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 sea dogs 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 $399, 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 120 km 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. Atone 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 2 km, 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 camp fire 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 – the Remarkables.
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.
The natural landscape and local wildlife are by far the biggest draws of Kangaroo Island, an ideal two or three-day escape from Adelaide.
An obligatory stop-off is Flinders Chase National Park (entry $10), a protected area on the western end of the isle that plays host to rugged cliffs, sheltered bays and plentiful bush-walking opportunities. This is where you’ll find KI’s poster boys, The Remarkables, a cluster of giant attention grabbing stones that have been sculpted into weird shapes by the elements and now look out to sea from atop the smooth granite coastline. Another Flinders highlight is Admirals Arch, a surf-battered rock formation home to a large colony of New Zealand fur seals.
Fans of adrenalin thrills should make a beeline for Little Sahara, an area of lofty sand dunes, rising 70m high, which are ideal for sand boarding shenanigans. If you’re not with an organised tour from Adelaide (for example with kiadventuretours.com.au or sealink.com.au), you can hire equipment from a couple of operators in Vivonne Bay (from $19 with Kangaroo Island Outdoor Actionkioutdooraction.com.au).
Kangaroo Island’s tagline of being like a ‘zoo without the fences’ may sound clichéd but is in fact well deserved.Beyond the ‘roos, it’s as good as anywhere in Oz for spotting a huge range of Aussie animals – such as koalas, echidnasand penguins – up close and in the wild. Nature lovers shouldn’t miss Seal Bay Conservation Park (entry $32, sealbay.sa.gov.au), where you can take a ranger-guided walk right along the beach among the colony of hundreds of sea lions.
To get your glimpse of a koala, head for the Koala Walk at the Hanson Bay Wildlife Sanctuary ($6, hansonbay.com.au), while you can take a nocturnal penguin tour at the Penneshaw Penguin Centre ($18, kipenguincentre.com.au).
WHERE TO STAY
While still enjoying a seemingly undeveloped tourism scene,there’s a large array of sleeping options on Kangaroo Island.
Bear in mind that multi-day tours from Adelaide often include accommodation on remote bush properties, while budget hostels can be found at the ferry port of Penneshaw,the town of Kingscote and dotted across the rest of the isle.
An easy starting point is Kangaroo Island Backpackers (kangarooislandbackpackers.com), a laid-back hostel with beds from $28pn. You’ll find it just 100m from the Penneshaw ferry terminal.
Another handy option for the ferry is the Kangaroo Island YHA (yha.com.au), which enjoys great views of Hog Bay,plus they run tours to see the local fairy penguins. Beds cost from $33pn.
If you want to be among the action, the cheap option in Kingscote is Kangaroo Island Central Backpackers (kicentralbackpackers.com), where beds cost $25pn.
Alternatively, there are also a few options found away from the bright lights. Flinders Chase Farm (flinderschasefarm.com.au) is in the remote far west by the national park. It offers lodge-style accommodation on a working farm. Double cabins cost from $80pn, while dorm beds are also available, from $25pn. Vivonne Bay Lodge, meanwhile, is set on an expansive property on the gorgeous south coast, with plenty of beach-front action. Rooms for up to four people cost from $120pn.
WHERE TO EAT
With its rich, fertile lands and 509km of largely unspoilt coastline, it’s little surprise that Kangaroo Island is renowned as a hotspot for locally grown and organically produced gourmet delights. From its honey, cheeses and yoghurt, to oysters, snapper and King George whiting, all washed down with a bottle of KI wine, it’s unlikely your palette will leave disappointed.
Foodies will have no problem filling their days visiting local producers and tasting what’s on offer. One such treasure trove offering free samples is Island Beehive (island-beehive.com.au) in Kingscote, which is one of Australia’s largest organic honey producers. Simply checkout the bees or try one of their unique flavours, like stringy bark (tastier than it sounds). Seafood aficionados should stop by Ferguson Australia (fergusonaustralia.com), also in Kingscote, to check out some of the country’s most celebrated lobsters and king crabs.
There’s also no shortage of good restaurants to serve you local delicacies if you’re after a sit-down meal. For classic fish‘n’ chips, you’d struggle to do better than Fish of Penneshaw (2birds1squid.com), which is also an ideal final stop before the ferry back to the mainland. If you want pub grub with an emphasis on fresh seafood, check out the Penneshaw Hotel(penneshawhotel.com.au) just down the road.
In Kingscote, head for the Kangaroo Island Seaside Inn Restaurant (kiseasideinn.com.au), where the ocean views are as good as the food. Alternatively, if you’re keen to try KI speciality marron, a type of crayfish, you’d struggle to beat the Andermel Marron Café (andermel.com.au).
WHERE TO PARTY
Kangaroo Island isn’t exactly a destination renowned for its all night revelry, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a good time to be had between scrambling over rocks and between sea lions.
Drinking tends to revolve around friendly locals and sublime views, rather than crawling home in the early hours,but a couple of the livelier venues tend to be the Penneshaw Hotel (penneshawhotel.com.au), and the Aurora Ozone in Kingscote (auroraresorts.com.au). A great way to get the night started is with a tour of some of the many vineyards on the island, lots of which offer wine tastings.
The island is also home to some great events, bringing with them a great atmosphere and plenty of opportunities for propping up the bar.
Each February sees about 5,000 people flock trackside for a weekend as the Kangaroo Island Cup Carnival of horse races comes ashore (kiracingclub.com.au), with its party atmosphere and dress-to-impress attitude.
In April there’s also the Kangaroo Island Festival (facebook.com/kifestival), building up to the Feast Big Day Out on April 26. This five-day celebration of all things gastronomic is primarily about the food and wine, but also features live entertainment and pop-up markets. You can even sign up for ‘table surfing’, where you basically head along to random dinner parties, hosted by the island’s top producers and chefs in their own homes. Nice.