Kangaroo Island: where the wild things are

“Some of you want to know why I wear waders while I’m feeding pelicans.”

John Ayliffe is hemmed in by 50 hungry pelicans, their beaks all pointed at him like 50 pairs of garden shears.

“Well, it’s because only a complete idiot would attempt to feed these things while wearing a kilt.”

Kangaroo Island has garnered a worldwide reputation as a wildlife destination of note, a place where Australia’s marsupials have flourished in the wild owing to the absence of foxes and rabbits.

So why on earth would you start your visit with pelicans – moreover, pelicans being fed by a human being?

Well, only a complete idiot would miss it. ‘John the Pelican Man’ has been emptying his bin of fishing offal on Kingscote Wharf on Kangaroo Island for nearly 20 years.

He’s as informative as he is entertaining (did you know pelicans can soar 2.5km up?) and invokes the loudest, most cacophonous feeding frenzy you’re ever likely to see, as well as shouts of unbridled joy from the audience seated on the wharf.

The little 15 minute show embodies what KI is all about: the beauty of nature and the simplicity of life on one of Australia’s largest islands.

And yes, it’s large. Smart visitors start by getting their head around the size of Kangaroo Island: from east to west it measures 155km long (effectively the distance from the Opera House to Newcastle) and 55km at its widest.

With that size comes diverse landscapes, including sandy estuaries, towering cliffs, thick native forests and low-lying wetlands, all circled by 450km of coastline and the wild waters of the Southern Ocean. There’s also a string of must-see natural attractions including Flinders Chase, Remarkable Rocks, Little Sahara and Seal Bay.

The trick is to give yourself at least four days – and then, rather like a pelican, open wide and scoop up as much as you can.

Kangaroo Island life

At the last count, KI had 4500 residents, half of them living in the capital Kingscote. The next largest town is Penneshaw, where the mainland car ferry lands from Cape Jervis. Its population is less than 300.

Kingscote is the point of arrival by air, the place for most service providers and headquarters for many fishing charters and tour operators. Don’t be in a hurry to leave: this charming town has a lively vibe in summer, a great pub (The Ozone), an interesting museum, and of course, nightly pelican feeding.

The island’s history is quite dramatic. Aboriginal middens suggest people lived on KI until some 2,000 years ago when they disappeared.

Today, mainland indigenous peoples still know the island as “Karta, meaning “the Land of the Dead”, hinting that something didn’t go well.

People next stepped ashore in the early 1800s, principally brigands, escaped convicts and sealers who lived lives of unerring badness.

Then, in July 1836, the Duke of York dropped settlers and established Reeves Point, Australia’s first free European settlement. This however was abandoned six months later for want of resources, and a surveying party found the site for Adelaide. You can learn more in Hope Cottage Museum housed in an 1850s building north of Kingscote.

Over the ensuing decades the island became a place of fishing, whaling, subsistence agriculture and salvage: some 60 ships were wrecked on the fierce shorelines, leading to the construction of three lighthouses, all still standing and attractions in their own right.

Today, tourism plays a big part in the life of the island, as does grain and livestock farming. It’s also home to valuable fishing operations (exports include lobster, oysters and green lipped abalone) and a large fraternity of artists whose work you’ll encounter at cafes and studios right across KI.

Protected environment

You may have heard KI being called ‘Australia’s Galapagos’ for the fact of its large populations of Australian animals.

It’s certainly not difficult to see wildlife in the wild: the KI kangaroo (an endemic sub-species) and Tammar wallabies feed widely at dusk and dawn; koalas frequent a few celebrated forests of eucalypt, and even sand goannas and echidnas can be seen with some regularity.

If isolation served to protect these populations, they’re now sustained by vast tracts of national park which cover a full third of the island. This includes magnificent Flinders Chase which protects 330 square kilometers of forest, creeks and coast.

Flinders Chase is home to two of the island’s most striking sights, Remarkable Rocks (weird house-sized boulders perched high on a wind-lashed cliff) and Admiral’s Arch (more rock formations, only this time sculpted by waves, and home to a colony of fur seals).

