What’s cuter than a quokka grinning at you as you snap a selfie? A quokka joey emerging from its mother’s pouch, to place its tiny feet on the ground for the very first time.
Each September, joeys begin to tentatively explore their Class-A nature reserve home, Rottnest Island – also known as Wadjemup in the Whadjuk Noongar language. The heart-melting is real, and for the entire month, the mostly car-free isle puts on a celebration marking the collective birthday of spring’s new batch of furry adorableness. The highlight is the day-long Quokka Birthday Party, when children can catch the ferry for free to Rottnest and back, and adults swoon at the wall-towall quokka saturation. It’s a day worth marking on the calendar.
The event is as magnetic as you’d expect. Hundreds of people flow from the ferry trip – an easy 30-minute journey from Fremantle – and are met by a humansized quokka mascot wearing a round, ‘It’s my birthday’ badge, delivering welcoming hugs and posing for photos.
Just beyond, naturally scented smoke draws arrivals towards a Whadjuk Noongar ‘Welcome to Country’ ceremony. It’s an interactive presentation, where fragrant peppermint tree leaves are piled on a fire, creating streams of white smoke that waft like cotton wool across the land. Everyone is invited to walk through it, cleansing themselves as they go, while kids high-five the Aboriginal Elder leading the welcome. It’s a joyful, inclusive scene.
As people peel away, children make a beeline for the giant inflatable quokka, craft tent and chalk messages wall, pausing to “Ooh” and “Ahh” at the baby quokkas bounding around the island settlement. Others head to the sandcastle building competition, settle in for a quokka storytelling session and venture to the island’s picture hall to watch a documentary on the world’s happiest animal. There’s also a giant quokka birthday card to inscribe well-wishes on.
The birthday may be the feature of the month, but events and activities run on Rottnest throughout the whole of September. The line-up changes each year: in the past, rangers have held illuminating Q&A sessions about quokka behaviour; there’s been an animal photography workshop helping snappers to capture the ultimate quokka pic (spoiler alert: it’s not all about the selfie); and there’s also been a guided quokka-spotting walk at dusk, followed by a beach bonfire.
Look beyond that dazzling quokka smile to learn about the creature itself. Fact number one: Rotto’s resident celebrities sleep on their heads, curling over to pop their head between their legs.
Fact number two: they are responsible for the island’s name, with 17th century Dutch sailors believing them to be cat-sized rats (they’re actually a species of wallaby) and declaring the place a rat’s nest, or Rottnest. They were one of the first Australian marsupials recorded by Europeans, but well before that, Indigenous peoples in WA’s far south called them quokkas.
Fact number three: the quokka is classed as a vulnerable species and protected by law. Just over a century ago, they were still being hunted – a practice that was outlawed in 1917. Even after humans stopped being a threat, there were other predators, including feral cats, which were eventually eradicated in 2000.
Quokkas are hardy survivors and the estimated population now sits between 8,000-12,000. They can store fat in their tails for lean times and, over summer when water sources dry up, they drink very little liquid and derive what moisture they can from a diet of grasses, seedlings and succulents. Sticking mainly to ground level, or occasionally hopping into low branches, they’re also known to nab moths, snails and legless lizards.
Whether you join in the Quokka Birthday celebrations or not, September is a dreamy time to skip across to WA’s favourite holiday island. Spring sees Rotto come alive with thick clusters of lush bullrushes, confetti-like wildflowers and sun-drenched skies gifting mild temperatures.
It makes for the ideal setting to launch a spontaneous quokka-watching walk. The easy spots to see quokkas are all in the main settlement, particularly outside the bustling bakery, inside the pub (yes, inside), and outside in Hotel Rottnest’s astro-turfed beer garden. But if you want to see quokkas in their natural habitat, behaving authentically in the wild, you need to venture out as the sun dims. Like many of Australia’s native marsupials, the furry social media sensation likes to keep a low profile and prefers a nocturnal existence. That’s why you’ll often see them sleeping the day away or resting under shady bushes. Walk along Rottnest’s pedestrian and bike tracks (paths in and around Geordie Bay are particularly good) to see quokkas communing in grass thickets and beside scrubby trees. Be surprised as they bounce around you like basketballs in the moonlight.
Quokka photography is a particular art that goes beyond attractive angles and ideal lighting. The most important element is respectful interaction with the little herbivores. As they mug for the camera, use a selfie stick or put at least an arm’s length between your device and the quokka. Avoid touching them – they’re wild and can be known to dish out the odd nip, so even petting them as a thank you for the pic is unwise.
The same goes for culinary rewards. Feeding them any type of human food, including bread, chips, or fruit, upsets their tummies. It’s also the main reason why quokkas in Rottnest’s main settlement stay up during the day – like many of us, they’re drawn to what’s not good for them.
All Western Australian kids aged 4-12 travel free with Rottnest Express when they join the Quokka Club. By signing up, kids receive a passport that gets stamped each time they travel, with bonus items ranging from free drinks to beachballs as their ferry trips stack up – all free. Kids aged three and under travel for free regardless. Visit rottnestexpress.com.au/ offers/quokka-club.
Celebrate them kindly – be it during their birthday month or at other times in the year – with the gift of appreciative observation. Celebrate the quokkas’ birthday this September by booking a ferry transfer and island tour with Rottnest Express. Click here for tours and more info.
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