“Wildly peaceful” may seem like a contradiction in terms, but on South Australia’s Kangaroo Island, the natural wonders and the power of nature merge to create a hamlet like no other.
About half-an-hour’s drive from Kangaroo Island’s Kingscote Airport, many travellers stop to take photos of a motley crew of mailboxes that belong to the residents of Vivonne Bay.
Not all of them were actually mailboxes in their former lives. Granted, there are some made in the more traditional manner – a study box on a post with a pitched tin roof – but the others were once bar fridges, oil drums, doghouses, microwaves… and there’s even an old dryer. “The dryer and the doghouse are great due to their capaciousness,” says the driver of our minibus. “And they’re also critter-proof!”
My partner and I take some photos, and before we board the coach, I read a little note that someone has written in bright yellow paint on a scrap of green metal: “If you live on Kangaroo Island, you’re better off than 99.9 per cent of the population.” I smile, thinking that this trip to the bottom of Australia is going to surprise us in many more ways over the coming days.
One third of this remote 4400km2 island is devoted to nature reserves, and with a population of only 4700, the locals have plenty of room to move. Kangaroo Island’s reputation has long intrigued me: it’s known for its wild and woolly weather and just as wild seas, its beautifully rugged landscapes, fabulous organic produce and the 1500 Aussie species that call it home: koalas, wombats, wallabies, sea lions, New Zealand fur seals, echidnas, Cape Barren geese, and the tiger and pygmy copperhead snakes. We’ve already noted the tiger snakes here are larger and more venomous than their mainland counterparts, and agree it’s a good thing I’m quite a stomper when bushwalking.
And, of course, the island is known for its roos. The creatively named Kangaroo Island kangaroos are found only on this island, and with no natural predators, they’re the slowest-moving of the species. Closely related to the western grey kangaroo, they’re typically smaller and sturdier, with thicker, darker brown coats. Basically, they’re cuter than mainland kangaroos.
After he and his hungry crew discovered it in 1802, the island was given its name by Matthew Flinders. They couldn’t find any human inhabitants, but were overjoyed to find something else: meat for a hearty stew. In his diary, Flinders wrote: “The ship’s company was employed this afternoon in the skinning and cleaning of kangaroos. They stewed half a hundredweight of heads, forequarters, and tails down into soup for dinner… and as much steak, moreover to both officers and men as they could consume by day and night. In gratitude for so seasonable supply, I named this south land Kangaroo Island.”
Despite its name, many people visit Kangaroo Island to see Australia’s undeniably cutest marsupial, the koala, in its natural habitat. There are tens of thousands of them living on KI, so you’re almost guaranteed to see one awake and climbing about. In the 1920s, 18 koalas were taken across to Kangaroo Island as a precaution to prevent their extinction. However, due to the lack of predators and an abundance of their favourite food – gum leaves – their numbers were soon out of control. A single koala eats 200-500 grams of leaves a day, so they have literally been eating themselves out of house and home. Today, koalas have to be desexed and some relocated in order to keep the numbers under control. Hanson Bay Wildlife Sanctuary is the best place to see a sustainable population in the wild. We take some wonderful photos of koalas on the move, and of many just slouching about as they’re known to do.
As native animals are in such abundance on Kangaroo Island, many visitors opt to be amongst it all in the wide variety of Kangaroo Island accomodation; from small lodges, to hotels, cabins, caravan parks, campgrounds and private rentals.
With no access to the West End of the island, we were anxious as to what we should do. But we were recommended other great stops – ones that we would not have given our notice had the more popular attractions been open. Needless to say, they did not disappoint.
We decided upon one of Kangaroo Island’s most iconic activities, and two others a little lower on the radar during our three-day stay: visiting a sea lion colony in Seal Bay, Cape Willoughby Conservation Park, and Penneshaw Penguin Centre.
At Seal Bay Conservation Park you’ll find an enormous colony of sea lions. Our guide explains they’re called a raft when on the water and a rookery when breeding. We’re in luck as breeding season has passed and we arrive after nap time, when thousands of sea lion pups are loping about after their mothers like cheeky cherub-faced cartoons.
A winding wooden walkway takes visitors through scrubland that the sea lions call home, and out on to the beach where white sand, blue skies and unspoiled vistas sprawl in every direction. Life has not changed here for these creatures for thousands of years – their home is how it has always been, albeit with streams of people taking photos and smiling at their antics. There are sleeping sea lions everywhere: crashed out in the dunes, lying about on the beach, exhausted after big swims and hunting sprees in the ocean. There are plenty of warning signs about not getting too close, and for good reason – a protective bull can weigh up to 350 kilograms!
We decided on Cape Willoughby Conservation Park, intrigued by the noble-looking lighthouse standing at the edge of the water. Our tour guide eloquently narrated the history of this rugged site. The purpose of a lighthouse, as most know, is to prevent shipwrecks. But, a number of ships did sink off the coastline here.
We took a step back in time as we learned what it took to be a lighthouse keeper. The working and living conditions endured by the early lighthouse keepers were poor due to the harsh and remote environment. But their life wasn’t all struggle, they got to see some of the most beautiful views of, not only of the ocean and countless sunsets, but of the abundant wildlife in the area. We were able to catch some of these picturesque views of the Backstairs Passage and the Kangaroo Island coastline. We also saw a school of salmon and a southern right whale. Although we didn’t stay the night in the light keeper’s cottage, it is available to stay the night in.
Not having had quite enough of the wildlife, we stopped next at the Penneshaw Penguin Centre. The tour was really more of a search for the penguins themselves. They spend about 80% of their lives at sea, but they return to their burrows to breed and raise their chicks. They are the world’s smallest penguins and the only penguins in the world with blue and white feathers. The blue on their back is to prevent predator attacks from animals above, like eagles, and their white colored stomachs protect them from animals below from, such as seals.
Kangaroo Island needs visitors now more than ever, so pack your bags and visit this wonderful island and all that it still has to offer. As long as there is an abundance of wildlife and welcoming locals, there is a reason to go to Kangaroo Island.
Where to stay on Kangaroo Island
For a luxury stay, choose between the Dune and Hamilton houses located in Emu Bay. The Hamilton House offers a relaxed beach holiday vibe with hip furniture from the 1960s. The Dune House is more modern architecturally, nestled on the crest of a protected sand dune with a circular design allowing for light and views in every room.
For an exclusive glamping experience with stunning seaviews, one of the belltents on this private Coastal Farm may be for you. It’s located just a five minute drive from American River and a 10 minute walk from a rocky private beach.
The name of Waves and Wildlife Cottages is self-explanatory. These beachside cottages border Stokes Bay beach and provide sanctuary to a range of wildlife including kangaroos, wallabies, birds, echidnas, the occasional koala discovering their newly planted gums.
For more accommodation options on Kangaroo Island, have a browse and find your perfect stay here.
Getting to Kangaroo Island
SeaLink operate two large passenger and vehicle ferries between Cape Jervis on the SA mainland and Penneshaw on KI. The trip takes just 45 minutes. Bookings are highly recommended. Call 13 13 01 or visit sealink.com.au