Kangaroo Island: Where the wild things are

By Kris Madden March 30, 2010
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It’s easy to travel responsibly on Kangaroo Island, where conservation is key to the wildlife that abounds.

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 — areas 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.

Ecotourism on Kangaroo Island at its finest

THE FIRST THING THAT strikes you when you arrive on Kangaroo Island is its sheer scale. Only 13 km 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 either a National or Conservation Park.

Separated from the Australian mainland some 9000 years ago, the Island has somehow managed to remain unaffected by 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 feel 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.

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 wines.

The Island is also famous for its honey which comes from the only remaining strain of pure Ligurian bees in the world. At the Island bee hive in Kingscote you can purchase all sorts of quirky honey-related souvenirs after you see the bees in production — and don’t miss the famous honey ice-cream at Clifford’s Honey Farm.

History of Kangaroo Island

The Island’s other surprise is that while kangaroos may be ubiquitous, the Island’s wildlife is far more varied than its name suggests. Many of the species of plants and animals found on the Island 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 bird among the diverse range of habitats, including the rare Glossy Black Cockatoo, an endangered species found only on KI.

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.

Adventure on Kangaroo Island – the great outdoors

KANGAROO ISLAND 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.

Walking is encouraged on all beaches along KI’s coast. This is one of many conservation messages tourists will encounter around the Island, including tips on how to avoid disturbing the precious wildlife.

Alongside the protocol aimed at preserving the Island, visitors will find more wilderness and wildlife, action and attractions than can be squeezed into a short visit. From the 500-step climb to Prospect Hill, rewarded on a clear day by a view to Mt Lofty in Adelaide, to the hidden beach at Stokes Bay and the many National Parks, this is an Island that promises to please — for as long as it remains protected.

Kris Madden is a journalist specialising in eco and sustainable tourism. This is an edited version of an article first published by Tourism Australia.

Buy the AG Kids’ book about Kangaroo Island