The lucky island

Quentin Chester | VOLUME 26, ISSUE 4
Surf breaks on the granite cliffs of Windmill Bay.
Australia’s third largest island abounds with natural features that lure hordes of tourists each year to its rugged shores.

Here’s an island that’s unmistakably Australian. Head inland and you’re in a sea of farm country where sprawling paddocks are dotted with sheep or thick with wheat. Further west, dusty back roads skirt gum-lined creeks and swathes of mallee bush. Forget fake palms and resort razzamatazz; Kangaroo Island is an authentic chip off the old block.

Fittingly, much of the island’s 4400sq km a bounds with birdlife, wallabies, goannas, possums and, of course, kangaroos. In most parts, signs of humanity are thin on the ground. Not the least along the shoreline: 540km of ragged cliffs, thumping surf and secluded coves. For anybody with a taste for wild sea air with a dash of eucalyptus, this place is just the ticket.

In fact, there are times when the nation’s third largest island feels even more ‘dinky di’ than the mainland. Barely 14km of open water separates KI – as it’s known locally – from the foot of South Australia’s Fleurieu Peninsula. But that’s enough to create a palpable sense of isolation. It’s also buffered the landscape from the worst excesses of coastal and other development. More than half KI’s original vegetation flourishes intact – a priceless ecological legacy. Better still, the island managed to escape the twin scourges of foxes and rabbits. All of which makes this one of the Lucky Country’s even more fortunate outposts.

Robust natural assets give KI a timeless, unruffled quality. Farming and fishing families have been the mainstay of the island – some for six generations. South Australia’s first unofficial settlements kicked off here in the early 1820s. Small farms were established at Cygnet River and Antechamber Bay, a by-product of the sealing and whaling carried out in nearby waters soon after the island’s discovery by Matthew Flinders in 1802.

WELL SEASONED

For most of KI’s population of 4400, life rolls with the seasons. Blessed with reliable rainfall and a mild, maritime climate, the pastures here have long been favoured for sheep grazing and, in later years, beef cattle. Meanwhile, some 70 growers have recently banded together to form KI Pure Grain, a venture to promote a range of ‘clean and green’ island crops to specialist overseas markets. Even though the two main towns– Kingscote and Penneshaw – are both on the coast, the talk in the main street is more often grounded in details of the weather, farm prices and the fate of footy and netball teams.

There are, however, telltale signs of another side to KI life. Look in most farm sheds and alongside the tractors and headers there’ll usually be a tinny and a well-used runabout. Similarly, on the roof racks of tradies’ utes, it’s common to spot surfboards or fishing rods strapped next to the ladders. For locals, this isle is their workplace, heartland and an endlessly diverting playground rolled into one.

Great beaches are scattered at every point of the compass, with lively surf breaks at Pennington Bay and Vivonne Bay, as well as salmon fishing haunts like Snellings Beach and Hanson Bay. Since the 1960s, the island’s popularity as a holiday destination has steadily gathered pace, especially with improved roads and more reliable ferry services from Cape Jervis to Penneshaw. The 45-minute crossing puts KI within easy reach of Adelaide and family-friendly beaches at Emu Bay and Island Beach now boast a handsome array of holiday accommodation.

Tourism has been the island’s economic saviour. The past two decades have seen visitor numbers treble to close on 200,000 a year.

A significant component of this increase has been international travellers lured to major drawcards, most notably Seal Bay and attractions in Flinders Chase National Park like Admirals Arch and Remarkable Rocks. Indeed, KI has emerged as one of Australia’s most potent nature destinations – a status recognised by National Geographic Traveller, whose 552 experts voted KI the top island in the Asia Pacific.

The secrets to this success are the island’s unspoilt charms, a spectacular shoreline and, above all else, exceptional opportunities to observe native birds, mammals and marine life in their natural habitats. If you want to see a seal, ogle an osprey, eyeball an echidna or gawk at a goanna then this is the place. In fact, in just a few days here you can mix it with more wild creatures than most mainlanders witness in a lifetime.

SURGE OF LIFE

Seal Bay Conservation Park is a genuine standout. Here visitors enjoy unrivalled access via guided beach walks to a 700-strong colony of one of the world’s rarest seals – the Australian sea-lion. Meanwhile, down at Admirals Arch, there’s the spectacle of NZ fur seals lounging on the rocks and frolicking in the heaving swell rolling around Cape du Couedic. What makes these and other encounters across the island so special is not just getting up close and personal, but experiencing these creatures in the whirl of weather and landscape. It’s a surge of life unfolding before your eyes.

