Australia's Kangaroo Island Offers Wildlife and Geological Drama

By Alice Reid
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 12, 2009

A trip to Australia doesn't guarantee kangaroo and koala sightings. The continent's iconic wildlife can be elusive unless you head to the zoo, venture into the outback or, better yet, visit Kangaroo Island.

This roughly 100-mile-long stretch of hills, fields, eucalyptus forests and dramatic seascapes just off South Australia's coast supports a rich array of fauna. You can see koalas, wallabies, seals and sea lions, lots of birds (including Australia's adorable Little penguins), egg-laying mammals (called echidnas), goanna lizards and, of course, kangaroos, all in their natural habitats. Add to that nearly 200,000 acres of national parkland and protected wilderness, and you have a destination worth adding to any Australian visit.

A weekend isn't nearly enough time to explore all of KI. But no worries. With a bit of planning, it's possible to hit many of the high spots in less than 36 hours, the time my husband and I had for our visit.

We began on a Saturday morning after a 45-minute ferry ride to the village of Penneshaw. With all convenient flights booked, we'd turned to SeaLink, a tour company that runs the ferry and also operates a convenient bus service for the two-hour trip between Adelaide, our home base, and the ferry at Cape Jervis. SeaLink also arranged our island car rental.

Our first stop -- after a detour for honey ice cream at an island apiary -- was Seal Bay Aquatic Reserve, a swath of sugary white sand on the south coast that is home to 600 rare Australian sea lions. As luck would have it, this was mating season -- a once-every-18-months event, we were told, as opposed to the 12-month cycles of other seals and sea lions. Not exactly highly sexed, these animals, which may explain why hunting nearly drove them to extinction 150 years ago.

An entry fee of $10.50 apiece let us join a naturalist for a walk on the beach where dozens of females, many with pups, sprawled on the sand, exhausted from foraging in the Southern Ocean. "These animals spend 50 percent of their time on land," our guide explained. "Three days eating at sea and then three days napping."

Meanwhile, the males showed off: wrestling, cuffing each other and barking. The females snoozed.

From sea lions we turned to koalas at the Hanson Bay Wildlife Sanctuary. For an hour we trudged through woods, craning our necks in search of the shy creatures. Finally we began to spot them, all well-camouflaged and dozing about 30 feet up in huge eucalyptus trees. Koalas are actually late arrivals to the island, having been introduced in the 1920s by officials who feared that they would die out on the mainland. With no predators around, they now threaten to eat their way through many of KI's forests.

It was late afternoon when we drove away, past a mob of kangaroos feeding in a clearing with gaggles of big gray Cape Barren geese for company. Our lodging for the night wasn't far away. We'd chosen the Kangaroo Island Wilderness Retreat for its convenience to Flinders Chase National Park, which we intended to start exploring early the next day. Another plus for the retreat: It serves dinner -- a must, because the rental car company's policy is no driving on island roads at night. Roos and drivers unfamiliar with the area are a dangerous mix, and if you hit one, you'd have some serious 'splaining to do.

Happily, the retreat offers its own wildlife experience. The front desk supplies guests with bags of grass pellets to feed the wallabies that amble into the courtyard at twilight, looking irresistible with their soft noses and big brown eyes.

The next morning we headed to Flinders Chase on the western end for a look at Kangaroo Island's most dramatic piece of geology. The "Remarkable Rocks," as they are called, are a collection of enormous eroded granite boulders sitting atop a giant dome of lava coughed up about 200 million years ago. Wind and sea spray have since carved the chunks into what look like monumental Henry Moore sculptures perched 200 feet above a crashing sea.

Flinders also has its own wildlife attraction: a colony of noisy New Zealand fur seals that cavort and chatter in Admirals Arch, another erosion masterpiece created by the sea cutting through layers of rock, again over millions of years.

We concluded our visit to Flinders with a four-mile round-trip hike down a dry, rocky riverbed and onto a spectacular beach with turquoise surf. By then we were eyeing our 6:30 ferry, a two-hour drive east.

No worries again, though. We made it to Penneshaw in plenty of time to catch a meal at perhaps the island's most famous eatery, Fish. The tiny carryout is run by Susan Pearson, a local caterer and refugee chef from the frenetic London food scene who has been featured in Vogue and various travel magazines. Pearson came to KI thinking "maybe an island would be nice" after London, she said as she served us grilled whiting and a salad of homegrown lettuces -- simple but elegant, even served on plastic-foam plates.

We dined in a park overlooking the sea, sad that we were too early to see the Little penguins that come ashore there every evening, but happy with the many other bounties of our KI weekend.

The official South Australia Web site,, has information on lodging, tours, events and more.

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