Quality Time with Quokkas at Rottnest Island, Western Australia

If you Google the phrase, “world’s happiest animal,” you’ll be rewarded with the smiling image of a quokka. I’m not sure that there has ever been an official contest with competitors but once you see the chubby cheeks of a smiling quokka, you’ll understand that there is no other animal worthy of this accolade.

A quokka is a small, cartoon-like marsupial that lives only in a few places in Western Australia, with the highest population being in Rottnest Island. True to its marsupial nature, quokkas hops on their hind legs and carries their young in a front pouch.

When the Dutch first arrived on this island close to Perth, they assumed that these creatures were humongous rats and named the island Rottnest which translates into Rat’s Nest.

Armed with snorkels, surfboards, camping gear, and bicycles, my friends and I ventured to Rottnest Island with one mission in mind – spend some quality time with quokkas.

To get to the land of these quirky creatures, board the Rottnest Express ferry from Perth CBD, Hillary’s Boat Harbour, or the Fremantle Harbour. You’ll want to get there early to snag the best seats in the boat because it’s common to spot migrating whales along the way.

To our surprise, quokkas harbor no fear of humans. As soon as we arrived, a mob of quokkas hopped over to our pile of gear and started rummaging through our backpacks in search of snacks. It’s not only illegal to feed or pet quokkas, but it’s also harmful to their diets and the local ecosystem to give quokkas food meant for humans.

While we were busy capturing selfies with one assertive quokka, another quokka blitzed its way into our backpack and sunk its teeth into a banana before we could wrestled the banana away from its tiny hands. The quokka let go of the banana, blinked at us, and bounced over to a new group of tourists to burgle.

Quokkas aren’t violent or aggressive, but they’re not docile, either. Their manipulation strategy is timeless yet genius. Smile and look sweet in hopes of getting what you want. If that doesn’t work, just steal whatever it is that your heart desires.

A curious quokka. Photo by Liam Higton Shirt.

We set up camp and double-tied our food bags and backpacks – trying everything we could to make them quokka and bird-proof. We didn’t want the animals to get sick, but even more selfishly, we wanted dinner to come back to after a long day out cycling.

We cycled around Rottnest Island enjoying the variety of beaches, pink lakes, and bushland. Every few miles, a quokka family hopped across the road and tucked into the shrubs.

Though quokkas reign as Rottnest Island’s top highlight, it’s also one of the best places in Western Australia to surf and dive. In between quokka spotting, we’d throw on our fins and look for fish and waves all along the island’s shoreline.

Back at our campsite, there was evidence of animal mischief. Anything that could’ve been pulled out of a bag, was. Our cooking items were scattered along the ground. The quokkas had made themselves right at home while we were away.

They saw an opportunity, and they took it. Could you blame them?

At the campsite, the rangers have taken great lengths to keep nearly everything quokka-proof. Small gates keep the quokkas from entering the cooking area, and every shrub sapling had a miniature fortress of mesh held up with sticks around it.

But these efforts were futile. As soon as sunset passed and the sky turned dark, the nocturnal quokkas came out from the shrubs and hopped over to the campsite. They did anything to scavenge or ploy for a treat. They climbed the protective mesh like a ladder and gnawed on the few sprouted leaves. They propped themselves up onto the picnic bench or hid under our feet. They tried to scoot under the fences built specifically to keep them out.

It’s not that quokkas are smart, like a racoon or a border collie. They don’t all get together and develop one, well thought-out strategy. To them, it’s a numbers game. Try enough tactics and one eventually has to work. Five quokkas will climb the shrubs and one will make it through. Six quokkas will come to the picnic bench and one will be close enough to a dropped morsel.

There’s nothing in my hand — but the quokka stands up for a closer look.

When night came, I crawled into my tent and felt secure behind two layers of nylon. I pulled the zippers to the top of the tent where hopefully the quokkas couldn’t reach.

My friend Liam had a less secure set-up for sleeping. He made the sign of the cross before enclosing himself in a swag, a sleeping pad that’s popular in Australia that is basically a sleeping bag on steroids.

A view from my tent looking out to Liam’s swag

He woke up to the feeling of three quokkas sitting on the top of his swag and the sound of one quokka trying to scratch its way in.

When most people think of Australian wildlife, they imagine a barren land of sharks, spiders, snakes, and the occasional kangaroo. While of course it wouldn’t be right if Rottnest Island didn’t have these creatures, it’s not fair to judge an entire country by its worst inhabitants. How would Americans feel if others assumed our entire country was populated by the creme de la creme featured on Jerry Springer?

Come to Western Australia and you’ll discover a land of mischievous marsupials who will charm and connive their way into your heart.

And your bag.

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