini and Kununurra to Exmouth. Here’s one to look for this weekend if you happen to be in the area; Mount Archie in the Little Sandy Desert at GPS coordinates S25, 33.915 E123, 14.331 (WGS 84) and it’s at an elevation of 471m.

There are a number of geocache types you can search for. The traditional cache is a container of some type with a log sheet and maybe a few items left by previous geocachers. Some of the traditional cache containers found by my family across the state include plastic containers, old ammunition tins, mint tins and handcrafted wooden boxes.

Mystery or puzzle caches can involve complicated hints to determine the coordinates or maybe a cache that is easy to locate but difficult to open. Earth caches are geological formations of interest that you can locate and learn about as the required coordinates are usually accompanied by some educational notes.

As an activity, geocaching is intriguing. While you can pack up the family and friends and travel for the purpose of geocaching it’s also possible to search for geocaches in any location you find yourself. Next time you have to travel to far flung sporting fields on a weekend or attend a wedding in the hills, do a search on a smart phone (or GPS if you happen to have one of those) and see what’s in your location. There might be a geocache hiding in the fork of that tree you can see, just over there.

Geocaching is a special way to use technology to have a lot of fun on your own, with friends, competitive teams or with your family. I’m surprised my family enjoys geocaching. It seems that every time a favourite item is lost in the house and desperate searches ensue, it brings out nothing but bitter recriminations and declarations of war on the state of bedroom clutter. Yet somehow, being outdoors together, consulting technology and hunting together for an unidentified object brings out laughter, support, a gentle sense of competition and a great sense of adventure.

The writer and his family were guests of the Rottnest Island Authority.

To learn more about geocaching go to the Groundspeak website at www.groundspeak.com, www.geocaching.com or Nature Play WA on www.natureplaywa.org.au