It’s one place every Australian needs to put on their travel wish list. Discover Kangaroo Island now – before the hordes arrive, writes Quentin Long.
If you took everything that’s great about Australian travel – wilderness, wildlife, beaches, regional produce – and concentrated all those elements in just one location, you’d have Kangaroo Island. Well-heeled international guests have long visited this immaculate island off the South Australian coast, rating it among their favourite destinations.
Kangaroo Island is not exactly a secret but, like spoilt children, most Australian travellers get distracted by more showy destinations that don’t offer half as much holiday fulfilment.
Kangaroo Island (KI) is a gestalt – it can be anything you want it to be, but it’s so much more than a sum of its parts. Some travellers focus on the secret beaches, others on the amazing wilderness or fantastic fresh food and wine. No matter what kind of holiday you want, you’ll get it here, be it adventure, farm stay, spa pampering, fishing, walking, luxury, mysterious, romantic, family, cheap, historic, sailing, camping… You get the picture.
But where is it, exactly?
On a map, KI looks like it’s about to be booted by South Australia’s Fleurieu Peninsula into the centre of the Great Australian Bight. To get here, take a 20-minute Regional Express flight to Kingscote, the ‘capital’ of the island, or drive south from Adelaide for two hours then take a 45-minute ferry ride to KI’s second major town, Penneshaw.
“Oh my God! I’ve never seen anything like this!” OK, I have taken out the expletives, but this is all I can say after arriving at Kangaroo Beach Lodges – the first stop on my KI itinerary. The property’s manager, Stuart Were, just smiles and hands me a beer.
The three modern lodges are located on the north-western shore of KI and are simply astonishing. Created by Troppo Design (known for its tropical houses in the NT) they are crafted from corrugated iron and local timber.
Completed in September 2010, they sit on the southern side of a steep enclosed gully. At its bottom is Kangaroo Beach, a protected cove of bright white sand where a rivulet gently meanders into the beautifully clean turquoise water of the Southern Ocean. As the beach is surrounded by the property Stuart and his wife Sarah manage, it is the sole domain of the Were family and their guests.
“It’s nice to think other people like it as well,” says Stuart. “The hardest part of my job is briefing guests when they arrive. I can’t get their attention away from the beach.”
The lodges each have four double bedrooms, plus spacious open-plan kitchen/living/dining with entire walls of glass that make the most of the picturesque setting. The shower in the master bedroom is transparent down to shoulder height so you don’t miss the view for a second. The east-facing deck looks out to the cove – in fact the entire lodge seems to peer over a cliff edge onto a private beach.
This is an exclusive retreat to be shared with friends; you feel very privileged to have enjoyed it. Many seasoned travellers will never happen across such a place, which represents the essence of KI: totally understated, unknown, private and genuinely amazing.
A third of the island is a national park or a conservation area, and it is teeming with wildlife – proof that Australian animals thrive when not sharing their habitat with rabbits and foxes.
While there are wild pigs and feral cats to contend with, it’s probably the cars that are most lethal for the natural fauna. The roadkill on KI is notorious. As one of my guides, Peter of KI Wilderness Tours, says, “Most travellers will see a dead animal before they see a live one.” This is why rental cars on KI are not insured after sunset. If you hit something, and you probably will, then you’re on the hook.
“She’s a beauty.” Peter slows down the Land Rover as a long black tiger snake slides across the road. It disappears into the bushes, but Peter doesn’t want me to miss out on a Kodak moment. He bounds after the world’s fifth-most venomous snake, returning with arm outstretched, dangling the snake like it’s a gymnast’s ribbon. He gently lays it on the tarmac so I can take its photo. That’s just how the locals roll.
The first official stop of the day is Seal Bay. Australian sea lions laze on the beach, growling, barking and stinking while travellers wander at a safe 10m distance. If the sea lions venture closer, well, that’s their call. A group of travellers gets stranded on the beach as the sea lions occupy the walkways back to their car. Everyone pauses till the sea lions decide to move on. But no-one minds. The seal circus is mesmerising as young males play and seal pups learn to swim and suckle.
