Generalisations are always dangerous, of course (not least that one). But if you had to make a general statement about Australian culture, it would most likely include the word “obvious” or “straightforward” at some point. They like it that way: why beat around the bush, when you can get straight to the point?
It doesn’t work so well with their humour (have you seen Rove Live? That guy wins awards – gold ones!). But it does work well with, say, road signs: why have the wholly ambiguous red circle with a white horizontal bar on it (like in the UK), when “Wrong Way GO BACK” confuses no one.
The preference for the explicit is clearest in place names: the Blue Mountains, Surfers Paradise, Western Australia. But does Kangaroo Island fit the bill? Well, not really. If we – like the European explorers and Roy Walker of Catchphrase fame always urge – simply say what you see, it should more aptly have been named “You’ve-Never-Seen-So-Much-Wildlife-In-One-Place-Except-Possibly-At-The-Zoo – (But Even Then The Cool Animals Are Always Asleep) Island”. Works so much better.
There are kangaroos, of course. As you may have guessed, they inspired the island’s name. When explorer Matthew Flinders sighted the island, he had until then struggled to catch ‘roos for his supper (and was probably getting proper sick of those two-minute noodles). But on the island they were not only prolific, they were not used to being hunted. They simply stood around in a “do-I-look-bovered?” manner, enabling Matty and his hungry mob to grab them and lob them on the barbie. Matty had a lot of other stuff to name (or rather re-name; there wasn’t a lot of heed paid to Aboriginal names for places – too many “O’s” in them probably), so it was simplest to quickly call the place Kangaroo Island and move onto the next thing.
Kangaroo Island is Australia’s third-largest island (after Tasmania and Melville Island) and has a population of 4,500 people and 25,000 koalas. So really it should have been renamed Koala Island. I was quite excited about it all. I don’t know what it was exactly, but I just had this inkling that I would see a lot of kangaroos and koalas there. Call me Sherlock if you must.
I want ice-creeeeam!
I sleepily barged my way onto a minibus at an uncomfortably early hour in Adelaide, and was soon snoring, then dribbling, then suckling a stranger’s earlobe as we drove the one hour and 45 minutes down the Fleurieu Peninsula to Cape Jervis. It was here that we boarded a ferry and I slowly began to suss out my companions (or the ones who would still talk to me): a disproportionate amount of Canadians and Swiss, plus three German policemen.
The sky was unpromisingly-grey, yet the crossing was excitingly windy, with the added spice of knowing sharks patrolled the waters. After disembarking at Penneshaw, we drove to a lookout point, where we looked out, a bit. And said “oooh” and thought “this’d look real swell on a nice day”.
Scott, our guide, explained how the island had some French names. The explorers were halfway round it, naming it as they went (and doubtless in far more imaginative way – I’ll have to ask a French person about that) when they bumped into some Brits doing the same thing. Instead of the usual flag-planting face-off, they merrily teamed up and said they’d just swap place names. Job done. How nice.
From then on it was rather like being in a zoo or wildlife park, but much better for the lack of cages and seven year-olds screaming for ice-creams. We would jump out of the van to snap ‘roos and wallabies, who were all over the shop, and stay firmly in the van to snap a red-bellied black snake, arrogantly slithering across the tarmac.
We stopped for lunch and Scott told us there would be koalas in the trees. The word koala (fact fans), comes from an Aboriginal word meaning “seldom drinks water”. With a Canadian girl whining on about how she “just loves koala bears”, we searched and searched for little grey cushions… And finally we saw one. It cutely shied away from us, as we snapped away beneath it. I’m pretty certain the Canadian actually wet herself.
That seals it
Scott didn’t have to tell us what to expect at Seal Bay. It’s home to around 600 sea lions (sea lions are a type of seal; they have ears and are much better suited to moving on land) – the third- largest colony on Australia. We strolled excitedly through the sand dunes to emerge on a beach littered with the giant slug-like creatures. Our guide gave us all sorts of informative snippets, but two stuck in mind: firstly, that seals are evolutionary descendents of dogs; ones that went for a swim one day and decided they just liked it better that way. Secondly, that the females are pregnant for 18 months at a time, pop one out, then usually get pregnant again within a month or two. Ho hum.
We sat for some time, about 10 yards from the big furry things as they slept, rolled about, grunted, squabbled, barked, bothered their mothers, bothered potential sexual partners and slid around in the wet stuff. It looked ace being a seal. Just mostly lying around.
We stopped off at Vivonne Bay, voted the “best beach in Australia” by a proper grown-up Sydney University study. It was special enough, but on a fair weather day it must be stunning. Then some hilarious (for everyone else at least – owch!) sandboarding in an atmospheric collection of high dunes was sadly curtailed by rain.
After dinner we went penguin seeking, in the dark. Armed with red-lensed torches we explored the rocky shoreline, 15-minutes drive from our camp. And finally we spotted a few of the most adorable, yet grumpiest little Fairy Penguins. Huddled up in their little cave-home, they didn’t look particularly impressed at being disturbed from whatever they were doing (don’t they just stand around all day anyway?).
kangaroo TYING sport?
Back at camp we sat round the campfire, slurping coldies, swapping stories and bad jokes (me) and failing pathetically (just about everyone) to play the didgeridoo. Scott tried to get a sing-along going, with the Rolf Harris classic “Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport”, which was lost on the disappointingly large percentage of non-Rolf fans.
Somewhere along the way my new Canadian chums announced their fascination with the oh-so-English word, “wanker”. We chuckled away. Did they know what it meant? No. Would I tell them? No. Would they continue to use it as often as possible anyway? Of course. Aye.
The next morning we stopped off to watch heaps of seals frolicking around on the rocks. While sea lions are sociable animals which snuggle up to each other in small groups, solitary seals need their space. They were scattered about, each with their own two-square metres of personal space, like sulking teenagers.
Next up was Kangaroo Island’s most iconic spot, with a typically-Aussie say-what-they-do-on-the-tin name: the Remarkable Rocks.
From a distance they looked like a cliff-top Stonehenge, or some ancient fortress built to both ward-off and impress any would- be invaders (from, er, Antarctica?). Up close the granite shapes were so smooth, yet all twisted into strange and alluring shapes; carefully sculptured debris. As the sun blessed us, we clambered around, crawled underneath and got inside various bits for all sorts of wacky souvenir photos.
It was soon time to say goodbye to our real wildlife park – in my two years in Australia, I had never seen as many animals in the wild, in one place – but not before a final visit to the island’s north.
As Scott parked the van we all looked around, quietly unimpressed with both this “amazing” beach he’d been going on about, and the rain. But those of us brave/stupid enough got changed into out trunks and followed a winding little path through the rocks until we came out at a wonderful beach, walled off at either end. And we all went swimming in the rain. Anyone without local knowledge would have missed this patch of sandy serendipity. It must be a secret I thought as I asked Scott what it was called. “This is Secret Beach,” he said with a broad smile. Should have guessed.
The experience: A two-day Wildlife Experience with Surf and Sun. For more info, Freephone: 1800 786 386
The Damage: From $299.
The accommodation: Adelaide YHA has beds from $23. For info, (08) 8414 3010.