Kangaroo Island and South Australia

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January 25th 2008
Published: January 25th 2008
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Kangaroo Island South Australia, 2008.

It is a while since I’ve “blogged”, as we’ve not been travelling much! Work unfortunately gets in the way of travel!

But we’re just back from Kangaroo Island, South Australia. It is a stunning place. “KI” (as the locals call it), is Australia’s third biggest island after Tasmania and Melville NT. Although it has over 500 kilometres of coastline and is approximately the area of Bali, Indonesia, its permanent population is only about four thousand souls. Quite a contrast. To quote the South Australian Tourist Office: “No wonder the UK Sunday Telegraph called Kangaroo Island ‘one of earth’s last unspoilt refuges’”. It is.

Kangaroo Island is an intriguing place. It is geologically ancient and special. Being isolated from the rest of Australia for ten to fifteen thousand years, since the end of the last Ice Age, it has some of the world’s most unique wildlife. For example, many mainland species such as wombats don’t occur on the island. Other species were introduced in the 1920s, such as platypus, possums and koalas. KI is spared many feral animals such as rabbits, meaning many endemic flora and fauna species, threatened on the mainland, flourish here. Isolation on the island has led to the development of some interesting sub-species of wildlife. For example, the Eastern Grey Kangaroo has evolved into the Kangaroo Island Kangaroo (a tautology?): smaller darker, hairier and perhaps cuter than its cousin. The KI echidna is much lighter in colour than the mainland variant. Maybe it’s in-breeding?! Intriguingly there have been some extinctions. Explorers Matthew Finders and Nicholas Baudin both observed a new species of pigmy emu in 1802. For some reason unknown to science, these became extinct by about 1826, ten years before official settlement of the island. No-one knows why, but for once European settlers were probably not the cause.

KI’s history is similarly fascinating. Before the end of the Ice Age, it had been occupied by Indigenous Australians, but inexplicable this population became extinct or left, and from the end of the Ice Age, to the early Nineteenth Century, was unoccupied by humans. For mainland Indigenous Australians, Kangaroo Island was believed to be the hunting ground of their dead ancestors on their way to the Dreamtime.

In the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries it was the haunt of some desperate characters such as whalers and sealers with their kidnapped Tasmanian Aboriginal “wives”; escaped convicts; pirates and ship wreckers. Finally it was explored by Flinders and French explorer, Baudin, and officially settled by the British from 1836 to “clean up” the anti-social inhabitants and forestall the French..

My wife Dagmar and I drove from Melbourne, spending New Year’s Eve camping on the beach and drinking champagne at Kingston SE, South Australia. This was our first trip together for many years without our grown-up children, and was a bit like a second honeymoon! We took the two hour boat ferry from Winina Cove on the Fleurieu Peninsular to Kingscote, the picturesque little town that is KI’s administrative centre. The first night we stayed at American River, named for the American sealers and whalers who were based there about 1820. Apparently they were quite desperate characters. This is the one council camp site on the whole island that you can procure a hot shower. It is a beautiful spot with superb sunsets, dive and fishing boats and charters.

Near American River is Prospect Hill, named for the “prospect” or view of the island observed by Flinders when he climbed it in 1802. Today you can see the ribbon of road stretching east to the island’s other main town of Penneshaw on the Dudley Peninsular (where the locals are said to be born with six toes).

From there we went to the Cape Willoughby lighthouse with its magnificent views of the Southern Ocean. It is one of about half a dozen lighthouses established on the island from about 1850.

Life for lighthouse keepers and their families was extremely hard and remote from outside help. In the mid Nineteenth Century for example, the Cape Borda lighthouse keeper on the north-west coast of the island lost several of his children when they simply wandered off, never to be seen again. Such was the isolation.

The lighthouse keepers tending what were originally kerosene lamps and waiting four months for supplies and contact with the outside, trying to protect shipping on the treacherous “Great Circle Route” to the Australian colonies. The “Backstairs passage” separates the island from the mainland by a mere fifteen kilometres (enough to isolate the island since the end of the last Ice Age), and was to narrow approach for coastal shipping to Adelaide. The scores of shipwrecks along the coast are testament to the courage of the early migrants and the terror of the Southern Ocean. Many died but there are some amazing tales of miraculous survival, such as shipwrecked survivors walking days through unexplored bush to chance upon isolated settlements or die, subsisting on dead penguins and the like!

We moved to the southeast corner of the island to Wrecker’s Cove on D’Estrees Bay, named for the early pirates, at the end of the road in the Cape Gantheaume Wilderness National Park. All the French names on Kangaroo Island are testimony to Baudin’s early exploration. Wrecker’s Cove was pristine unspoilt wilderness. It had been an early whaling station, but now is a protected wild corner. We were the only souls for miles. We swam; saw wild eagles and goannas (monitor lizards) literally on the beach at the tide line. All showed little fear at out presence, perhaps being conscious of their highly protected status!

