Enchanted isle

  • Travel
  • Saturday, 20 Mar 2010


City folks, take note. If you’ve never come across a wild animal before, Kangaroo Island is your best bet. After all, it isn’t called the Galapagos of Australia for nothing.

Sshh, I think I hear something,” whispered my nature guide Rob Ellson.

We were prowling the Aussie bushland, trying to make as little noise as possible, when he turned to me with an upraised palm and made this announcement. Like a couple of out-of-place street performers, we froze in unison.

But it was too late.

The snap of fallen twigs beneath our feet had alerted a group of wallabies nearby. They turned to stare unblinkingly at us, the big, bumbling intruders.

Suddenly, a heavy flapping of wings resounded through the sugar-gum trees. Less than a metre away, a flash of black and red streaked across the sweeping blue sky. It was the glossy black and red-tailed cockatoo, a bird so spectacular and rare that I was told there is only a one in 25 chance of sighting it.

“I can’t stress enough how special this moment is,” says Ellson, who works for Exceptional Kangaroo Island tour agency. “There are only 323 of its kind in the world, and they’re all found here, on this island.”

The average Malaysian would have zipped off to the nearest lottery stand after Ellson’s remark, but Kangaroo Island (or, as the locals call it, KI), the third largest island in Australia after Tasmania and Melville Island, has a way of holding you back. It is also the type of place that possesses the magic to coax you into embracing a different way of being, as its 4,500 residents would attest to, after many of them shunned their cosmopolitan lifestyles to build homes and raise families here.

But in addition to its human inhabitants, 1.5 million sheep, one million Tammar Wallabies, thousands of koalas, tiger snakes, goannas, possums, echidnas, platypus, bandicoots, dunnarts, parrots and cockatoos, raptors, little penguins, water birds, seals and sea lions, all call this 4,300sq km of pristine wilderness home.

That is an impressive count, considering that, in 1836, the first English settlers found that life on KI was far less idyllic because of its “dense scrub, limited water and poor soil”. Many fell ill and died, and a large number of them moved to Adelaide, shifting the capital of South Australia from Kingscote, the main town on KI, to Adelaide.

But there are also many who saw what others could not see and, as a result, persevered by turning KI into a thriving farming community. Little did they realise that their humble abode would one day make it into the “1,001 Places To See Before You Die” list, or that their descendants would attract great envy from weary city dwellers far and wide.

An epicurean’s escapade

When Kangaroo Islanders speak of home, it’s usually melodramatic — “I came here for a holiday two years ago and discovered that I was in love. So I stayed . . . permanently,” says Martin Barter, employee of Andermel Marron Farm and Two Wheeler Creek Wines.

It’s never simply “I like this place”.

As a fourth generation descendant of the Ellson family who migrated to KI from Plymouth, England, my nature guide was also equally smitten with life on the island, despite having already spent his entire 36 years of existence there.

“After spending some time on the mainland, I start missing home. I miss the sea. And when I see it for the very first time upon my arrival, it’s like somebody has stuck a syringe in my arm and given me a shot of adrenaline,” he says.

The sea is, after all, a place where most of KI’s pleasure-seeking residents spend most of their days since there are no shopping malls, cinemas or nightclubs on the island. Even ubiquitous fast-food chains like McDonald’s do not exist here.

But if you could get your food fresh from the ocean, why bother with mass-produced burgers at all?

It has, for Ellson, almost become a daily ritual to rise at the break of dawn and dive the sea for food. And we’re not just talking about any food, but oysters, lobsters, scallops and practically anything else you can find in the sea. One of South Australia’s perennial favourites, the King George Whiting fish, is also available by the shiploads here, and Ellson was nice enough to throw one onto the griller for me.

You’ve never tasted a fish so sublime.

Not everything is for the taking, of course. There are limits imposed on certain catches, like three lobsters to a resident per day, for instance. It is also illegal to net a marron (a species of freshwater crayfish) and residents are obliged to throw them back into the sea if they did.

Local authorities take matters of sustainable fishing and wildlife conservation very seriously. Almost half the island has never been cleared, and national parks account for a third of the land.

Just to give you an idea of how big this is, the Flinders Chase National Park — which contains the Remarkable Rocks (surf-sculpted boulders that resemble a Salvador Dali painting), Admiral’s Arch (where ancient tree roots spiral downwards from a limestone archway, frozen into stalactites by time) and Cape du Couedic (home to the New Zealand fur seals) — occupies a landmass larger than Singapore itself.

And that’s just one national park.

Perhaps this is why it has won a number of noteworthy tourism awards over the years, from National Geographic Traveller’s Award for ‘‘The No.1 Island in Asia Pacific’’ to Travelling in Australia’s Award for ‘‘The Best Australian Eco Destination.’’

For first-time visitors to KI, another big attraction is, undoubtedly, the Seal Bay Conservation Park, a sanctuary for the world’s rarest species of sea lions. It is also the state’s largest Australian sea lion colony because the park’s isolation had made it inaccessible to sealers in the past. It was there that Ellson and I settled among these fascinating creatures and soaked in our share of beach idylls.

Nearby, a pup was calling out to its mother as its buddies lolled lazily about on the fine, bone-white sand. As if right on cue, an adult sea lion bounded out of the water after three continuous days of hunting out at sea.

“Young pups are naturally curious and it’s not unusual for them to crawl up to you to snuggle against your feet,” advises Ellson. “If they do, just stay where you are. Try not to move, because we don’t want to alter their behaviour. On the other hand, you need to keep a safe distance from the adult sea-lions because they can get aggressive.”

Previously, visitors were able to roam freely among the colony but this had adversely affected the colony. These days, visitors are only allowed on the beach by going on a guided tour.