Wandering along one of the far western rivers, through a rich forest of sugar gums and banksias, past fern-fringed lagoons, tall dunes and limestone cliffs to a sheltered beach is like entering an Aussie arcadia. Such places have an uncanny vividness. The diversity of birds, reptiles and mammals, like the tammar wallaby – long-vanished from the nearby mainland – is remarkable. Then the penny drops: this is what so much of southern Australia must have felt like 200 years ago. It’s a window on the kind of world that thrived before rabbits and foxes.

KI is also birder Nirvana, with a bumper list of 267 recorded bird species. Along the coastal fringes you’ll spy everything from ospreys and white-breasted sea eagles to gannets and little penguins. Woodland species thrive all across the island and in the Western River and Lathami Conservation Parks in the north you can enter a refuge of the endangered and endearing glossyblack cockatoo. For massed bird life – including large numbers of migratory waders in spring/summer – take time to linger at Murray Lagoon, Duck Lagoon and the sheltered Pelican Lagoon system near American River.

For all its wild charms, KI can also be downright civilised. Accommodation alternatives now include more secluded B&Bs and rental retreats dotted along the remote north and south coasts. If you’re on the trail of wildlife and nature, then all the major parks in the west have good camping facilities. For something a bit different, try bunking down in one of the historic lighthouse cottages for rent at either end of the island.

However, for the ultimate in luxury digs it has to be Southern Ocean Lodge. This 21-suite, purpose-built wilderness retreat is perched atop jagged limestone cliffs overlooking the restless waters of Hanson Bay. Since opening in March 2008, this hideaway has set a new benchmark for world-class remote locale accommodation. In doing so, the lodge strives to reflect the essence of the island – its natural allure, artistic spirit and local produce.

FOOD AND WINE

This has been a fillip for the fast-emerging food and wine scene on KI. The island has always been a bountiful source of superb seafood, including southern rock lobster, King George whiting, oysters and abalone. Over the past 20 years, many enterprising farm families have diversified into a range of specialty produce – everything from marron and sheep’s milk cheese to honey, free-range eggs, olives and grapes.

Some 30 growers now support KI’s burgeoning wine output. The moderate coastal climate suits varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sauvign on Blanc. Leading labels include local grape growing pioneers Dudley Wines and nearby False Cape, while Islander Estate in the heart of the island is a venture prompted by a honeymoon trip to KI by famed Bordeaux winemaker, Jacques Lurton.

Kangaroo Island has a knack for nurturing ingenuity. And there’s no better embodiment of this than KI Spirits, South Australia’s only boutique distillery.

“We thought we’d try something a bit different and experiment with products infused with all sorts of local flavours,” says founder Jon Lark. Together with wife Sarah, he’s crafted a suite of acclaimed – and medal-winning – tipples inspired by island goodies, including a tangy limoncello and a spicy honey and walnut liqueur. There’s even a wonderfully aromatic ‘Wild Gin’ devised with the help of native juniper berries.

ISLAND ART

In fact, this plucky ‘give it a go’ attitude, plus a wealth of natural materials to hand, drives all manner of creative endeavours right across the island. So, for example, the artworks gracing the walls of the Southern Ocean Lodge dining room are quite literally island-grown. With painstaking care, artist Janine Mackintosh has orchestrated thousands of local gum leaves into hypnotic mandala-style collages on a grand scale.

“For me, each leaf is a work of art in itself,” says Janine. “Doing what I do is like a collaboration. With the leaves, there’s a real starting point and I’m working with all the beautiful nuances of colour and form.”

The same verve with found objects comes to the fore in the work of Indiana James. Since moving to KI in 1993, this one-time Santos oil geologist turned environmental sculptor extraordinaire has transformed driftwood and rusting shards of farm machinery into striking incarnations of birds, fish and all manner of marine life. Pelicans are a longstanding favourite subject and his passion for communicating the stories and science of these majestic birds is legendary.

It’s a long way from Indiana, USA to the windswept shores of Kangaroo Island, but for this artist this castaway corner of Australia offers a mix of freedom, inspiration and community that’s just about perfect. As with so many other KI residents, he seems to draw strength from the spectacular ways in which nature runs the show. A bird’s eye view of the island – and the ocean currents that deliver driftwood to its shores – also puts Indiana in touch with a reality that is sometimes lost on the mainland.

“Here we’re about the equivalent latitude to Los Angeles, but there’s nothing but wild water all the way to Antarctica. The Southern Ocean is the biggest weather engine on the planet and it’s right here on our doorstep.”


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