Written by Max Anderson
On May 2, Qatar Airways begins flying to Adelaide, gateway to the wild horizons of South Australia. Writer Max Anderson takes us to Kangaroo Island – a place where nature inspires, the animals hold sway, and visitors are invited to go just a little wild...
The newest fine-dining restaurant on Kangaroo Island is one of the most exciting in Australia. But time your booking carefully: you have only four months before the restaurant quite literally falls around your ears.
The Enchanted Fig Tree is a 150-year-old tree that completely enshrouds some 1,000 sqm, or roughly four tennis courts. A series of rooms has been carved out (with a little help from a chainsaw), and set with 12 tables so that dappled light filters through the leaves to glint off the cutlery and glassware. However, because the restaurant is defined only by summer leaves, it’s limited to opening from December to mid-March.
Waitresses Tayla and Kelly move nimbly through dense arboreal corridors, rather like characters from Alice in Wonderland, bearing an extraordinary 12-course degustation of local produce – plates of wild-caught kingfish, dolmas made from locally raised lamb, and meringues spun from raw sugar served with freshly picked mulberries. When asked about the challenges of serving food in a tree, Tayla laughs: “You have to watch your head and where you put your feet!”
This is classic Kangaroo Island, a place where nature runs riot and humans conspire to enjoy its bounty.
‘KI’ is Australia’s third-largest island. It’s also home to fewer than 5,000 people, most of them living in the capital, Kingscote. The landscapes are diverse. Think black swans on still lagoons, ospreys soaring over cliffs, sea lions basking on white sands... people eating in a tree. The soils are fertile and the farmland also weaves its own magic: in winter the pastures are lush and green; in summer they shimmer gold.
A third of the island, however, is protected wilderness, including Flinders Chase National Park, which is home to vast eucalypt forests, mallee scrub and hundreds of kilometres of empty white-sand beaches.
For millennia, animals have not only flourished on the island; they’ve evolved. KI hosts an endemic sub-species of kangaroo, a beautiful animal with shaggy, chocolate-coloured fur. They’re easily seen, especially at dusk and dawn, and sometimes on the beach. Other native animals are just as populous, including koalas, Rosenberg goannas, wedge-tailed eagles, black cockatoos, and echidnas.
One of the signature wildlife experiences is a visit to Seal Bay. It was named (and doubtless plundered) by the early Europeans, a motley crowd of sealers, whalers, and escaped convicts who would have harvested meat and skins. Visitors today tread rather more gently, descending into the steep amphitheatre of turquoise seas and white beaches to walk with National Park Rangers among the colony of some 500 Australian sea lions. It’s the only place in the world where you can do so.
Wildlife inspires the island’s many artists, sometimes in curious ways. Indiana James escaped his life as an engineer in the oil industry to seek refuge in a 19th-century cottage overlooking a beautiful estuary south of Kingscote. “These days I build Australian animals out of farm junk and driftwood,” he says succinctly. He’s working on his 131st pelican, a sculpture fabricated from (among other things) old windmill blades and a piece of wrought-iron lacework. “When it comes to pelicans, I won’t do commissions because the waiting list gets too long. Now I just make one and put it in an exhibition.” Those lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time might pick up Pelican #131 for US$2,885.
One of James’s sculptures – a life-sized kangaroo made entirely of cast iron – is in the lobby of Australia’s most famous luxury lodge. Southern Ocean Lodge is built into a remote cliff top near Hanson Bay overlooking an expanse of ocean that stretches all the way to Antarctica. The 20-suite resort juxtaposes the rawness of nature with incredible finery, perhaps best expressed in the fabulous ‘Great Room’ lounge and dining area. Here, Chef Jack Ingram works to serve dishes using the best of KI ingredients, such as Island Pure sheep’s cheese, locally farmed marron (freshwater crayfish) and American River oysters.
Not that you have to stay in a US$1,000-a-night lodge to sample the local cuisine. Visit the Oyster Shack in American River and you can get a dozen fresh oysters straight off the racks for US$9; and producers like Island Pure Sheep Dairy and Andermel Marron run regular tours of their operations, with plenty of tastings thrown in.
Some visitors choose to go completely wild on KI. Flinders Chase National Park on the more remote western end of the island is 330 sqkm of forest, creeks, and coast, threaded with trails. In 2015, a spectacular new five-day walking experience called the KI Wilderness Trail was opened: it starts at the Flinders Chase Visitor Centre, before leading through gorges, past lagoons, over cliffs, and down into beaches and bays that rarely see another human footprint.