Both formations are seen on a spectacular new walking experience called the KI Wilderness Trail.

The five-day walk starts at the Flinders Visitors Centre, taking in gorges, lagoons, cliffs, rivers, beaches, bays and Cape du Couedic, home to one of the historic lighthouses. It offers almost uninterrupted wilderness; at time of writing, there are plans to feature four dedicated overnight camping areas.

One of the island’s most famous attractions is Seal Bay, a stunning, if badly named rocky cove that’s home to a major breeding colony of Australian sea lions.

You can view the basking animals from a timber boardwalk that descends from an interpretive centre down through dunes onto the beach. If you want to get closer to the animals, park rangers lead regular walking tours on the white sands.

Still with sand, don’t miss Little Sahara close to Seal Bay: this series of stupendous dunes is so large that you can happily toboggan down them for hours.

At the bigger end of things, southern right whales and humpbacks show up in KI waters from May to October.

Super-keen naturalists are also drawn to tick-and-click the endemic Glossy Black Cockatoo and an endemic grass tree found in the rugged northwest corner; the prickly Kangaroo Island conestick (as well as 60 different species of orchid) keep wildflower lovers happy.

If you haven’t the time to scout for wild wildlife, there are native animals at Paul’s Place Wildlife Sanctuary; Raptor Domain is home to rescued birds of prey and puts on a surprisingly good show every day.

Beaches and seas, food and wine

For many people – especially South Australians – KI is about beaches that offer plenty of solace and just enough of life’s little luxuries.

Beaches like Vivonne Bay and Stokes Bay are legendary, offering soft sands and sparkling seas with sublime hinterlands of pasture and bush.

Vivonne Bay is home to a fine outdoor adventure company called Outdoor Action and a well-regarded café calledRustic Blue.

At Stokes Bay, you’ll be amazed to emerge into the protected cove to be greeted by the Rockpool Café, a place where you can actually eat with your feet in the sand. Massive Emu Bay near Kingscote is fishing central: each night, the whopper cusp of sand becomes a highway of 4WDs heading out to hook a feed of fresh whiting.

KI is blessed with some of the finest local produce in the world, harvested on both land and sea. Island specialties include marron (sweet freshwater crayfish) served at the Andermel Café with wine from neighbouring Two Wheeler Creek Wines; prized Ligurian honey from a bee found nowhere else; and sheep’s cheeses, including haloumi and kefalotiri, from Island Pure Sheep Dairy.

Alas, the island’s first-class ingredients aren’t well matched by restaurants though you can eat well if you know where to look.

KI Tru Thai  recently opened in American River to loud cheers (locals obviously hanging out for some authentic Thai food using local produce).

Willoughby’s Zest & Thyme licensed café – complete with sea views – checks all the boxes for its home style cooking.

And Dudley Wines cellar door restaurant gets the trifecta with good food, sea views and wine tasting. Awesome fish and chips – as well as fresh seafood – can be had out of Penneshaw’s gourmet seafood shop, Fish. The town is also home to a cooking school, Kangaroo Island Source.

KI is one of the state’s youngest wine regions, with some three dozen growers and a number of producers laying on cellar doors and restaurants.

A great example is Chapman River Wines near Antechamber Bay, operating out of a lively tin shed where they serve wine, food and art. Also, check out Kangaroo Island Spirits – a distillery reaping all sorts of honours for its premium gin and liqueurs.

The island’s many farm gates and cellar doors offer free tastings for the simple reason most people can’t resist taking local produce home. A word of caution if you’re flying: excess baggage costs a lot.

If you’re in any doubt, picture John the Pelican Man in a kilt – and beware the large bill.

Max Anderson - Published March 2016
Quick Facts 
Population Approx 1.2 million
Area 870 km2
Time Zone GMT +9.5
Languages English (official)
Currency Australian dollar (AUD)
Electricity 220–240v 50Hz
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