In unison we ask, “Are there really kangaroos on Kangaroo Island?” Our guide grins, then tells us that at last count, some quarter-of-a-million kangaroos shared this Australian island with around 4,500 people.
Kangaroo Island was aptly named by the British explorer Matthew Flinders, who landed on a beach there while charting Terra Australis (Latin for the South Land) in 1802, and found kangaroos crowding his pathway.
It is not the same today. We have been on the island – a 45-minute ferry ride from Cape Jervis on mainland South Australia – all morning and have just seen our first kangaroo with a joey (baby kangaroo) peeping curiously out of her front pouch.
Even wallabies – there are an estimated one million on the island which look like kangaroos but smaller – are keeping their distance on this warm, sultry day.
Kangaroo Island – the third largest Australian island after Tasmania and Melville Island – is a designated wildlife sanctuary. This adds to its appeal for international visitors, as well as mainland Australians, who all want to get up close to the continent’s unique wildlife.
Kangaroos, wallabies, koalas, sea lions, echidna, wombats and platypus (a native animal with a duck-like bill and webbed feet) all live on the island, as do rare birds, pelicans, and the kookaburra, whose birdsong is often mistaken for a loud cackling laugh.
As one of Australia’s tourism hot spots, Kangaroo Island is known for being clean and green. As well as wildlife viewing, it is visited for the stunning scenery, the organic food and wine that teases the palate, and for the cottage industries that are never run-of-the-mill.
Since our arrival on the island, we have seen cuddly koalas, though we quickly learn they are not bears but marsupials (pouched mammals), who do not want to be cuddled. They are usually loners who snooze high up gum trees for most of the day and chew on eucalyptus leaves that reputedly cause their inebriation.
Right now we have taken a track through rolling sand dunes to check out sea lions that lumber along a wide, white, sandy beach that is lapped by wild ocean surf, in an area aptly named Seal Bay.
Kangaroo Island has one of the world’s high-end luxury eco-resorts, Southern Ocean Lodge. Yes, it has magnificent southern ocean views on the remote southwest corner of the island.
Yet, islanders remain unfazed by the growing fame of their home base. Sure, many locals make a living from the tourist industry, but they don’t want the island to lose its laid-back lifestyle.
Our coach captain and tour guide Kevin Howard – his family has lived on the island for generations as sheep farmers – admits, “Visitors often say we are caught in a time warp, and in some ways that’s true. Everyone knows everyone. Where else can you stop the car in town, leave the keys in the ignition, go off to do business, and get back to the car to find nothing has been touched?”
For those on the island’s tourist trail there is koala-spotting at Hanson Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, kangaroos galore at Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park, giant soaring birds of prey at Raptor Domain, fur seals cavorting near Admirals Arch, and those large lumbering sea lions at Seal Bay.
Another highlight for the sure-footed is boulder hopping over the sculpted Remarkable Rocks, which are covered in oh-so-photogenic orange lichen that glows vividly at sunset.
We are on SeaLink’s two-day Best of Kangaroo Island tour and our group includes Italian honeymooners who are already looking forward to the honey ice cream at Clifford’s Farm. There, they will also check out the hives of Ligurian bees that originally came from Italy but now call Kangaroo Island home. Indeed, the island’s strict quarantine law has resulted in these bees being the only pure-bred honeybees left in the world.
Our chatty guide, Kevin, tells us many of the island’s farmers turned to tourism-related activities such as beekeeping, to make ends meet when the sheep market collapsed a few decades ago.
Kevin gives us a taste of the islanders’ quirky side by driving along a road known locally as the “drunken highway” for it weaves snake-like across a flat landscape with not a straight section in sight. We pass Dead Horse Lagoon named after a horse that became stuck in the mud during a drought, and further on a long, white, dry-stone wall that was built to protect a vegetable garden from marauding wildlife. Now that the property’s owner has retired, he continues extending the wall, and says he has never been fitter.
If that’s not enough, Kevin points to the mown paddock of another islander who is so keen on cricket that he created his own cricket ground called the MCG, not after the hallowed sports oval in Melbourne (Australia), but after his own initials.
There is no shortage of tourist accommodation on the island from B&Bs to grand homesteads and hotels, as well as a shearing shed that is a favourite hangout for backpackers. Our overnight stay at the historic Ozone Hotel is on the waterfront in the small town of Kingscote, and is a delightful surprise with its stylish art deco rooms. At dusk, we head out to watch the pelicans being fed by the water.
We run out of time to visit so much more, including a farm where sheep are milked for cheese-making, an award-winning gin distillery that uses native juniper berries, a eucalyptus distillery that bottles oil that has all manner of uses, a vineyard with stunning ocean views from its cellar door, and so many restaurants that serve the freshest local seafood, including marron (crayfish).
We also miss a dip in the sapphire waters of Vivonne Bay, which is ranked as Australia’s best beach by a Sydney University research team. No wonder we head back to the ferry, agreeing that we should have stayed longer.
If you go
SeaLink Kangaroo Island Coach Tour: The 2-day Best of Kangaroo Island Tour operates daily from South Australia’s capital Adelaide, with coach return transfers to Cape Jervis, SeaLink return ferry transfers, overnight accommodation on Kangaroo Island, breakfast and lunch daily, touring the island in an air-conditioned coach, all park entry fees and guided tours. Visit www.sealink.com.au.