It’s a rarity these days: a sleepy island that really lives up to the name. In a lot of ways, the 21st century left Kangaroo Island behind. Cut off from the Cape Jervis and the mainland by the inky swells of the Backstairs Passage, it’s a haven for wildlife, a place where kids still ride their bikes to school and koalas possibly outnumber people. These days it’s getting a name for itself as an eco-tourism hot-spot, an analogue refuge for the tired, the stressed and the iPhone-obsessed. The island’s official slogan is ‘Discover the things that really matter in life.’ From the looks of it, these things include a veritable menagerie of animals, and views to make the Great Ocean Rd blush.
This is why you need to hop on the car ferry and book a holiday to Kangaroo Island. Pronto.
Thanks to its physical isolation, Kangaroo Island has been able to keep its ecosystem in almost pristine native condition (there’s a pretty strict quarantine in place to protect the local fauna and flora). This is the main reason people visit Kangaroo Island. To spot the Western Grey Kangaroos (a sub-species unique to the island) as they graze in the coastal heathland or hop beneath the trees, the koalas clinging to eucalypts, Tammar wallabies, New Zealand fur seals, Black Cockatoos, Rosenberg goannas and echidnas waddling in the undergrowth. Without the mainland threat of foxes and feral cats, native wildlife has thrived on Kangaroo Island for thousands of years, like a mini Madagascar cut adrift in the Great Australian Bight. Wildlife tours are easy to arrange (our expert local guides know all the best spots), but honestly the animals are so ubiquitous that all you really need to do is go for a drive and look at the window.
Not one of Australia’s best-known dive sites, but a cracker nonetheless. The waters off Kangaroo Island are home to about 230 species of fish, extensive coral reefs and around 60 shipwrecks (you’d think after the first forty or so they would have avoided the place…) It’s also one of the few places on earth you can see Leafy Sea Dragons in their natural habitat. There’s a dive company on the island that runs regular departures, but there’s nothing stopping you from bringing a snorkel set and striking out from some of the more sheltered beaches. Kingscote Jetty is a great little dive site for beginners, with sponges, zebra fish, crabs and Leafy Sea Dragons living around the old pylons. Western River Cove on the north side of the island and Hanson Bay on the south side are also good spots, although for more intermediate divers.
A cellar door stop
Although it’s a bit further south than big South Australian winelands like the Barossa Valley, the climate and topography of Kangaroo Island is still ideal for vintners. The cool breezes of the Southern Ocean blow over the island, protecting the grapes from over ripening on the vine. The result is a longer growing season and a distinct flavour. There are a couple of boutique vineyards in the island that are well worth a visit. Dudley Wines is our favourite – their clifftop cellar door overlooking Backstairs Passage is pretty spectacular, and the rich limestone soils of the surrounding farmland produce some top-notch Cabernet and Shiraz. The Islander Estate Vineyards are another island highlight. Vintner Jacques Lurton has set up a gorgeous 300-hectare vineyard. Guided tours of the property are available (along with a cheeky tipple at the cellar door).
A lot of Kangaroo Island’s best wildlife only comes out to play at night, so if nature-spotting really is your thing, consider signing up for a nocturnal tour. It’s a three-hour drive around the island (there’s a 2WD or 4WD option for the bumpier, off-road stretches), and you’ll be able to spotlight Tammar wallabies, brush-tailed possums, Western grey kangaroos and other nocturnal creatures. Please remember, if you’re driving by yourself, that certain areas of the island are protected, and you shouldn’t do anything to endanger or alarm the native wildlife. They take that sort of thing pretty seriously on Kangaroo Island, and you don’t want angry locals chasing you with pitchforks or anything.
Cycling at its best
There’s no public bike hire on Kangaroo Island, but that just means you’ll have the roads to yourself. And they are some serious roads. In 2013 the island played host to the Bicycle South Australia annual tour. To actually circumnavigate the island via bike you’d need to allow a few days to a week (the island is 155km long from tip to tip). There are a bunch of smaller sections you can try if you’re just in the mood for a photogenic day-trip. Penneshaw Hill (the highest peak on the island, although peak is generous) offers some sweeping views of the surrounding countryside. Three Chain Road is a challenging section of unsealed dirt and gravel that passes by some alien-looking salt lakes. For beginner riders, the stretch from Kelly Hill Caves to the West Kangaroo Island Caravan Park is a relatively flat, and very scenic, intro to the native scenery. Just keep an eye out for Tammar wallabies dotted along the road.
A few practical things
How to get to Kangaroo Island
The SeaLink passenger ferry carries passengers and their vehicles from Cape Jervis on the Fleurieu Peninsula (about two hours’ drive from Adelaide). There are usually four departures daily, and the ferry runs every day except Christmas. The crossing takes about 45 minutes, and there’s a coach running from Adelaide if you need help getting down to the coast. If flying is more your speed, there is an airport on the island (it’s not exactly Heathrow, just a head’s up). Flights run from Adelaide pretty regularly, and only take 30 minutes.
How to get around Kangaroo Island
You can obviously bring your car across on the SeaLink ferry (extra charges apply) or there’s a Budget rent-a-car in Kingstone and Penneshaw. There aren’t many cars on the island though, so it’s wise to book ahead. Of course, the best way to see Kangaroo Island is on a group tour. We can help you with that one, and we come with our own vehicles. Easy.
Feature image c/o Matthew Fuentes, Flickr