The story of Wadjemup / Rottnest Island began well before our story, over 50,000 years ago to be precise. Once connected to the mainland, the island was inhabited by the local Whadjuk Noongar people, who used this land for a multitude of purposes including ceremonial grounds. When the sea levels rose some 6,500 years ago and the island became disconnected from the mainlaind, the Whadjuk Noongar people were no longer able to access this land.
Willem de Vlamingh lands on the island and names it Rottnest, meaning ‘rat’s nest’ in Dutch after the large rat-like creatures that inhabit it.
Map of Rottenest Island, 1753
As part of the Swan River Colony, Robert Thomson began establishing the main settlement, now known as Thomson Bay. Following the arrival of European settlers in Western Australia, the history Wadjemup / Rottnest Island took a sorrowful turn when it was established as a prison and then as a forced labour camp. State records indicate that 3,700 Aboriginal men and boys from Western Australia were imprisoned on the island. At least 373 of these prisoners died in custody and were buried in the area currently referred to as the Wadjemup Aboriginal Burial Grund. Many who were imprisoned were leaders, lore men and warriors.
Today, the Rottnest Island Authority are committed to reconciling the past and working towards reconciliation and truth-telling with the Whadjuk Noongar Elders.
During World War I, the Australian Department of Defence commandeered the island to be used as an internment camp in 1914 and 1915, before returning to a family holiday destination at the end of 1915.
In 1917, the Rottnest Island Board of Control was appointed to manage the island. At the same time, the island was declared as a Class A Reserve for public recreation – creating a significant shift from the prison era to one of tourism and increasing general public interest in the island as a holiday destination.
Thomsons Bay, 1934
Source: The West Australian
The 1930’s & 1940’s
The island returned to its military role in World War II when it was identified as a critical point in WA’s coastal defence. This saw the installation of Bickley Battery and Oliver Hill Battery to help defend Fremantle Port from any hostile ships. During WWII, the island was declared a prohibited area in June 1940 and continued to be occupied by miliary and naval personnel only throughout the years until 1945. Despite the imminent threat, the guns were never fired at an enemy vessel.
Australian soldiers hitching a ride on Rottnest, late 1930s
Source: State Archives (Item 226566PD)
In June 1945, the prohibition order on Rottnest Island was lifted and civilians were again allowed back to its shores.
Now enter the beginning of our story, in the late 1950s Alan Kitcher sailed though the heads of Fremantle Harbour in a 42ft wooden hulled launch ‘The Temeraire’. He had brought her, along with his family, from Albany to begin a new business venture; a regular passenger ferry service from Perth to the holiday island of Rottnest.
‘The Temeraire’ could only carry 44 passengers at a time and the daily crossing was restricted to fair-weather only. But little did he realise that his efforts would eventually manifest into what is the largest privately-owned ferry company in Australia, carrying hundreds of thousands of people to Rottnest every year.
For many years Alan’s son Trevor worked alongside his father learning the ropes and assisting in all facets of the business. As time went on, the Rottnest business grew and Trevor began to see its true potential. He realised however that this could only be achieved through bigger and better boats.
Trevor finally took his place at the company helm and in 1971 commissioned the construction of the 700 passenger ferry the ‘Temeraire II’. This was the turning point. The ‘Temeraire II’ could make the run fully-loaded in record time and with a much greater deal of comfort and reliability.
The Temeraire II, 1977
The new service attracted many more visitors to the Island and business began to boom. The increase soon enabled the company to build an even bigger ferry the ‘Rottnest Explorer’ and then on to develop the new high speed craft that we see today. The realisation of untapped potential that saw the business begin and grow, saw the company bought by Don Brown and Don Dunbar in 2002, where they expanded the business to also provide an additional fast ferry service from Fremantle C-shed under the banner of ‘Rottnest Express’.
Source: The West Australian, 2005
Starflyte, early 2000’s
Source: Shipspotting – Anthony Legg
They continued to develop the business until July 2007 when the Baileys Marine Group purchased Boat Torque / Rottnest Express. They did so out of a great passion for both boats and the Island. They combined this passion with over 20 years’ experience in the marine industry to create an even better ferry service to the island. With their background in the marine industry and love of all things water, accompanied with the right staff, culture and vision, Rottnest Express has become the world-class ferry business that it was destined to be.
In early 2017 Rottnest Express became part of Journey Beyond. Journey Beyond is focused on bringing Australia’s most iconic experiences to life and is fast positioning itself as one of the largest experiential tourism businesses in the country.
Rottnest Express are proud to have a dedicated and passionate team of crew on and off the water, with some staff reaching over 20 years of service – it’s no surprise that Rottnest Express still lives and breathes its history today. An integral part of the Fremantle and Perth community, Rottnest Express has played a role in the upbringing of many West Aussies chartering them to and from Rottnest Island all throughout their childhood and beyond.
Rottnest Express now has the largest fleet of vessels servicing Rottnest Island and sets sail from three locations in Fremantle and central Perth. Offering more than just a ferry service, Rottnest Express have now taken on bike hire, bus tours, adventure tours and a range of other on island activities to further diversify their suite of experiences. Now boasting over 60 years’ experience, Rottnest Express are the most experienced and trusted ferry operator in Perth.
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