Island hopping Kangaroo Island
Travel writer Mary Lussiana discovers adventure abounds on Australia’s Kangaroo Island.
The first time I went to Australia, I had never heard of the condition Synaesthesia: the phenomenon where people see abstract concepts, such as numbers or words, as colours.
But when I did, it struck me that while the name might derive from ancient Greece, it is never more apparent than Down Under. The country is a shock of colour, permeating every sense with its deep earthy reds, the full palette of brown to ochre, shades of green, and an entirely indigenous transparency of turquoise.
Colours seem entirely without limit on the Great Barrier Reef: this magnificent underwater world teems with 1,500 different species of vividly coloured tropical fish, creating the ultimate ‘rainbow family’. Located in the Coral Sea off the coast of northeast Australia, Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest living structure, incorporating more than 2,900 single reef systems that support a dizzying array of marine life. Visible from space, this 2,600-kilometre-long underwater backbone also includes around 900 islands, many of which it is possible to stay on.
Returning to the reef this summer, I was amazed anew. Having always previously stayed on the mainland, sailing out to the reef on day trips, this time I stayed on Hayman Island: a tiny 4km-long powder puff that is the most northerly of the Whitsunday Islands. It offered a completely different perspective. Not only was it a richer experience being closer to the reef, but the chance to immerse myself in what is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World was both thrilling and inspiring. Snorkelling on the outer reef, sunlight filtered through the crystal-clear waters dappling the blue coral, glancing off the pink and purple parrot fish, catching the Hermes orange clown fish and illuminating the handsome, midnight blue, surgeon fish.
And it wasn’t just fish that I found on the reef, the islands are also home to kookaburras, Australia’s tree kingfishers famous for their rich, uninhibited laugh. There’s also Proserpine rock wallabies, venturing out at dusk, as do the fruit bats, plus white cockatoos, painted lorikeets and blue tiger butterflies. At the fringes of all this spectacular, colourful wildlife lie pure white sands and turquoise waters.
Island hopping is not the usual way to explore Australia and that’s a shame: Australia has hundreds of islands, each with a distinct character all of their own. I was actually island hopping on a pretty grand scale though, as stepping from the watery wonders of the Barrier Reef, I jumped on a plane south to Adelaide and from there onto Kangaroo Island, another short 25-minute / 112km mile hop by small plane.
The contrast with the powdery paradise I had just left could not have been greater. At 4,400 km2, Kangaroo Island is Australia’s third largest (after Tasmania and Melville Island). It is an island slice of Outback: my first sight was of a long straight road, bordered by the occasional termite hill and endless gum trees stretching into infinity, with not a soul in sight. “Don’t drive between dusk and dawn”, a local guide later warned me, “it’s too dangerous”. And indeed when I went out on a night walk, I had plenty of company. From possums chasing each other along the branches of those gum trees as koalas watched sleepily from the treetops, to sooty kangaroos and tammar wallabies, all the inhabitants seemed to be out to take the night air.
The abundance of wildlife is mainly due to the fact that no foxes, rabbits or dingoes ever made it across the 14-kilometre-wide Backstairs Passage from the main land, so native animals have been left to breed with few indigenous predators. They far outnumber the 4,600 humans, with the wallabies alone numbering close to a million and the seals on the south coast giving birth to 20,000 pups in 2013 alone. It’s such a rare pleasure, coming from overcrowded Europe, to feel the wide empty spaces of Kangaroo Island and I revelled in the completely unspoilt landscape. Geology and evolution and nature could not have done a better job here.
Along the 500 kilometres of coastline, different colonies of creatures have their homes. In the north of the island, little penguins nest. But their numbers are diminishing, due – locals think – to the voracious appetite of New Zealand fur seals, whose colony on the southwesterly
tip of the island is rapidly expanding. When not out feeding at sea, they gather underneath Admiral’s Arch: a spectacular rocky coastal feature created by thousands of years of weather and sea erosion. The forces of elemental nature similarly helped form the aptly named Remarkable Rocks nearby. Extraordinary in shape, the granite outcrop perches precariously on the cliff’s edge with the roaring sea beneath and could pass as a skilful modern sculpture in any museum. Lying within the Flinders Chase National Park, this whole area has been granted sanctuary status, in order to preserve endangered species, such as the rare Cape Barren geese, koala bears – which were brought here from the mainland in the 1920s – and platypuses.
A little further along these shores is Seal Bay, where a colony of enticingly chubby sea lions flourishes. Both the sea lions and the seals are well protected on this southern coast by the endless rocks (as many a shipwreck is testament to), which have prevented the devastation that so many colonies suffered when sealing was legal, as well as affording a certain amount of protection from great white sharks, that are rather partial to seals.
While nature is what Kangaroo Island does best, food comes a very close second. The island is home to the oldest bee sanctuary in the world, which dates from the 1880s when a strain of Ligurian honey bees was introduced. They produce a deliciously full-flavoured sugar gum honey, which is dense and beautifully amber in colour. It is widely used in the island’s restaurants where you might be tempted by a Kangaroo Island honey mead mousse or a local caramelised honey cream. Also not to be missed are marrons (freshwater crayfish) and Kangaroo Island abalones (edible sea snails), grown in the translucently clear local waters. To accompany the food is a burgeoning wine industry with 30 growers now utilising the temperate climate of the island and producing some exquisite bottles.
Try the Islander Estate Wines, from a vineyard that Frenchman Jacques Lurton planted in 2000 having fallen in love with the island and its vinicultural potential. And don’t ignore Kangaroo Island Spirits, South Australia’s first boutique distillery where they bottle Kis Wild Gin: the very flavour of the island made from 12 different botanicals, including boobialla – a native juniper-like berry. The main island road will take you past Island Pure, not far from the capital, Kingscote, where sheep’s milk is made into yoghurt, feta, halloumi, ricotta and manchego-type cheeses. Here you can take a tour, taste the cheeses and see the happy flock – referred to as ‘our girls’ – being milked. And that perhaps is the key to why the food tastes so good and the wildlife flourishes on Kangaroo Island: one of the few things they don’t have is stress. It might not be that far from the mainland, but life here is a million miles away from the hurly-burly of our electronically dependent existence. There is still the time to stop and stare, to breathe the air, and to hear the laugh of the kookaburra or the scurry of possums up a gum tree.
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