Even so, there’s no guarantee that the sea lions will want to get to know you better. I got close enough to one, but he was sprawled unconsciously like someone with a Saturday morning hangover. Bummer.

Walk on the wild side

Since there are no public buses or cabs on the island, the only way to get around is to hire a car or go on a tour. As Ellson chugged from one destination to another and I flew about like a rag-doll in the backseat, it became clear why a 4WD is necessary (if not for one’s comfort, then for one’s sanity).

Driving on the roads of KI is an experience by itself. Many of the roads are unpaved, and — since wildlife roam freely on KI — marsupials like ‘roos and possums tend to wander onto the roads at dawn and dusk. So unless you want to run Skippy over, you had better stay alert.

It doesn’t take long to get caught up in the local tradition of waving at passing cars either, which supposedly dates back to horse and cart days. To look like a local, be sure to raise just your pointer finger and do what they call a “Kangaroo Island Wave”.

“It’s a tradition that locals have carried on and visitors have embraced wholeheartedly, although some of them tend to stare blankly at us in the beginning,” muses Ellson.

Most times, the island feels like a different planet altogether. The sea, I noticed, is in four different shades of blue. The landscape is an awe-inspiring composition of shifting sand dunes, soaring cliffs, gargantuan lava rocks, blinding white salt lakes and miles of rolling green pastures.

You see, tourism may be a huge contributor towards KI’s economy, but agriculture plays a role that is no less significant. According to the website Islands of Australia, while large-scale agriculture has almost disappeared (as the poor soil made it impossible to compete with huge mainland farms), tiny and specialised “hobby farms” are experiencing a renaissance on the island.

These farms explore new ways of producing small crops of both traditional and unusual products, such as lavender, olive oil, sheep farming, dairy farming, marron (crayfish) farming and beekeeping.

But this sleepy island did not come with its own set of problems. The TV programme Island Life, on ABC claims that the changing face of farming brings problems for fauna and flora.

“These little fellas may seem all cute and cuddly, but they’ve become a cause for concern among farmers,” says Ellson, wagging his finger at a wild koala perched on a branch of a eucalyptus tree.

“Koalas consume half a kilo of leaves per day. See how the top half of the tree is almost bare? It means that it’s dying. Now imagine if you have 500 koalas. That’s what they found on one of the properties.”

Like a host of other animals on KI, 18 koalas were introduced from mainland Australia in the 1920s for conservation purposes. A population boom caused these figures to multiply rapidly and, by 1998, there were a total of 35,000 registered koalas on the island.

It doesn’t come as a surprise, then, for one to learn that the authorities had recommended culling to keep the number of koalas under control. But when it was announced, an international furore erupted, culminating in Japan’s threat to boycott Australian goods.

These days, authorities have employed a handful of koala catchers with the requisite strength and knowledge to get the koalas out of the tree and into the vet’s to be sterilised.

“It’s not an easy job,” says Ellson. “It’s impossible to pry them from the trees. You’d have to encourage them to get down by themselves because they’re much tougher than they look.”

In fact, a koala is so tough that, during the 2007 bushfires on the island, two of Ellson’s friends traversed the bush in search of animal carcasses but had instead stumbled upon a healthy koala clinging to a charred tree! True story.

Bushfires, it is said, remain one of the biggest natural hazards on the island. The devastating bushfires that occurred in 2007 were caused by a series of lightning strikes, resulting in 95,000ha of land being destroyed in one afternoon.

It isn’t all doom and gloom however. Any visitor to the island will notice a profusion of yacca trees, a bizarrely shaped plant that, I was told, thrives with a good burn.

Think that’s unusual? Wait till you hear about the names given to some places on the island. Emu Bay has no emus on it. The Snake Lagoon has no snakes either. As for the American River, well . . . there doesn’t seem to be one (an American or a river) around for miles.

Nobody really knows why these spots are named so, but rumour has it that, long ago, the island may have been a lot richer in wildlife. Though many of them are extinct by now, there are still a number of animals that thrive on KI since they do not have natural predators like dingoes, foxes or rabbits.

Not only that, many of them have evolved differently from their mainland relatives, like the Kangaroo Island kangaroo, which is smaller, darker and furrier in comparison.

With so many different types of animals crammed into one space, one might wonder why Kangaroo Island is named after kangaroos and not, say, seals?

The story, according to Ellson, goes like this: When Captain Matthew Flinders explored the coast of South Australia, he noticed that no sooner had he approached the animals than they scurried away. But when he arrived in Kangaroo Island in 1802 after months out at sea, he saw a group of ‘roos standing there, eyeing him without fear.

In his journal, Flinders recorded that he killed some kangaroos for fresh meat since several of his crewmen were dying of diseases brought about by malnutrition.

“And in honour of this life-saving meal, I named this south land Kangaroo Island,” he concluded with a flourish.

There are multiple daily ferry and air departures from Adelaide and the Fleurieu Peninsula. Regional Express (REX) flies to KI’s main town, Kingscote. Alternatively, you can hop aboard a ferry operated by Sealink.

ACCOMMODATION Budget: A$104 (RM317) for a standard en-suite room at Casuarina Coastal Units.

Splurge: A$900 (RM2,744) for an all-inclusive stay at the Flinder’s Suite of Southern Ocean Lodge.

TRIVIA Kangaroo Island only has 4,500 permanent residents, despite being seven times the size of Singapore.

■ Exceptional Kangaroo Island is an award-winning tour company that offers luxury, all-inclusive tours of Kangaroo Island. For more information, visit www.exceptionalkangarooisland.com or call +61 8 8553 9119.

Related Stories: Food, glorious food

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