New Zealand fur seals frolic further along the coast at Cape du Couedic and Admirals Arch, and platypus can be found (if you’re patient) in the Ravine des Casoars Wilderness Area. Driving out of Western River Cove, an echidna waddles through the green grass, the first of two sightings of these elusive animals.
Later that afternoon, Peter pulls over on the Stokes Bay Road so we can watch a koala blundering towards us. “He hasn’t seen us yet,” says Peter, then it hits the skids in a cloud of dust, 3m away, as its hopeless vision finally registers the car. The koala scampers up the closest tree. “Yep, koalas aren’t the brightest.”
On my third morning, as I stroll the cliff tops with Stuart at Kangaroo Beach Lodges, a pod of dolphins meanders along the coast, Stuart says they often feed at Kangaroo Beach. Three days later, a southern right whale and calf are sighted off Hanson Bay.
Around KI, the wildlife have as much a role in the landscape as we do. That’s pretty cool.
The isle of amazing beaches
My favourite part of KI is the north-west. Its stunning north-facing beaches (including Kangaroo Beach) are protected from the wild weather blowing in from Antarctica.
The beautiful Stokes Bay is just 45 minutes from Kingscote. It doesn’t look like much from the car park. There is no beach, just a rocky flat where surf breaks. But if you wind your way through the rocks, tall tunnels and cliff face, you emerge onto a fine stretch of sand. The surf gently rolls in here and there’s a rock pool perfect for little kids. Even in the height of summer it’s easy to find a patch of sand to call your own. The Rockpool Café next to the car park is a great lunch stop.
Continuing west, Snelling Beach is another picture-postcard location where you’d be hard pressed to see another soul, while the smaller Western River Cove beach is found at the end of a scenic drive into a valley where the river meets the sea. The campground here is the best on the island.
Even further west and just east of Kangaroo Beach is Snug Cove, a favourite with yachties because the north-west-facing cove is usually calm. The beach is walk-in access only and a local favourite.
Other beaches on the island are equally gorgeous, if not as sheltered. Most KI locals love Emu Bay, 15 minutes west of Kingscote. Vivonne Bay in the south-east corner of the island was once declared Australia’s best beach by a Sydney Uni marine professor who’d surveyed 10,000 of them (I can’t agree – Stokes is sooooo much better). Another one well worth a look is Pennington Beach on the isthmus to Dudley Peninsula. For somewhere completely isolated, head through the Flinders Chase National Park to West Bay.
Snelling Beach is home to KI’s original exclusive accommodation, Lifetime Private Retreats. Nick Hannaford and his business partners converted the Hannaford family homes into luxury stays. The one-bedroom Sky House, originally Nick’s grandma’s home, is the romantic pick. Offering glorious views of the beach from the top of the hill, it has a deck to die for and its Tuscan colours add to the overall sexy Mediterranean feel.
The three-bedroom Cliff House is perfect for families. It also has a fabulous deck and private beach access. All the houses can be self-catered or you can use a concierge service. If you take the serviced option, Nick and his team will set you up in one of Australia’s best dining rooms, inside a fig tree or in the old shearing shed, draped with antiques, rugs and candelabra for a Bedouin tent feel.
KI is full of mystery and secrets. It is believed Aboriginal people lived on the island from 16,000 until about 2000 years ago. There is evidence of their dwellings in caves in the cliff sides around Cape du Couedic, as well as other spots on the island. But no human remains have ever been found: they seem to have disappeared for no known reason, leaving no trace. The Aboriginal nation that lived across the, erm, Backstairs Passage (thus named by Matthew Flinders) on Cape Jervis referred to the island as Karta, or Land of the Dead.
So for 2000 years the island was left to its own devices till Flinders happened across it in 1802. He found very tame “kanguroos” near where Kingscote now lies in Nepean Bay, which “were stewed down into soup for dinner on this and the succeeding days”. In honour of the feast, he called the place Kanguroo Island.
