You’d think explorers would be an imaginative bunch – all those endless months at sea with nothing to do except chew on mouldy biscuits, swap tales of buried treasure and mistake giant lumps of blubber for scantily-clad mermaids.
Which is why I’m always surprised there aren’t a whole lot more surreal and downright depraved Aussie places names (although three guesses for what was on the minds of whoever named the likes of Mount Buggery, Yorkeys Knob and Fannie Bay).
As such, when British seafarer Matthew Flinders first stepped ashore Australia’s then uninhabited third biggest island in 1802 (after Tassie and Melville Island, in case you were wondering), and named it Kangaroo Island, I’m guessing it was around lunchtime.
That’s because it was on the South Australian island that Matty first came across such prolific numbers of the marsupials that his men could catch a whole mob of roos before the barbie had even warmed up.
But just naming it after Skippy is seriously selling the place short. Whether it be the big koala population, the plentiful seals, echidnas, penguins, pelicans and any number of other Aussie creatures that call the place home, Kangaroo Island is like one giant zoo, only without the cages.
Indeed, one of the island’s main attractions is the sea lions. So, after a dawn pickup inAdelaide, a couple of hours drive across the Fleurieu Peninsula, a 45-minute ferry ride and a few scenic stops, our two-day tour heads straight to Seal Bay, on the island’s south coast.
Home to a large colony of Australian sea lions, this conservation park is one of the few places in the world where you can take guided walks right on to the beach to view the whiskered wonders from just a few metres away.
After a short stroll along a boardwalk, the ranger leads us onto the sand, where hundreds of sea lions are lazily catching some rays, seemingly oblivious to our presence, as they chill out between their regular three-day 120km roundtrip 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 right towards us.
We clamber out of the way as the family waddle past, only a few metres away, each one dutifully stopping to pose for its money shot as if a red carpet celeb, while we click away like a hungry pack of paparazzi, before carrying on down to play in the surf.
Camera memory cards having already taken an intense battering, we move on, stopping now and then to spot yet more kangaroos. At one point we even veer dramatically offroad 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 and with the fear long gone, the climb suddenly becomes less of an effort and we rush up, again and 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 and we call it a day.
From Little Sahara it’s on to the gorgeous Vivonne Bay, once named Australia’s best beach by some professor who managed to get the enviable gig of rating all the sandy bits Down Under. Suitably calmed down 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 and fuzzy-headed to make our way west to Flinders Chase National Park. After a quick stop to admire some of the island’s many koalas, we head on to 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 clifftop surface, where they have remained for our comedy photo-op pleasure, like the long discarded playthings of the children of gods.
After scrambling over and crawling under the strange sculptures for a while, it’s time to head on to something we’ve been excited about all day. Having gorged ourselves on the island’s bountiful natural beauty and wildlife (not literally of course, well, there might have been a bit of roo on the barbie, but we didn’t eat any koalas, honest…), we’ve just got time for one final adrenalin hit – we’re going quad biking.
Having ridden a quad a few times before, I can’t resist upgrading to the 250cc, five gear, sports version… and I don’t regret it. After spending a few minutes getting the hang of the motorbike-style gears, we’re 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 was up on our two-day adventure so we’re dragged back to the bus. Back on the road again, there’s only time left 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 Matty? How about Awesome Island…
The damage & the details: The two-day Kangaroo Island safari tour with Groovy Grape Getaways (Freephone: 1800 661 177, groovygrape.com.au) costs $385. Beds at Adelaide Central YHA (Ph: 08 8414 3010, yha.com.au) cost from $25 a night. Quad tours with Kangaroo Island Outdoor Action (PH: 08 8559 4296, kioutdooraction.com.au) cost from $79.
The Indian Pacific
Heading to Adelaide but fed up of buses and planes? we jump aboard one of the world’s great train journeys – the Indian Pacific…
I love airports. You just can’t beat that feeling of excitement as you check in. Sure, you might have to hand over your life savings to buy a sandwich, but it doesn’t matter because you’re about to jet off somewhere new, somewhere fresh to discover.
However, I’ve always hated flying. It just seems such a waste, travelling all that distance and seeing nothing along the way. Which is where trains come in. Luckily, Australia is blessed with some of the world’s greatest (and suprisingly cheap) train journeys, one of which is the Indian Pacific. The full journey travels all 4,352km from Sydney to Perth, but I only needed to go as far as Adelaide, which takes about 24 hours.
Setting off in the afternoon, we’re soon trundling our way across the Blue Mountains and into the Outback. Doors slam, cupboards creak and wheels squeak as we cruise across the baking expanse, making even a supposedly fancy journey seem brilliantly old school and ever-so-slightly ramshackle.
After bedding down in a cosy cabin, we wake to find ourselves in Broken Hill, an iconic area surrounded by the sort of desolate landscapes made famous by movies like Mad Max 2 andThe Adventures of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert.
The once thriving mining town, however, is now also famed for its art. Indeed, as our guide Roger says, “the town’s gone soft. We’ve got twice as many art galleries as pubs now!” Soft or not, it’s a fascinating place to lose a few hours before jumping back aboard the train for the final few hours to Adelaide.
The damage & the details: The Indian Pacific (Ph: 13 21 47, gsr.com.au) to Adelaide costs $162 with a backpacker card.