The trail offers almost uninterrupted wilderness, but emerges at several points to reconnect with the modern world. Chief among these are three of the island’s most popular spots: Cape du Couedic (site of a 1906 lighthouse); Remarkable Rocks (massive and rather surreal wind-sculpted rocks that glow amber in the setting sun), and Admiral’s Arch, a natural portico of wave-carved rock where a large colony of New Zealand fur seals laze about.
Even within the two largest settlements on the island, you’re never far from wild attractions.
The capital Kingscote is home to some 2,000 people and sits on a sheltered bay looking back towards the mainland. Pods of dolphins can be seen slicing through the waters at any time of year, but from May to October you may also spy southern right whales or humpbacks on their yearly migration to calve in the sheltered lee of the Fleurieu Peninsula. KI Marine Adventures runs boat tours in summer and winter out of Kingscote for some extra-special encounters.
The same marine wildlife can be seen from the lovely ferry town of Penneshaw (population around 300), although it’s also home to some smaller inhabitants, such as a rookery of 10 of the world’s smallest penguins – so small that they are actually named “little penguins”. Nightly tours operate so visitors can see these animals making their way back from the shore to their nests after a day of fishing.
Some visitors claim to fall under the spell of Kangaroo Island. With the magic of Australian wildlife, the siren call of sublime coastal landscapes, and, for that matter, an enchanted restaurant that only lives for four months each year, it’s easy to see why.
One of the mysteries of KI is what happened to the native peoples who archaeologists believe lived here until 2,000 years ago. Today, mainland indigenous peoples know the island as the ‘Land of the Dead’ – so clearly something dramatic took place. In 1802, it was sighted by Matthew Flinders and named after the animals that fed his sailors. In the early 1800s, escaped convicts and sealers lived suitably wild lives, until July 1836, when the Duke of York brought settlers to Reeves Point, making it Australia’s first free European settlement. The island became a place of fishing, whaling, subsistence farming, and also salvage – some 60 ships lie wrecked off its shores. For great historical perspectives, visit Hope Cottage in Kingscote.
Take a short flight from Adelaide Airport to Kingscote with Regional Express, and hire a car at Kingscote; alternatively, hire a car in Adelaide and experience a lovely 1.5-hour drive to Cape Jervis to catch the Sealink car ferry to Penneshaw. KI has just about every type of accommodation imaginable, including tents, cabins, bed and breakfasts, small resorts, five-star retreats, and even lighthouse keepers’ cottages. Don’t underestimate the size of the island (it’s 155km at its widest) and allow three to four days to see the sights. It’s a brilliant destination to explore, but if you prefer a little local knowledge, try one of the private 4x4 tour companies.
My Kangaroo Island
John the Pelican Man
Don’t miss John Ayliffe’s nightly pelican feeding on Kingscote Wharf. He’s been doing it for decades, basically off-loading fish guts to a bunch of raucous pelicans while “having a yak”. John is a regular Aussie with a proper laconic style, but the Australian pelicans, who know exactly when to turn up, ensure they’re never upstaged.
With more than 500km of beach, you’re never short of sandy distractions, but one of the most delightful beaches is Stokes Bay. Two reasons: (1) it’s home to the excellent Rockpool Cafe (serving delicious fish and chips); and (2) you have to access the beach through a narrow gap in the rocks. Enjoy.
Roads less travelled
The island’s sealed roads are excellent, but no visit is complete without disappearing into the network of unsealed (dirt) back roads. This is where you discover amazing views, avenues of gum trees, and curious old farmhouses of stone. Go easy on the dirt – and be doubly careful at dusk and dawn when the animals are most active.
Join a three-hour Island Explorer Tour, which includes the chance to enter the water with wild bottlenose dolphins. There’s a rope off the boat for those who need it, but the swim takes place in shallows.
Surf down the ‘waves’ of towering sand dunes at Little Sahara using specially waxed sandboards available for hire from Kangaroo Island Outdoor Action. Quad bike tours also available!
Raptor Domain is home to rescued birds of prey. It’s run by Dave Irwin (cousin of late famed eco-warrior, Steve) who puts on a terrific show each day. Magnificent wedge-tailed eagles are a highlight.
Distance: 11,276 km
Flight Time: 12 hours, 55 minutes