It had never been my intention to live with rats but sometimes life takes a surprise turn.
My Australian friend pushed her cap to the back of her head and looked up at the flag, flying horizontally, stiff like cardboard.
“It might be a bit bumpy today,” she commented. We were driving to Fremantle Harbour. “There’s a bit of breeze out there on the ocean.”
I looked at the flag. I’d never worried about rough seas before but then my previous experience of sailing had been cross channel ferries with stabilizers. I didn’t know the turmoil which could spring from the depths of the ocean and imbed itself in my heart.
“Are you OK about it?” she asked.
“Me? I’m fine,” I said. We were to travel to Rottnest Island, 11 miles off the coast of Perth, moor in a deserted bay, snorkel and swim in the warm water, sleep on board and return the next day. Our sailing craft, the family boat, was an old 76-foot motor cruiser.
It was a little breezy as we left the harbour. I could see the white water beyond. I buttoned up my jacket to keep out the spray. I was chatting happily.
“That’s Rottnest Island,” my friend commented and I could just make out a blob on the horizon. It was then that the boat made its first plunge into the unknown. I swallowed hard. I felt I was in freefall, floating and then crash landing as the boat hit the next wave. All rational thought was washed from my mind, drowned by that primeval emotion, fear.
With every lurch of the boat, I felt my stomach unravel. Time dallied. We ploughed forward, and as if in a bad dream, seemed to make no progress. The blob remained a blob.
“ Can I go below and lie down,” I gasped.
“No you mustn’t. Keep your eye on the horizon then you’ll feel fine.” I was told. But I didn’t feel fine. I wanted to hide in a cabin where there was less chance of being sucked overboard. Nothing in life had prepared me for this. I’d shunned fairground rides. I had always taken the stairs rather than the lift. I had never climbed into the washing machine just for the thrill of it.
I wound my fingers round the rail and stared ahead. The island danced provocatively on the horizon, shapeless and entrancing, as if not wanting to reveal itself, quite yet. I was trapped. I wanted the ordeal to end.
The captain at the wheel smiled and joked. I could see others smiling, holding on, lurching across the deck, grabbing rails as they reeled about, seemingly unconcerned.
I didn’t think I could hold on for much longer. I worried, quite irrationally, that the wind would unfurl my fingers from the rail and throw me into the ocean. It was lifting the hair from my scalp.
I had read about Rottnest Island. I remembered now. It had an interesting history, the guide book said. It was the resting place for 13 shipwrecks. Why had that not been a warning to me.
It was discovered by Dutch explorers in the 17th century and had at one time been an Aboriginal penal colony. It was inhabited by large rat-like creatures called quokkas. A 40-minute hop from Perth was how the guide book described the journey. One small hop for a sailor maybe. One giant leap into hell for a landlubber.
Finally the island materialised. I could see a beach and trees. It did exist after all. The boat floated into the bay and I went below and lay in the cabin, rocking gently. The swell in my stomach subsided. I rested and planned my future on the island. I would befriend the quokkas and spend the rest of my life there. I could never cross that stretch of sea again.