He shared the secret with another explorer, Nicolas Baudin, who he happened to encounter at Encounter Bay – yep, the names got a lot simpler after Backstairs Passage. It’s Baudin who named most of the island with French descriptions such as Cape du Couedic, Cape Gantheaume and Vivonne Bay. Baudin discovered dwarf emus that he misidentified as cassowaries, hence Ravine des Casoars. Baudin loaded his ship with 25 kangaroos and two dwarf emus to head back to France.
Several kangaroos survived the trip and lived out their lives in the Malmaison garden of Joséphine (of Napoleon fame). Dwarf emus were also presented to Joséphine, except that Baudin had picked up some King Island emus en route and no-one knew which was which. So today, the only known remains of the dwarf emu of Kangaroo Island (that may actually be from King Island) are in a museum in France.
Secret history part 2
Flinders and Baudin mentioned KI, a bountiful island full of seals, at various ports on their return journeys. Within two years it was full of American sealers and escaped convicts: a lawless, dangerous place.
The convicts stole Tasmanian Aboriginal women for their journey – who else would know how to survive in the bush? Today, descendants of these Tasmanian Aborigines are still on the island.
The place regained some semblance of civility in 1836 when a free settlement in Australia was approved in Old Blighty. South Australia’s first settlement was created at Reeves Point, but it didn’t work out due to lack of fresh water and suitable soil. The settlement was moved to Adelaide, though a few hardy souls stayed behind.
The island saw a massive population influx in the post-war soldier settlement era of the 1950s. Parndana, the town in the island’s centre, was built to service these veterans in 1948. They started the agriculture industry by clearing most of the farmland still in use today.
It was a boom time for Australia, and KI farmers rode the sheep’s back too. But in the early ’90s when Australian merino wool was nearly worthless, the island lost its mojo.
The new KI (it’s got its mojo back)
Farming has bounced largely due to diversification, but tourism has been at the centre of the island’s renewed joie de vivre – embodied in Southern Ocean Lodge (SOL to locals). The brainchild of legendary hoteliers James and Hayley Baillie, the $16 million development is one of the great luxury lodges of Australia. Built on KI’s south-west coast around Hanson Bay, the lodge faces due south and cops any weather steaming from Antarctica. The building snakes snugly along the wind-battered terrain, with stunning vistas of the Southern Ocean from all guest rooms and the main common area, the Great Room and Restaurant.
The Great Room is circular, with half its circumference a wall of glass giving dramatic, hypnotic views over the ocean. Its limestone floor and white furnishings create a light, seaside feel. The art is all by local artists commissioned by James and Hayley, including five framed works by Janine Mackintosh created from leaves collected onsite. They now form stunning yet simple mandalas on the sandstone walls. Like the artwork, the dining experience at SOL is delicate and exquisite.
Getting active (or not) at SOL
As hard as it is to tear yourself away from the view, if you want to make the most of your time at SOL you should get out and about. A tour by Exceptional Kangaroo Island is outstanding, supplying in-depth information about the geography, fauna, flora and history of the area. Most half-day tours are included in the SOL tariff and will take you on a koala walk at Hanson Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, to Cape du Couedic lighthouse and to see NZ fur seals. Day tours are also worth considering, which explore further afield.
You can do whatever you feel like at SOL. I feel like quad biking – it’s gentle at first, but I nearly go over the handlebars at 80km/h as we hurtle back towards the lodge along fire trails. I then need a massage. Away from the main building, the spa treatment rooms offer their own views of the Southern Ocean. The staff are highly skilled, and my masseuse even manages to unknot my back.
The AT verdict
Kangaroo Island provides everything for a great holiday experience without being in any way flashy. Some could say it’s outdated or too low key.
But it’s just a genuine, authentic, nice place that doesn’t try to be something it’s not. It doesn’t have the population base, money or profile to be über-glam. But all the islanders have to do is open the doors to their natural assets and every visitor is wowed.