Just off South Australia’s south eastern shore, there’s a remote and windswept island that’s a haven for wildlife. Kangaroo Island (known by its initials, KI) has just a tiny fraction of the population and development of Tasmania, and attracts relatively few visitors each year, and yet it’s Australia’s third largest island. We’d been considering spending some time there since the beginning of our trip, but after falling in love with Tasmania’s wildlife and learning that on some levels KI can rival it, there was no way we were going to miss it. Not even breaking down in the Flinders Ranges was going to stop us. After being rescued from the side of the road in Jamestown, we left the Landy in a garage in Adelaide, hired a 4WD, boarded the 45-minute car ferry across the Backstairs Passage, and settled into a dog-friendly cottage on the edge of KI’s Flinders Chase National Park.
It was a huge relief to escape the scorching summer temperatures of the outback, but KI turned out to be quite a challenging tourist destination in some ways, and there’s no doubt it would be a difficult place to live. That’s because although the island looks like a small dot on the map, the distances are big. That’s a common theme in Australia, it’s true, but KI still took us by surprise. We quickly learned that there’re very few shops or other facilities beyond the island’s small towns, all of which are concentrated in the island’s more developed east. We’d chosen to stay in the remote west, which meant we had to be very organised to avoid doing many hundreds of unnecessary kilometres in the car. But it was worth it – for us, KI’s highlights were all in the west, with its wild and untouched landscapes, sea mists, and deserted beaches.
KI is absolutely teeming with wildlife, partly because more than a third of the island has never been cultivated. It’s a genuine wilderness: raw, vast and pure. To me, from the moment I stepped foot on the island, the landscape felt edgy and at times even haunting, and it’s possible that the island’s history plays a part in that. The coast is renowned for being rugged and dangerous, and the island’s lighthouses harbour tragic tales of shipwrecks, violent feuds among keepers, and extreme hardship.
As we walked around the little museum at Cape Borda lighthouse on KI’s northwest tip, the slight sense of unease I’d been feeling since our arrival began to make sense. It was filled with tales of woe: strange and colourful characters; sad and lonely lives; mysterious deaths and disappearing children. The day we visited, the sea was relatively calm and the old whitewashed buildings looked picturesque against a perfect blue sky, but it was still hard to shake the sense of danger and loss imprinted on the landscape. I shuddered when the current lighthouse keeper told us how frightening it can be to see huge storms brewing out at sea. For him, and many of his predecessors, the biggest threat is dry lightning, which sometimes ignites the surrounding bushland and blocks the only route out.
It’s a similar story at another of the island’s picturesque lighthouses, at Cape du Couedic, on the island’s southwest, where a combination of extreme weather, a submerged reef and two offshore islands have been responsible for numerous deadly shipwrecks. But the site is also known as the location of a beautiful geological formation, known as the Admiral’s Arch, and it’s a wonderful place to watch New Zealand fur seals playing in the huge swells and falcons hovering in the blustery winds. But there’s a sign at the edge of the seal colony – a loud and battered place, where wild breakers crash around the rocks – that reads: “Bushfire Place of Last Resort. Last Resort Refuge”. Seeing it made me think of the saying: out of the frying pan, into the fire. Only in this case, it would be out of the frying pan and into the big blue beyond.
But enough of the dark side of wild island living. There’s plenty of light and laughter on KI too, and the wildlife really does live up to its reputation as some of Australia’s best. My favourite, by far, were the smiling sea lions of Seal Bay – I fell in love with them and would go back to KI just to see them again. Unfortunately for us, access to the beach where they live is tightly controlled by the parks department, and visits have to be short and sweet. I could have spent hours with them, and I confess I wondered if I’d be missed if I slipped away for my own little (um, let’s be honest…long!) private tour. But our guide watched me like a hawk, and every time I lagged behind with my camera, she waved to me to catch up. Still, I loved it. The friendly sea lions, which came quite close and even followed us at times, posed beautifully, rolling onto their backs, hugging each other with their flippers, touching noses, and diving in and out of the surf.
I’d include KI’s kangaroos on my list of highlights, too. We were lucky enough to have a family of them living close to our accommodation at Roo Lagoon, and others that hung out in the hills around our closest beach, the beautiful Snellings Bay. They’re such gorgeous creatures, and have evolved to look quite different from their mainland cousins. They’re darker – chocolate brown – and their ears are white and fluffy. Like the wombats of Cradle Mountain, these guys look like they’ve hopped out of a Disney cartoon, and they seem quite confident around humans. In fact, they’re a little bit too confident, and you need to be careful everywhere you drive on the island. We had some scary moments, especially at dusk, when KI’s roos become camouflaged against the surrounding bush.
We ended our week on KI with a sunset picnic at the Remarkable Rocks. Of all KI’s wild and dramatic landscapes, the Remarkable Rocks stood out the most. We first glimpsed it from Cape du Couedic, from where this strange geological phenomenon looks like an ancient castle on the hill.
It’s hard to describe the impact it had on us, but from the moment we caught sight of it, we were under its spell. On our last night on the island, it was an almost spiritual experience watching the sun setting behind the colossal red rocks, dark mist rising up from the sea, and a hazy moon beaming down from a starless sky. The feeling it created is captured in a verse from the poem, “The Sea Spirit”, by Lucy Maud Montgomery:
When moonlight glimmers dim
I pass in the path of the mist,
Like a pale spirit by spirits kissed.
At dawn I chant my own weird hymn,
And I dabble my hair in the sunset’s rim,
And I call to the dweller along the shore
With a voice of gramarye evermore.
Ki is a strange and wonderful place, filled with darkness and light, sorrow and laughter. And possibly, sea spirits, good and bad. It left us with mixed feelings: on one level, we wished we could stay longer, to spend more time among the island’s outstanding wildlife and breath taking scenery. But on another, we were quite relieved to be moving on – we had had a taste of truly wild and remote living, and we weren’t convinced we could cope with such isolation for long periods. So, we won’t be responding to the job ad that my school friend Trudy sent me; we’ve no plans to become lighthouse keepers on a wild and deserted island off Australia’s south coast. Not for the time being, anyway.