I’ve just spent two incredible days staying in a wildlife park. Or at least it felt like that! I had anticipated an encounter with Australia’s iconic marsupial whilst visiting Kangaroo Island. But I wasn’t expecting to see so many different, uniquely Aussie animals and so easily. I can see why locals refer to this island as a ‘zoo without fences’.
Kangaroo Island is a little bit larger than Somerset and sits 13 miles off the coast of Adelaide in South Australia. There are 4,000 residents and around half of them live at the eastern end in laid-back Kingscote.
The town centre consists of just two streets. But despite its size, you’ll find plenty of places to dine, drink and grocery shop if you browse beneath the verandas of the town’s storefronts. I had a great pizza at the Bella Café.
The town’s most historic site is an ancient mulberry tree planted by Europeans. KI, as locals refer it to, hasn’t been inhabited very long. Unlike the mainland, there are no signs of settlement by the first Australians.
“The first English settlement was in 1836 when three ships arrived from England,” explained island farmer Steve Davidson. “The island wasn’t considered the best place for a new settlement so most people returned to the mainland. There wasn’t much water or building material on the island but a few hardy types stayed and made a go of it,” he said.
Steve Davidson’s family has been on KI for generations and he says there are plenty of descendants of the first settlers. The local phone book is filled with Turners, Wilson, Bells and Tretheweys.
I met with Gavin Matthews from Kangaroo Island Wilderness Tours. He kindly agreed to show me around in one of the company’s off-road vehicles. It’s best to get a local guide to drive you around. Many of KI’s roads are little more than dusty, un-metalled earth tracks.
Visitors can reach Seal Bay on KI’s southern shore on a tarmac road, though. On arrival, you walk through the excellent visitor centre sitting on top of the sand dunes to reach an 800-metre long wooden boardwalk that zigzags down the slope to a gorgeous expanse of white sandy beach.
People don’t come here to sunbathe or surf. The Australian sea lions are the attraction. “They are one of the rarest marine mammals on the planet and there’s just over 11,000 left,” Gavin explained.
Our way down along the wooden boardwalk was blocked by sea lions, lying a few metres from the path. The adults weren’t interested in us, but the 4-month old pup was sitting up and watching our every movement. The guide gave the all clear and we walked down to the beach where the sea lions were basking in the sunshine and waddling into the water.
“They spend three days at sea, travelling 30 miles out. They dive down to 200 feet catching lobster squid and octopus. Then they relax on the beach for three days,” Gavin said.
Next, we headed further west to an isolated corner of the island to reach Cape du Couedic, named by French explorers. The 110-year old, 25m tall lighthouse is one of the few man-made structures in this landscape of coastal scrub, which slopes down towards the cliffs and ocean below. Another wooden walkway takes you down to the top of the jagged, grey cliffs with views over the Casuarina Islets.
The land tilting toward the ocean was smothered by a tiny succulent, which gives the cliff tops the same colour as a postbox. “The plant processes seawater in the air and pushes the salt out to its leaves, which creates the red colour,” Gavin explained.
We could feel the waves pummelling the cliffs below, as the boardwalk turned into a long wooden stairway laced between cuttings in the rock. As the steps angled left, the wondrous Admirals Arch came into view. This cave-like space is 30m wide and stalactites hang from roof 20m above. The ocean is visible at both ends of this massive, rocky land bridge.
Through the spray from the waves, I could make out what looked like a castle on the cliff top, a few bays along. But when we drove around to this site, I discovered it was another wonder of nature – the aptly named Remarkable Rocks.
From a distance, this granite rock dome stands out on the horizon and glows orange, similar to Ayers Rock. The striking colour comes from the lichen covering the rock. It’s been eroded into strange, contorted shapes over 500 million years. I thought that some of the formations resembled birds with sharp beaks pointing downwards. Gavin told me that everyone saw something different.
It was a long, 55-mile drive across the mostly uninhabited bush, forest and farmland to Stokes Bay on the island’s north coast. In this part of KI, drooping she oak trees dot the green, rolling countryside that glides down to the sea. We parked alongside a rocky foreshore where I noticed a chilling road sign that announced the location of the bushfire ‘last resort refuge’. If wildfires take hold, locals know that they have to congregate here, in the hope that they will be plucked to safety by rescue boats
The tide was in so we couldn’t walk through the tunnel in the rock to the next bay, so instead we scaled the headland and were rewarded with breath-taking views.
Much of KI’s bush was only cleared after the war, when returning soldiers were incentivised to take up farming under the ‘Soldier Settlement Scheme’. Things went well until the 1980s, when sheep prices collapsed and interest rates rose. Islanders, who had farmed for generations, faced ruin from the lower returns and increased outgoings. Diversifying into tourism and specialist production was one solution.
Many of Kangaroo Island’s artisan products are now highly regarded by mainlanders for their quality and authenticity because many businesses are family-run or farm-based concerns. Emu Ridge has been producing pure eucalyptus oil since they opened in 1991. You can visit the shop and exhibition centre on the farm. The site has a refreshing smell, like a packet of Halls Menthol-Lyptus!
Owner, Larry Turner is a fourth generation islander and also serves as KI’s deputy mayor. He told me that eucalyptus is sustainable because these native trees require no chemicals or watering before they are harvested – that happens every two years. “I am tree farmer who can stand taller than my crops,” he joked.
The oil is used for cleaning products, sports rubs and even in sweets. “You’re eating something that can also be used to clean the loo. It sounds sort of wrong, doesn’t it?” Larry laughed.
The island’s bees collect pollen from different varieties of eucalyptus and at Clifford’s Honey Farm you can taste their efforts. Honey made with the local stringybark flower has a strong taste and dark colour. Owner Dave Clifford prefers the sugar gum honey, made with the pollen of this large north coast tree. “It is very clear, waxy and rather sweet,” he advised.
