A short hop off the coast of South Australia, Kangaroo Island is said to be the place to see the best of Australia if you don't have time to see the whole continent.
Known as ‘KI’ to the locals, the Island is a microcosm of many Australian landscapes – pristine bushland; white sand dunes; and spectacular seascapes where rocky cliffs plunge into the wild ocean.
It’s no wonder that this wildlife-rich paradise has been classified as one of Australia's National Landscapes, selected for their distinctively Australian natural and cultural significance. The National Landscapes program is a partnership between Tourism Australia and Parks Australia with the aim of better conservation and promotion of these precious areas.
In fact, Kangaroo Island has long been a shining example of how tourism and conservation can work together.
More than a decade ago, as a result of a dramatic rise in visitors, the community, management agencies and the tourism industry created a model to keep a watch on the long term health of the tourism industry and of the Island.
The Kangaroo Island-developed Tourism Optimisation Management Model (TOMM) was so successful it was presented at the International Conference of Sustainable Tourism Management at Heritage Sites organised by the United Nations and the World Tourism Organisation with a view to being adopted by other tourism destinations globally.
The first thing that strikes you when you arrive on Kangaroo Island is its sheer scale. Only 13 kilometres from the mainland, the Island is seven times larger than Singapore, but the difference is you can drive for a day and barely see anyone else on the road. Half the native bushland remains just as it was when British explorer Matthew Flinders named it in 1802, and more than one-third is protected as a National or Conservation Park.
Separated from the Australian mainland some 9,000 years ago, the Island has somehow managed to escape the introduction of pests such as foxes and rabbits, so its wildlife has flourished, creating a veritable Noah’s Ark of Australian wildlife. Kangaroos and other marsupials far outnumber the Island’s 4400 permanent residents - an eclectic local community of farmers, artists, ecologists, fishermen and adventurers.
One of the best ways to experience the heritage of KI is to stay in one of the Department of Environment and Heritage run historic lighthouse cottages found along the coastline. These old stone buildings dating back to the 1800s give you a real feeling for the history of the place. The cottages are now equipped with more modern facilities and the revenue from their rental is used to restore and maintain the historic buildings.
At the other end of the scale, Southern Ocean Lodge is the most luxurious accommodation on the Island, with a small number of exclusive cliff-top suites overlooking the sea. Although it has only been open a short time, it has already scored a place on both the US and UK Conde Nast Traveller magazine’s list of the world’s best hotels.
An unexpected highlight is the quality of the cuisine. The lack of large-scale development in this eco-heaven has given rise to a small gourmet food industry with a variety of fresh regional produce such as , freshwater crayfish, native jams, dairy products and wineries that are sure to find a place in food lovers' hearts.
The Island is also famous for its honey which comes from the only remaining strain of pure Ligurian bees in the world. Stop by the Island Bee hive in Kingscote where you can purchase all sorts of quirky honey-related souvenirs as well as see the bees in production, and don't miss the famous honey ice-cream at Clifford's Honey Farm.
The other surprise is that while kangaroos may be ubiquitous, the Island's wildlife is far more varied than its name suggests. Many of these species of plants and animals are either threatened or exist nowhere else in Australia. In the space of one day, you may well come across koalas, wallabies, goannas, echidnas and brush-tailed possums, and maybe even the elusive platypus. You can watch Little Penguins waddling home after a day out at sea, or take a cruise and swim with the Island’s resident pods of dolphins. Bird-lovers will find some 270 species of birds among the diverse range of habitats, including the rare Glossy Black Cockatoo, an endangered species found only on KI.
The Island’s most popular attraction is the long sandy beachfront at the Seal Park Conservation Park, where hundreds of rare Australian Sea-lions gather together. National Park Guides take several guided walks a day, and given it’s one of the only places in the world where you can wander within metres of the animals as they laze on the beach, it’s well worth a visit.
The Island also has a fascinating human history. Evidence of stone tools and campsites indicate that Aboriginal people inhabited the Island as early as 16,000 years ago and as recently as 2,000 years ago. Why the Aboriginal people abandoned Kangaroo Island, or when they last lived there, remains a mystery.
The first non-Aboriginal people to live on Kangaroo Island were sealers, escaped convicts and runaway sailors, seeking refuge in the early 1800s, and leading a self-sufficient life trading salt and skins for spirits and tobacco.
A month after Captain Flinders made the first recorded European sighting of the Island, the French ship, Le Geographe, under the command of Nicolas Baudin, also arrived. Baudin mapped much of the rugged south and west coastlines and many of the features along the coastline still bear French names.
Reeves Point became the first formal settlement in South Australia in the mid-1800s. Historic sites include the first European cemetery, post office, early houses, the original jetty remains, and an ancient mulberry tree that grew from a cutting brought out from England.
KI is a perfect self-drive destination, or alternatively, there are a large range of guided 4WD or coach tours that allow you to sit back and let someone else to do the driving. Biking or hiking can be considered, but as the Island is huge, Australia’s third largest; you’ll need plenty of time and a good level of fitness.
The trip from Adelaide takes an hour and a half, and then it’s simply a matter of driving your car on to the ferry for the 45 minute passage to the town of Penneshaw.
From Penneshaw, take the opportunity to stretch your legs at Pennington Bay, one of the Island's spectacular beaches, or if you are feeling really energetic, climb the 500 or so steps to Prospect Hill. On clear days, you can see as far as Mount Lofty in the Adelaide Hills. If time permits try sand surfing at Little Sahara sand-dunes or view the myriad birdlife at Murray Lagoon or D'Estrees Bay.
The drive to Western River Cove is beautiful with rolling hills typical of the entire north coast. Don’t miss the hidden beach at Stokes Bay – it’s through the tunnel on the eastern end of the beach.
A whole day could easily be spent exploring Flinders Chase National Park, with its interactive Visitor Centre, justifiably named Remarkable Rocks, awe-inspiring Weirs Cove and stalactite-fringed Admirals Arch. Stay an extra day in this area and enjoy one of the park’s spectacular walks.
There is so much to see and do here one visit might not be enough. Just make sure you hop on over.
Author: Kris Madden on behalf of Tourism Australia. This article is copyright free and may be reproduced.