As the sky streaked orange and yellow, dusk found us in Grassdale National Park surrounded by hundreds of reddy-grey kangaroos in a feeding frenzy; they grazed unconcernedly as we moved among them, bouncing off across the tussocky grassland if we got too close. My husband and I had journeyed to Kangaroo Island, sitting off the south-west coast of Adelaide, South Australia, to see the kangaroos, koalas, Tammar wallabies, echidnas, seals, and sea lions that proliferate here and to sample the island’s famous hospitality. For us Brits it’s about as far away as you can get from Blighty, and it felt like it – remote, tranquil, and seemingly untouched by the 21st century.
Dawn that morning had seen us drive from Adelaide across the windswept Fleurieu Peninsula to Cape Jervis for the 45-minute ferry crossing to Penneshaw, Kangaroo Island’s main port. In this little township we were scooped up by Steve, a local guide of 12 years, and embarked upon our two-day magical mystery tour of the island’s wildlife secrets and gourmet delights.
Kangaroo Island is roughly 100 miles (150 km) by 34 miles (55 km) of rugged landscapes, wild coastlines, arable land, and sandy dunes. Much of it is protected and almost 50% of the original habitat remains in national parks as well as on private land. Most of the roads are unmade, although that doesn’t stop the locals from speeding, with trails of dust blowing behind their vehicles. Cossetted in the comfort of a well-sprung 4WD, we were given a lightening introduction to the geology and indigenous wildlife of the island at Flinders Chase National Park Visitor Centre, followed by a relaxed barbie lunch of chunky beef steaks and a glass or two of local Sauvignon Blanc.
At Admiral’s Arch, a vast granite monolith carved by the wild seas of Cape Du Couedic at the south-west tip of Flinders Chase National Park, we watched the colony of 7,000 clumsy brown New Zealand Fur Seals lumbering over the rocks, basking in weak sunshine, and playing in the sea spray. A short drive through the coastal scrub led us to Remarkable Rocks, a surreal collection of vast granite boulders, eerily eroded and perched upon an extinct volcanic plug, looking like a Dalí creation on an epic scale. Here we were also lucky enough to glimpse a black tiger snake snoozing under a stone – one of Kangaroo Island’s two venomous snakes – and spotting several echidnas, a sort of giant hedgehog with dusty blonde spines and long, thin, snuffling snouts.
Day two of our Kangaroo Island sojourn kicked off with a koala-spotting expedition. Setting out from our base at Emu Bay on the north-east coast, Steve soon caught sight of one hunched in the branches of a roadside eucalyptus. And we saw more and more, blinking down at us, posing patiently for photos, grey tufty ears twitching, and then blearily nodding off to sleep. It’s true what they say – koalas really are the most laid-back of creatures.
Arriving at Seal Bay bordering the Southern Ocean, we got up close to sea lions basking along a beach of softest sand, enjoying the spectacle of pups playing in the shallow waves and the adults slumping and grunting in the sand. Inland we clambered up the gleaming white Little Sahara sand dunes rearing starkly out of the bush and then drove on to Parndana Wildlife Park in the heartlands, where we fed tame rescue kangaroos and wallabies, and saw a tiny, orphaned joey being nurtured in a sling around a volunteer’s neck.
Evening brought the chance to watch hundreds of little penguins tumbling out of the sea and processing comically to their burrows on Kingscote beach, followed by the nightly ritual of feeding fish to a horde of raucous pelicans.
Eat, drink, sleep
Kangaroo Island is as equally renowned for its spectacular tradition of hospitality as it is for its wildlife. Eating and sleeping options vary from the luxe cachet of Southern Ocean Lodge to bijou B&Bs, cottages in the national parks, and camping facilities. We stayed at Seascape Lodge, perched on a rolling hill looking down across Emu Bay, with its three-mile-long (five-km) beach on the north-east corner of the island. Owners Steve and Mandy Brown have created a tranquil paradise with three elegant bedrooms all facing due east, with floor-to-ceiling windows to take in glorious pink-flecked sunrises over the sea.
Food is at the heart of Seascape Lodge; everybody eats together with the hosts in the evening. Gourmet cuisine and a few glasses of local wine soon broke the ice for us reticent Brits. Sampling delicious crisp Bay of Shoals Sauvignon Blanc and a soft Two Wheeler Creek Shiraz (both Kangaroo Island made), we dined on halloumi cheese cooked with locally cured pancetta followed by King George whiting (fished just offshore) with island vegetables, followed by braised pears from Kangaroo Island orchards. Conversation flowed with the wine and we rounded off with local limoncello.
With much of Kangaroo Island given over to farming alongside the wildlife tourism, the residents have adapted their traditional industries of wine making, fruit growing, sheep and cattle rearing, bee keeping, and lavender growing, turning out niche gourmet products to be snapped up by visitors.
Island delicacies include marrons – vast fleshy langoustines; organic honey – Kangaroo Island is the only place in the world where you will find Ligurian bees – sold at Clifford’s Honey Farm; sheeps’ cheese, milk, and yogurt available at the Island Pure Sheep Dairy; and liqueurs flavored with local lemons, gingers, and fennel or honey and walnut brandy, all made on the premises at the boutique distillery Kangaroo Island Spirits. The island’s burgeoning reputation as a quality wine grower, thanks to the soft, loamy soil, sees a sprinkling of vineyards producing some great cellar door tasting opportunities; try the award-wining Cabernet Sauvignon at Penneshaw’s False Cape Wines or the Rookery Wines Riesling in Kingscote.
For longer stays on Kangaroo Island, a raft of sporting pastimes is available for the whole family. All can swim and snorkel safely in the clean, serene turquoise waters of the north coast, with its sheltered bays and inlets. Surfing rookies can cut their teeth on gentle waves at Vivonne Bay, voted Australia’s most beautiful beach; experienced boarders head for the bigger breaks at Hanson and D’Estrees bays.
A 337-mile (540km) coastline of isolated coves and dramatic cliffs make for ideal sailing, with the north coast providing spectacular, calm anchorages for keen yachties; amateurs should try out their sea legs with day cruises around sheltered Nepean Bay. Fish for King George whiting off the island’s beaches or hire boats from a number of yards around American River to try your luck game fishing for snapper, trevally, and Samson fish in deeper waters offshore. Dolphins are often spotted from the beaches, and regular whale-spotting tours leave from Emu Bay and Kingscote between May and October.
Inland, opt for exploring the magical stalagmites and stalactites of the limestone caves at Kelly Hill – it’s in the south-west of the island – watch out for the tiny sign of the ‘main’ road – or choose from a huge selection of bushwalks ranging from a 10-minute Discovery Walk in Flinders Chase National Park to the 11-mile (18km) stomp along the Hanson Bay Hike.
How to get there
Kangaroo Island is in South Australia; most main carriers fly to Adelaide. It sits off the south-west coast of Adelaide – allow two hours to drive to the ferry at Cape Jervis from the city center down the scenic B34/23. The Sealink ferry from Cape Jervis to the island takes 45 minutes and arrives in Penneshaw. Fares are from AUS$96 return for foot passengers; AUS$280 return with a car.
2. Australian sea lions have colonised Kangaroo Island’s Seal Bay. The adult females spend up to three days at sea when feeding their young, who are looked after by other adults in what is effectively a sea lion nursery.
Photos courtesy of Sasha Heseltine.
- Sasha Heseltine