In the next days we visited picturesque Penneshaw. The town is somewhat out of place and time, being reminiscent of a transported Nineteenth Century Cornish village. We scuba dived the reefs at Baudin Beach; saw Australian Sea Lions and New Zealand Fur Seals in the wild and had numerous other adventures such as eating freshwater lobster (Marron) and sampling the local wine, honey and cheese. The island’s produce is superb.

After visiting the isolated Cape Borda lighthouse we found our way to Harvey’s Return. A great little campsite sheltering in the trees replete with wallabies and blue wrens, leads to a steep walking track to an isolated beach of caves, cliffs and interesting geology. The track is steep and follows the line of an old horse-powered tramway, the ruins of which you can still see in spots, built in the 1850s to supply the lighthouse. Three supply ships arrived a year. Nearby is a poignant graveyard.

From there we journeyed to the Flinders Chase National Park in the west, recovering from recent bushfires that destroyed some twenty percent of the islands forests, bushland and farmland. Although the fires could be said to be part of nature’s cycle, being started by several lightning strikes, we heard sad stories of kangaroos leaping off high cliffs to their deaths rather than burning to death; much wildlife killed and stock and property loss.

At Flinders Chase the two highlights were Admirals Arch, a magnificent natural structure with seals and sea-lions and the truly remarkable Remarkable Rocks. These are naturally weathered and sculptured monoliths on a stunning headland reminiscent of Henry Moore installation art, but fashioned by nature.

We then drove to the various northern beaches, such as Stokes Bay, where we walked through cave to get to the superlative beach where local KI kids had their swimming lessons, and to Western River Cove. Western River Cove is “gobsmackingly” gorgeous and isolated, accept for the occasional rock fisherman and dive boats anchored in the bay.

A few beers on the veranda of the Kingscote Ozone Hotel, a tastefully renovated old-style pub dating from the mid Nineteenth Century, our time on KI was nearly up. Leaving Kingscote on the ferry, we were treated to the spectacle of wild dolphins riding the bow wave of the ship travelling at about 40 kph. They can travel faster than this!

Landing back on the mainland was a little like returning back to the 21st Century with busy resort towns and new developments at places like Victor Harbour and Goolwa. We took the car ferry across the “Mighty Murray” River at Wellington, on Lake Alexandrina, near where the river flows to the sea. After a magnificent sunset on the Murray River, we drove through the Coorong National Park to the beautiful seaside town of Port Fairy in Victoria. Here we walked and saw wild wallabies and kangaroos and sampled the delights of the local catch, straight from the boat. The Youth Hostel at Port Fairy dated from 1844, and interestingly was named “Emoh” (or “Home” backwards, not necessarily a place for the emotionally challenged: “Emo”). We had a private apartment for just $85-00.

Then home via the famous Great Ocean Road: one of the great drives in the world, second only in my experience, to the Icefields Parkway in western Canada.

A fantastic time was had by us both. In the not too distant future we shall probably visit King Island in Bass Strait for our next trip. The isolated places and the “road less travelled” are to be highly recommended to relax and really discover more about yourself and your “better half”..

Travellers Tips.

KI Ferries are cheaper than Sealink.
Most council campsites are $5 to $15 a day operating mostly on an honesty system.
Swags are better than tents!
We drove a LWB 4x4 GQ Patrol. 4WD is better on some of the corrugated roads but not essential. High clearance is needed if you really want to “go bush”.
Fishing and diving are GREAT!!
Cooper Light beer is good!
.. a lot of tourists travelling (many Germans)..if you have time, spend at laest a week and avoid the tours and charters. Okay if you have limitted time, but they are expensive.

Additional photos below
Photos: 119, Displayed: 28


view from Prospect Hillview from Prospect Hill
view from Prospect Hill

road to Penneshaw on the Dudley Peninsular
Cape WilloughbyCape Willoughby
Cape Willoughby

the Eastern lighthouse protecting the Backstairs Passage
Wrecker's CoveWrecker's Cove
Wrecker's Cove

We were the solitary visitors nad had the place to ourselves, sharing it with wild osprey and goannas.

Goanna (monitor lizard) on the beach
Wrecker's CoveWrecker's Cove
Wrecker's Cove

Dead stingray
Wrecker's CoveWrecker's Cove
Wrecker's Cove

artistic (?) photography. A shell-fish encrusted buoy.
Wrecker's CoveWrecker's Cove
Wrecker's Cove

Osprey or sea eagle nest.

25th January 2008

just wonderful
Rowan, you did a great job with this blog! You are really a great photographer - very artistic and inspiring. I nearly feel being there myself. Looking forward to your next trip and the hopefully following blog.....Cheers Anja

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