• A new tourism venture on Rottnest Island is hoping to change people's perception of the island's Aboriginal history. (NITV)
A new Aboriginal tourism venture is slowly making its mark on one of Western Australia’s tourist hotspots but a Traditional Owner is making sure the Aboriginal history of the area isn’t ignored.
By
Rangi Hirini

13 May 2019 - 9:56 AM  UPDATED 13 May 2019 - 10:05 AM

Wadjemup or Rottnest Island, as it's also known, is one of WA's tourism jewels with strong, though often overlooked, Aboriginal ties. Now a tourism company wants to make sure the islands cultural significance isn’t forgotten.

Located roughly 20 kilometres off the coast of Perth, "Rotto" has had visits from A-List Aussie actors such as Chris Hemsworth, Hugh Jackman and Margot Robbie who all took the island’s signature postcard, a selfie with a Quokka. 

But tourism company, Go Cultural – operated by Noongar man, Walter McGuire – wants to enrich the experience of visitors to Wadjemap with a greater awareness and appreciation of the site's traditional and enduring cultural background.

Mr McGuire has operated Go Cultural on the mainland with tours to some of Perth’s biggest attractions, such as Kings Park, Elizabeth Quay, and Yagan Square. He said the decision to bring his tourism operation to Wadjemup was influenced by his family.

“My dad said ‘Son, it’s time to share our culture’, and through that my wife, Meg, and I set up our Go Cultural tours and we decided through our tours to tell the first story of the Noongar/ Whadjuk/ Bibbulmun occupation of this island,” he told NITV News.

“[On] our tours, we have the interactions: the Welcome to Country and a Water Ceremony. That basically connects us to the land, so the land and water can also feel us and know that we’re present,” he said.

“And the old people that have gone before us, they are still here in spirit, and they feel us and know that we’re here, paying our greatest respects.”

Before becoming a tourism magnet, Wadjemup was a very spiritual place for the Noongar people. The island was once connected to the mainlands allowing Noongar people to walk there, Wadjemup was an important meeting place and ceremonial site. 

Decades later, Aboriginal people returned to Rottnest Island, though by force rather than will.

From 1838 until 1904, Aboriginal men and boys aged between eight and 70 years old were forcibly taken to the island. It is believed almost 4,000 Aboriginal males from across the state were sent there.

Mr McGuire discusses both the Dreamtime history of Wadjemup and also the prison history of the island during his 90-minute walking tour.

“First and foremost we cover the thousands and thousands of years of Noongar occupation," he said.

“And in that hundred-year space, we do not forget what happened to what we refer to as the Boordia in our Noongar language, meaning the bosses, the kings, the princes and the head warriors.  They were taken and forcibly removed from their homelands.” 

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Government data shows 78 per cent of WA visitors are looking for an Aboriginal cultural experience and WA's Tourism Minister, Paul Papalia, welcomed the addition of Go Cultural to the burgeoning number of tourist services to the island. The Aboriginal connection to Wadjemup should be recognised, said Mr Papalia said in a written statement.

“We expect people from all over the world who visit Rottnest will want to experience Aboriginal culture from the local guides."

Visitor numbers to Rottnest Island has risen over the past year with more than 760,000 people making their way over to "Rotto". A 15 per cent increase from the previous year.

Mr McGuire said he wants these visitors to leave Wadjemup knowing the full history of the island and the significance to the Noongar people.

Until May last year, the former building that imprisoned so many Aboriginal men and boys – known colloquially as "The Quad" – was still being used as holiday accommodation. The WA government has since handed “The Quad” over to the Noongar people. 

“My hope is that people understand the truth about this land and the Aboriginal stories," said Mr McGuire. "This island is very significant for all of our Aboriginal tribes across Western Australia."