Endless months aboard a 19th-century ship would, you’d expect, work wonders for your imagination. It’s little surprise, after all, that so many crusty seadogs dreamily mistook lardy lumps of wet blubber for scantily clad mermaids – the human mind, it seems, can only be content with mouldy biscuits and talk of buried treasure for so long before taking matters into its own hands.
For that reason, I’m always surprised there aren’t more decidedly dodgy Aussie place names joining the glorious likes of Mount Buggery, Yorkeys Knob and Fannie Bay.
As such, when in 1802, English navigator Matthew Flinders dropped anchor off Australia’s then uninhabited third biggest island (after Tasmania and Melville Island), and named it Kangaroo Island, I’m guessing it must have been around lunchtime.
Captain Flinders met such prolific numbers of the bouncy marsupial on the South Australian island, that his men could catch a whole mob of them before the barbie had even warmed up.
But just naming it after Skippy is seriously selling the place short. Whether it be the koala population, the plentiful seals, echidnas, penguins, pelicans and any number of other Aussie critters, Kangaroo Island is quite simply one giant zoo, only without the cages. Nicknamed Australia’s Galapagos for good reason, there’s nowhere else Down Under where so much native wildlife can so easily be experienced.
Indeed, one of the island’s main attractions is the sea lions. So, after a dawn pick-up in Adelaide, a couple of hours’ drive across the Fleurieu Peninsula and a 45-minute ferry ride, our two-day tour (from $436, sealink.com.au) heads straight to Seal Bay on the island’s south coast. Home to about 1,000 Australian sea lions (or five per cent of the global population), this conservation park is one of the few places on Earth where you can take guided walks onto the beach to view the whiskered wonders from just metres away.
After a short stroll along a boardwalk, the ranger leads us onto the sand, where hundreds of the creatures are lazily catching some rays, seemingly oblivious to our presence as they chill out between regular three-day 120km fishing trips to the continental shelf. All along the beach are large males, or bulls, and females with pups. It’s a spectacular sight, made all the more impressive by how close we’re able to get. At one point, as we’re admiring a trio of pups bickering and chasing each other just in front of us, a mum and pup who had been relaxing at the top of the beach start heading down the sand towards us.
We clamber out of the way as the family waddles past only a few metres away, each one dutifully stopping to pose for its money shot as if a red carpet A-lister while we click away like a hungry pack of paparazzi, before carrying on down to play in the surf.
Memory cards already limping, we move on, stopping now and then to spot yet more kangaroos. At one point we veer dramatically off-road to excitedly catch a glimpse of a spiky little echidna cruising across a field.
Kangaroo Island, however, isn’t just about cooing at cute creatures. It also boasts Little Sahara, an area where giant white sand dunes stretch across the landscape for 2km, rising 70m above sea level.
Now sand dunes, as any self-respecting traveller will know, are three things: they are breathtakingly pretty, they are destroyers of cameras and, of course, they are brilliant for hurling yourselves down. So that’s exactly what we do. Sand boards under arms, we clamber up the lung-burstingly steep dunes.
There’s just a few moments to admire the dramatic surroundings while teetering nervously over the edge, before a quick push off and I’m suddenly at the mercy of gravity, flying down the bank and screaming my head off until I skid to a giggling mess of sandy limbs at the bottom. Hooked by the rush, the climb becomes less of an effort and we rush up again and again, flinging ourselves down the hill, feet first, face first, standing up, even on top of each other, until our legs scream out for mercy.
From Little Sahara it’s on to the gorgeous Vivonne Bay, once named Australia’s best beach by a professor with the enviable gig of rating all the sandy bits Down Under. Suitably calmed from our Little Sahara adrenalin rush, it’s then home to the campfire for a night of beers and burgers.
On day two we’re up early to make our way west to Flinders Chase National Park to check out KI’s most famous sight – Remarkable Rocks.
Rich in Aboriginal Dreamtime stories, these bizarre granite shapes were first forged as part of a mountain range 500 million years ago before gradually being pushed out of the cliff top surface, where they have remained for our comedy photo-op pleasure, like the discarded playthings of the children of gods.
After scrambling over the strange sculptures for a while, it’s time to head on to something we’ve been excited about all day – we’re going quad biking (from $79, kioutdooraction.com.au). Having ridden a quad before, I can’t resist upgrading to the 250cc, five gear, sports version… and I don’t regret it. We’re soon off, tearing across the KI landscape and screeching around dirt tracks and past kangaroos. It’s a thrilling rush and more than satisfies our need for speed. But like all these things, despite lasting an hour or two, it still ends way too quickly. Finally pried away from our machines, we find ourselves standing around, chatting excitedly, not wanting to leave as we’re still buzzing from the experience.
But the time is up on our two-day adventure so we’re dragged back to the bus. On the road again, there’s just time to stop off for some incredible fish and chips and an insane pelican-feeding show before heading back to the mainland, full of exhausted contentment.
Kangaroo Island, says Flinders? We say Awesome Island.