Esky, tunes, camera: check – buckle up for a Kangaroo Island road-trip as we explore the flourishing landscapes, wildlife and experiences two years on from the catastrophic bushfires.
Kangaroo Island: A sense of adventure
Bearing the brunt of heaving swell conjured up from deep Antarctic waters, rugged cliffs throw violent explosions of water, the clouds of spray suspended momentarily by the squall before trailing vapours are sucked away back over the cliff.
The wild weather of Kangaroo Island will make you feel grateful to be indoors by a warm fire at Hanson Bay Cabins. Located within the 2000-hectare Hanson Bay Wildlife Sanctuary on the southern edge of KI’s coastline, the off-grid cabins feel a long way from civilisation.
Getting here involves the easy 45-minute SeaLink ferry trip, followed by a 90-minute drive, past Vivonne Bay to a turnoff just before Flinders Chase National Park. The rugged location is beautiful in all seasons with repeat customers who’ve been booking stays here for decades. Meanwhile, the sanctuary’s nocturnal tour should certainly be on your to-do list.
Ravaged by bushfire just two years ago, the landscape is now awash in green and teeming with wildlife. The blaze levelled four of the sanctuary’s holiday cabins, staff housing and the neighbouring Southern Ocean Lodge about a kilometre away, but the two new cabins survived.
Sanctuary co-founder Jim Geddes says the prolific recovery of flora and fauna has been remarkable. All over the region, blackened tree limbs are smothered in new growth. “I’m as amazed as anyone -– it’s stunning,” says Jim, who was part of the heartbreaking bushfire clean-up in January, 2020, when hundreds of dead animals had to be collected and destroyed.
“When I got here, everything was a smoking wreck. It was devastating, but at the same time I could see how resilient the wildlife was. In some ways, their survival plan was better than ours. We planted a few thousand trees and by that Christmas the native vegetation had completely exploded.”
The sanctuary’s endangered tammar wallabies have bounced back in their thousands. Wiped out in parts of mainland Australia, the wallabies thrive here without dingoes or foxes to hunt them.
“Australian wildlife is mostly nocturnal, so I describe the sanctuary as like a nightclub: it really starts hopping when the sun goes down,” says Jim. Nightclub regulars are Cape Barren geese, koalas, kangaroos, echidnas and brushtail possums, while the wallabies are known to roll up with quite an entourage.
“We can suddenly see 150 wallabies crossing a dirt track like commuters all flying out of the bush at rush hour, it really is an extraordinary experience to see that.”
Jim and sanctuary co-owner Todd Robinson purchased the land in 1997 and went about transforming the run-down farm into a sanctuary, planting native trees to support koalas and glossy black cockatoos. “This property lends itself really well to this cause. It’s a labour of love,” he says.
Jim says biodiversity is the real treasure of Kangaroo Island and must be preserved. “As human impact has been relatively low, the island is a snapshot of what Australia was like before European settlement. It’s an unusually bio-diverse place, so conservation is vitally important.”
Nearby Vivonne Bay is an ideal base from which to explore the south coast and the national park to the west. The small town has a refreshing country feel with nothing more than a general store, dirt roads and a small town nestled in the scrub behind the dunes of one long, spectacular beach. There are few distractions here, other than the odd wallaby venturing into your front yard of an evening.
The newly-upgraded general store provides convenience with its famous whiting burgers, barista coffee and a bottle shop, but you must bring essentials and plan your meals.
It’s 10 minutes to Raptor Domain for their birds of prey show, which is a highlight of any trip. Another short drive gets you to Seal Bay, home to the colony of endangered Australian sea lions where you can take a stroll along the boardwalk or get even closer with a guided tour.
Vivonne Bay is also home to the passionate tour guides who work for the nearby Little Sahara Adventure Centre and Kangaroo Island Outdoor Action, both operated by born-and-bred local Brenton Davis.
“The support from South Australians of late has been exceptional and much appreciated – Kangaroo Island is so close and it’s great to show people from Adelaide how much there is to do,” says Brenton.
