Title photos and map courtesy of South Australian Commission.
Kangaroo Island is not exactly on the main route to anywhere unless you happen to be traveling from South Australia to Antarctica. Mention Kangaroo Island to a North American and the question will most likely be “Where’s that?” However, continental Europeans from a surprising variety of countries will tell you not only where the island is but exactly why it is on their Most Wanted list of special places.
Kangaroo Island is Australia’s third largest island, a 155 by 55 kilometre ecotourism treasure trove of rare and endangered species and fascinating geology. A 30-minute flight from Adelaide or a short ferry ride transports visitors back 10,000 years to a period when geological separation from mainland Australia froze its natural ecosystems in time.
Nature pretty much ruled until the early 1800s when rough-diamond European and American whalers and sealers, as well as a disreputable lot of deserters and escaped convicts came ashore for rest, recreation, destruction, and not much else. Much later, the rich red soil attracted pioneer farm families, and in recent times the island has caught the attention of avid ecotourists. Two-thirds of the island is now cultivated or grazed and one-third is protected in 14 diverse conservation parks and a national park of 75,000 hectares.
Vivonne Bay provides a stunning backdrop for swimming, beachcombing and fishing. Alison Gardner
Today, tourism and sheep are the economic engines. A half million sheep and 150,000 tourists annually roam the island under the watchful welcoming eye of 4,000 locals, many whose roots go back several generations and all of whom are both proud and protective of Kangaroo Island. Independent and guided hiking and biking opportunities abound, car rentals and buses provide less active alternatives for exploration. There are no traffic lights or predators (besides people) and few paved roads or vehicles. One brochure quaintly proclaims “there are a lack of people-enhanced attractions”. However, there are two yellow-parched 18-hole golf courses with sand greens for which golfers may drop a dollar in the honesty tin to cover green fees.
At Emu Ridge Eucalyptus Distillery, a local wallaby gets a cuddle from owner, Larry Turner. Alison Gardner
Once outside the small towns and villages scattered across the island, vehicles themselves could well be added to the endangered species list. When spotted, most are negotiating the dead straight red dirt roads right down the middle or idling patiently while a metre-long goanna lizard, a spiny echidna or a wallaby assert first rights at a crossing point.
In the mid-day heat, 100s of koalas rest at eye level in eucalyptus trees. Alison Gardner
With permission and a guide, I wandered quietly through a sheep farm’s eucalyptus forest and observed dozens of koalas, adult and young, at close to eye level. Against a backdrop of tinkling sheep bells and the surround-sound buzz of cicadas, these unperturbed teddy bears, stout bodies wedged into clefts in the branches, seemed entirely focused on counting sheep of their own.
In reality the 30,000 bumbling bears of Kangaroo Island have become a serious threat to their limited food supply of eucalyptus leaves. With starvation and forest degradation demanding a call to action, a koala rescue effort has reduced their proliferation through selective sterilization and air lifts to mainland wilderness areas. Even paradise has its pains.
Seal Bay is another awe-inspiring experience, a protected conservation area and breeding beach for the rare Australian Sea Lion. During my visit, close to 100 of the 600-strong colony surfed the breakers and lay like so many logs scattered in random confusion on the fine sand, nursing their pups and digesting a two-day feed of fish gobbled far out to sea. Protected and cherished today by watchful rangers, these docile, approachable creatures were once hunted to near extinction.
A rare colony of Australian Sea Lions live at Seal Bay. Alison Gardner
I deliberately scheduled an overnight in Kingscote, the island’s largest town (population 1,400), to learn about the local Fairy Penguins and witness their remarkable adaptation to human presence. With good posture, these flightless miniatures stand 14 inches tall, making them incontestably the world’s smallest penguin breed.
On the Kingscote waterfront, the Penguin Interpretive Centre offers nightly lectures and carefully controlled guided tours along the fishing harbour’s massive breakwater of jumbled boulders. As night descends, a hundred or more penguins catapult onto shore, scramble up the boulders and make a bee-line for each bird’s family condo wedged between the rocks. At dawn they tumble back in the water for another day of fishing far out to sea.
Remarkable Rocks, Flinders Chase National Park, is a giant coastal landmark. Alison Gardner
Waters around Admiral’s Arch team with playful NZ fur seals. South Australian Tourism Commission
Kangaroo Island is one of those destinations that generates sharp mental snapshots long after returning home: the stately flock of jet black swans cruising the ocean shoreline near my breakfast patio; the island’s delicious sheep’s milk yogurt and specialty Brie and Camembert cheeses that I was severely tempted to try and sneak past Canadian customs; the sprightly breeding colony of rare New Zealand fur seals perfectly timing their aquafit routines among the jagged rocks and ocean swells of Admiral’s Arch; the Remarkable Rocks that have served as an unmistakable cliff-top landmark to shipping for two hundred years.
Restored and furnished lighthouse keepers’ homes are rented to visitors. Alison Gardner
Next time I will certainly stay in one of the lovingly-restored, period-furnished lighthouse keepers’ homes overlooking Remarkable Rocks and only a wind-tossed cliffwalk away from Admiral’s Arch. The park service rents out these and other historic homesteads to adventurous visitors seeking seclusion and a taste of early settler history. Great images to take home.
Catch a glimpse of the elusive platypus. South Australian Tourism Commission
However, my finest mental snapshot arises from a guide’s promise to deliver a two-person picnic lunch to mark my last day on Kangaroo Island. On the secluded bank of a pristine creek, shaded by huge sugar gum trees dotted with sleepy koalas, we dined on smoked salmon, caviar, local cheeses, home-made bread and snow pea salad. While sipping Australia’s own Jacob’s Creek Barossa Chardonnay, chilled to perfection on a hot day, we observed a normally reclusive platypus swim the perimeter of his domain, and listened to marbled frogs wooing their mates. It was one of those Waltzing Matilda moments.
When to go: Kangaroo Island summers are hot and dry; the winter season of June through August offers cooler temperatures, a greener landscape, and lots of wildflowers.
For complete information on accommodation choices, ferry and air transportation, tour operators, car and bike rentals and parks, visit Tourism Kangaroo Island’s website www.tourkangarooisland.com.au. As well as hotels and self-catered units, there are dozens of bed and breakfasts and farmstays with creative dining, classic furnishings and colourful historic connections.
For other feature articles about Australia’s nature islands and active adventure holidays, we invite you to enjoy our richly-illustrated stories about the Great Barrier Reef’s Heron Island, a Coral Bleaching volunteer monitoring program, a multi-day bicycle adventure in the state of Victoria, and a camel-trekking adventure into Australia’s desert outback.
Alison Gardner is a travel journalist, magazine editor, guidebook author, and consultant. She specializes in researching alternative vacations throughout the world, suitable for people over 50 and for women travelers of all ages. She is also the publisher and editor of Travel with a Challenge web magazine. Email: email@example.com.