Kangaroo Island is home to Ligurian bees, originally sourced from the Italian Riviera. They have not bred with other bee types and remain pure. Dave’s business developed from a childhood interest in beekeeping and his honey-related range has diversified into ice creams and beer.
The bees are not the only sight in KI’s skies – the island is a birdwatcher’s paradise. Pelicans parade along the town’s seafront, geese honk as they wander around open spaces and exotic birds add music through their song and vibrant colour with their markings. I saw cockatoos, parrots and little wrens with their feathers as brilliant as tropical fish. “There’s a red and blue crimson rosella,” exclaimed Steve, as a vivid-coloured, robin-like bird bobbed past. Steve informed me that 267 different types of birds are regularly sighted on the island.
As we chatted, sitting at a table on Steve’s lawn, I heard a rustling and noticed leaves moving out of the corner of my eye. “Echidna!” I shouted with delight. I had seen the fifth of my ten sightings that day of an incredible little Australian creature. The echidna – a small, pointy-nosed marsupial anteater – resembles a cross between a large hedgehog and a Womble!
Kangaroo Island is one of the best places in Australia to see these shy and increasingly endangered creatures. As we drove, Gavin pulled the car over three times as he spotted movement in the undergrowth alongside the highway. Crouching down, he informed me in a David Attenborough-like whisper that the local echidna is a smaller, blonder sub-species of the mainland variety. “Their eyes are useless so their spines create a ‘dish’ around their head which allows them to pinpoint where the sound comes from,” Gavin said.
Further down the road, Gavin pulled off the tarmac and within seconds I noticed dozens of pairs of eyes watching us from the bush. There were kangaroos and wallabies everywhere, shading themselves from the sun.
Gavin was a superb guide. Instead of finishing our tour at 5pm, he decided to work 90-minutes later so we could see how the bush springs to life at dusk. And I’m glad that Gavin was behind the wheel. There were ‘roos’ every 100 feet or so – some in pairs, some alone – that leapt out in front of the car or chased alongside it. Some jumped across the road but froze in the beam of the car headlights. We had some ‘near misses’ and, sadly, saw plenty of fatalities. Locals have ‘roo’ bars installed on their vehicles. Driving at twilight or first light on KI is definitely not for the faint-hearted and inadvisable for tourists without a guide.
When the sun rose the next day we headed back into the bush to look for another Aussie classic – koalas. It’s quite magical being able to walk for just one minute from your parked car before you spot these stocky little marsupials hugging branches 100 feet up in the trees.
KI’s koalas love eucalyptus – in fact, it’s all they eat. And they’re said to have no predators because basically they taste like Vick’s Sinex! Dana Mitchell owns the island’s small Wildlife Park where injured or orphaned koalas are nursed back to health.
They are used to human contact and can’t be returned to the wild. One koala, Kieran, was wandering on the ground and actively trying to attract Dana’s attention while I was talking to her, tugging her trousers. He wanted to be picked up and cuddled.
I had heard that koalas spend their days in a groggy stupor after eating fermented leaves, but Dana swiftly debunked that urban myth. Koalas get so little energy from their sole food source that they sleep for up to 21 hours a day.
KI Wilderness Tours are well named. Huge swathes of the island are undeveloped. That means you won’t readily find cafés or restaurants for food. So, the company’s guides will fire up the communal ‘barbies’ provided in some camping sites and cook your outdoor lunch before you. It goes down very nicely with a glass of KI wine or South Australian beer!
If gin is your tipple, then the island is home to an award-winning distillery, which you can visit. Kangaroo Island Spirit’s flower-filled garden offers a civilised space in which to sample Jon Lark’s botanicals. “In 2016 we won ‘champion Australian gin’ in the Australian Spirits Awards and we won the Australian gin distillery of the year title in 2017. We have also won medals in London, New York, San Francisco and Hong Kong,” Jon told me with pride.
Jon chose to move to KI because of its emerging reputation for local food and drink, and he has incorporated island tastes and flavours into his gins. “When we first moved here a local character, Wallaby Bob, asked me whether I wanted him to chop down a tree in our car park that he referred to as ‘juniper’. In fact, it’s Myoporumbut it does contain small purple berries that look and smell like juniper. We mixed them with common juniper to make our wild gin.”
“Later we made a drier gin with a plant that the Dutch settlers called ‘wild rosemary’. It’s a coastal daisy bush with strong pine and passion fruit tones,” continued Jon. “The smell is reminiscent of walking down to the beach on a hot, summer day on Kangaroo Island. There’s an aroma memory.”
Just down the road, a lone modern agricultural building stands at the side of a field. It is home to the Kangaroo Island Brewery. Inside, landscaper Mike Holden has also found a way to blend a distinctly KI tastes into his brew.
“We use the sticky hop bush in our pale ale. According to history, the convicts used it to make beer because it has a bitterness,” Mike said. “We also use she oak, the tree that the glossy black cockatoos like. We char the wood and put it in the fermenters to give a smoky taste to our stout.” Mike’s brewery is unique in that it’s entirely sustainable. The business relies on solar panels for electricity and collects rainwater for the brewery, to ensure a consistency in taste.
Before I came to Kangaroo Island the name of the place almost put me off. It sounded like a manufactured attraction – a theme park. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. I loved the wilderness, the wild coastline, how you can just walk up to wildlife. And then there’s the warmth of the welcome! If you’re going to travel to the other side of the world, you won’t find a better place in Oz in which to unwind.
I took the 30-minute flight from Adelaide and stayed in Kingscote at Aurora Ozone Hotel.