Exceptional Kangaroo Island – 30 years in the making

By AG STAFF 12 October 2021
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Craig Wickham has always had a strong passion for wildlife conservation. It’s no surprise, then, that he revels in sharing the natural wonders of his patch of paradise.

Craig Wickham has called the fertile fields, native forests and rolling seas of Kangaroo Island home since 1967. “I was only one [year old] when my family moved to the island,” he says. “I grew up on a farm that sat alongside a spectacular sandy beach, with great fishing, really interesting rocks to explore and a lot of wildlife.

“The farm had a lot of bush, great birdlife, kangaroos, wallabies, goannas, possums and I spent a lot of time in the outdoors, so I guess that prepared me for the life that I’ve got now [in 1990, after a stint working for the National Parks and Wildlife Service, Craig established his tour company, Exceptional Kangaroo Island]. I do a lot of indoor stuff, like marketing and business administration, but I never want to lose the opportunity of spending time outdoors – whether that is on my own, from a recreational sense, or doing it professionally as a guide, as I do a few times a week.”

Over the years Craig has developed a passion for wildlife conservation, and he says there’s no better place to practice it than on KI.

Craig Wickham.

Wildlife conservation on KI

According to Craig it’s the diversity of nature on KI that he loves sharing with visitors. “While there are some key species at iconic locations (Australian sea-lions at Seal Bay or the dolphins encountered at Dashwood Bay for example), it’s the chance encounters of different species across the Island – an echidna ambling across a pasture, a black tiger snake sunning itself on a roadside verge, that I really enjoy.

“My absolute imperative is the protection of habitat and the persistence of key species – these two things are fundamentally linked. And this provides us with a challenge, or indeed a responsibility, to push ‘beyond sustainability’ – we cannot simply sustain what we have now, as there is plenty of evidence to support the fact that many species are declining in numbers and range so the status quo simply will not cut it. We need to start replacing habitat and rebuilding corridors. There’s a team, on a former KI sheep-grazing property called Cygnet Park, that is doing just that.”

Across the cleared areas of the 310ha property, 350,000 tubestock of more than 200 plant species have been planted, complementing a mix of direct-seeded natives, bringing the total to about 1 million plants. This has created a woodland of high structural and floristic diversity, which now sits alongside the Cygnet River with its original riparian vegetation.

For locals and guests alike, initiatives like the one at Cygnet Park are imperative. “In many areas, land development for agriculture and the impact of introduced pest plants and animals means many species have already gone,” Craig says. “We have areas impacted by dry-land salinity, which is a creeping souring of the groundwater that then kills off the plants that have been retained in the landscape, and then the species that rely on those plants for habitat also disappear. We don’t have any rabbits or foxes on the Island, and have recently been able to eradicate populations of both feral deer and feral goats. Now the focus has been put on eradication of feral cats and pigs.”

What might also surprise guests to KI is the fact that koalas are an introduced species.

“The ‘success’ of this introduction, which took place progressively over a 25 year span, has led to the degradation of the habitat on which the koalas and many other species ultimately depend,” Craig says. “Before the Black Summer bushfires, koalas here were being actively managed through a sterilisation programme. The impact of the fires means, at least for much of the western part of the Island, there is a respite from the koala browse and hopefully many of the trees impacted by over browsing, have a chance to grow back and recover.

“Part of our job is to explain this to guests – the koala story here is very different to other parts of Australia. And if guests are really interested in learning more, we will plan sessions with some of the ecologists involved in the research work.” 

Rosenbergs goanna.

Transformational tourism

Throughout Craig’s 30 years working as a tour guide on KI, he has watched guests’ interests and requirements evolve.

“The local food and wine scene developed in parallel to our business operations so we have been able to literally add one or two new ingredients to the plate every year, giving more connections to our community and a real taste of the Island,” he says. “The other element was that often we receive a booking for a couple and one of them is the real nature fanatic – a birdwatcher or photographer perhaps. Their partner’s response is usually ‘oh that’s his/her thing, I’m not really as into it’. When they sit down to a beautiful meal of local seafood and salad served in the bush with a nice crisp wine ‘well if all our trips were like this, I WOULD be into it!’ The blend of nature and hospitality is a winner – and it increases the return to our local community and also cuts down food miles. 

“From a values perspective, I think we were ahead of the game. What we have been offering from the outset, and perhaps been seen more as a niche experience, is becoming more mainstream. Australians are known the world over as enthusiastic participants in immersive natural and cultural experiences, and seeking out interesting local dining options, and now they’re starting to look for this while exploring their own country. The rise of ‘foodie culture’ and need for a ‘nature fix’ or ‘digital detox’ are trends that play into our way of exploring Kangaroo Island. People recognise the value in the local, the artisan, small-batch, the connections to country and sense of place. While there is a lot of jargon in there – these are things that align with travellers’ deeper values as they search for meaning and rejuvenation. Transformational travel is a concept that encapsulates a lot of this and describes what we are able to provide when our guests really engage with us and our place.” 

The most recent addition to the Exceptional Kangaroo Island offering is Walk Kangaroo Island, which consists of 11 diverse walks over six days, exploring a range of island landscapes and habitats, each with their own unique story.

“We want to connect with the landscape, our wildlife, our produce and our community,” Craig says. “To discover the sense of place that makes our island home a particular destination – this is what we seek when we walk Kangaroo Island. We’re not walking a linear track; instead, we have curated a selection of walks through conservation reserves, national parks, along cliff-tops and through private property.”

Weirs Cove, KI.

Why you don’t want to miss it

According to Craig, one of KI’s most endearing offerings – and perhaps even more so since the pandemic – is its wide open spaces.

“Unsurprisingly, one element which sticks out is the value people are placing on solitude and the sense of freedom they find here on Kangaroo Island,” he says. “Even when the place is busy (or KI’s type of busy) travellers get a sense that this is a place with room to move and also one where there has been plenty of space left for nature.

And then there’s KI’s wildlife. “The level of habituation of many species to our presence observing them in the wild is something our guests also remark upon, and the fact that this has been achieved through careful observation of how wildlife reacts to us, rather than by changing their behaviour through hand-feeding.

“There’s a high level of interest in the Black Summer fires and the impact that it had on our community and our wildlife. This is invariably expressed with a high level of empathy – combined with a palpable sense of relief and often awe at the speed at which nature is recovering. Personally I feel really supported by this sense of care, concern and interest in our wellbeing.” 

For more information visit Exceptional Kangaroo Island.

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