KI Outdoor Action’s award-winning quad bike tours live up to the hype as you wind through sandy tracks into the heart of the bush, learning about bushfire recovery along the way. Stopping to inspect a giant yacca tree – hundreds of years old – is a highlight, as is finding a goanna amongst the scrub.
“The thing about the aftermath of the bushfires is that you can now see the landscape and rolling hills; normally you can’t. It will only last a year or two and the vegetation will be so thick, you won’t be able to see it again,” says Brenton.
Little Sahara offers its famous sandboarding and other activities including a new two-hour buggy tour in which a guide takes you to the rugged coast to spot surfing dolphins, find koalas in the bush (guaranteed) and back for a spin through the giant dunes.
The 2019-20 bushfires came right into Brenton’s properties but, luckily, the businesses were spared for visitors to continue to enjoy.
“My first tip for visitors is to allow more time than you think: the island’s much bigger than you anticipate and you won’t run out of things to do. My second tip is to bring all of your clothes because the weather changes every five minutes.”
One wildlife experience that’s a must for any list is KI Marine Adventures’ swim with the dolphins tour. Tour guide and experienced fisherman Andrew Neighbour will pick you up at Kingscote and drop you in a shallow bay amongst large pods of dolphins who are equally curious about you as you are about them.
For those seeking a luxurious island stay that still provides a taste of the wild, Oceanview Eco Villas awaits you. A scenic 30-minute country drive from Penneshaw gets you to the property’s farm gates, where a dirt road sweeps down rolling hills to the shimmering blue waters of Nepean Bay.
Any stress instantly melts away the moment you arrive at the tranquil locale with its private clifftop views and beach. Being personally greeted by hosts Tim and Tamsin Wendt feels like meeting up with old friends and before long, they return to hand you a KI Spirits gin and tonic garnished with wild coastal daisy bush plucked from the property, all while taking in the sunset from the deck (made from recycled plastic bottles) as the lights of Kingscote twinkle from across the bay.
Tamsin and Tim moved to Kangaroo Island to raise their children but ended up buying this spectacular piece of coastal farmland. Their focus turned to luxury tourism, building two eco-villas and welcoming their first guests in October 2018. “Clearly, we fell in love with the place,” says Tamsin. “KI is beautiful; the nature and wildlife just gets under your skin. The longer we’re here, the more in tune with it we become.”
The couple lost their international customers to the pandemic but have been busy working on recipes and adding additional on-property nature tours and clifftop dinners. They also planted 1000 trees on the property, home to many critters including the hopping varieties and the majestic white-bellied sea eagle.
The two five-star villas each have two luxurious bedrooms and en suites with sweeping views from every room, giving the feeling of being on your very own island.
“Our guests love the bath views. There’s nothing nicer than sitting in a warm bath with salts and a candle on a nice evening or even a stormy night when it’s bucketing with rain outside,” says Tamsin.
A passionate foodie, Tamsin is the resident chef, preparing cooked breakfasts and three-course gourmet dinners, delivered to your private villa and served with local wines. “I’ve always loved cooking and I was raised by my mum who was a fabulous cook – she taught me the value of fresh produce,” says Tamsin.
“Here, the villa becomes your restaurant and you don’t have to get dressed up to go out for dinner. It’s not uncommon for us to come in and set up for breakfast and for guests to still be in their robes. It’s not just about the food on the plate, but the story behind our producers. Our guests leave with a real connection to the island,” she says.
“We know we’ve done our job if you leave here feeling better than when you arrived.”
As you leave the island, if you find yourself feeling sorry you didn’t get to see more this time around, soften the blow with a stop at Millie Mae’s Pantry in Penneshaw to pick up a coffee and takeaway lunch for the ferry trip back to civilisation.
SALIFE was a guest of SeaLink and the other regional tourism operators mentioned in this story.
This article first appeared in the January 2022 issue of SALIFE magazine.
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