As someone who grew up and who spends his working life in metropolitan Australia, there really is something quite special about waking up on a rural island not far from the mainland, opening the door on what is very comfortable accommodation and glancing into the nearby eucalyptus trees to spot a mother koala and her baby munching on Manna Gum for their breakfast.
The South Australian Tourism Commission recently put considerable resources into promoting Kangaroo Island as a major tourist destination. The, "Let Yourself Go," campaign worked; my interest was sparked and I wanted to experience this wilderness wonderland for myself. So it was with significant excitement that I signed up for a two day/one night KI Adventure Tour with Sealink, the principle operator for the island.
After a relatively calm ferry crossing from Cape Jervis on the South Australian mainland to Penneshaw on the island via the body of water known as the Backstairs Passage, I stepped foot on the island proper to be greeted by Johnny or JR as he prefers to be called, who introduced himself as the tour guide. Interestingly, I was the only Australian on the tour; the rest of the group were European from Germany, Switzerland and Italy.
Over the next two days we would immerse ourselves in many of the attractions that KI had to offer. We were introduced to typical Australiana, such as a sheep shearing demonstration with Rob the local farmer and visited a traditional eucalyptus oil distillery at Emu Ridge. But I was on the Island to witness wildlife in their natural environment, after all this was the destination that boasts 19 mammals and 250 bird species, where one-third of the island is a national park and even in the townships there are no traffic lights.
In many respects, the endemic fauna were able to flourish in the same way as the animals do on the Galapagos; thriving in isolation without fear of predators. Indeed the Island was named by the famous British explorer Matthew Flinders in March 1802 after enjoying a meal of the local Kangaroo. It was however the French explorer Nicolas Baudin, who mapped much of the island. While it's always great to spot Kangaroos hopping around (the endemic species are known as the Kangaroo Island Kangaroo), I wanted to see some slightly more exotic animals; and on the first afternoon my wishes were granted.
Johnny drove the bus towards the Seal Bay Visitors Centre. The group assembled at the ticket office to be escorted onto the beach by a friendly National Park guide; our primary rule was that we needed to stay together clumped as a group. We walked along the boardwalk towards the sand; the beach presented itself and sure enough, dozens of endangered wild Australian seal-lions were basking in the glorious South Australian sunshine. We strolled up the beach, to see a mother with her child, while another young seal was frolicking in the waves. We chanced upon another baby who was going from seal to seal 'kissing' them in an effort to find her mother.
Observing sea-lions enjoying themselves in their natural habitat is a wonderful experience, but on this occasion the event was made all the more heartening because between 1803 and 1836 this species was almost hunted to extinction. Today they remain extremely rare; around 1000 of the 15,000 animals that live in the wild are found at this conservation park. Nationally 85 per cent reside on the South Australian coast. Hopefully through research and observation, scientists can protect these astonishing creatures.
The other major wildlife experience took place on the morning of the second day. New Zealand Fur Seals have made themselves very much at home at Admirals Arch on Cape du Couedic in the Flinders Chase National Park, in the far west of the island. These stunning marine animals certainly looked very comfortable. Some seals were lounging about enjoying the sun's rays, others were jumping in and out of the water and there were youngsters playing together. This is what I'd come to the island to experience and I definitely wasn't disappointed.
Interestingly, koalas were never native to Kangaroo Island. They were introduced in the 1920s to safeguard the animal from extinction on the mainland when disease, hunting and dimensing habitat were threatening their survival. So my morning welcome by a hungry mother and her child is probably not a strictly authentic KI experience. It is therefore a tad ironic that it was in the Koala Sanctuary on Hanson Bay that I managed to corner Johnny to ask his views on the island.
"I first discovered Kangaroo Island in 1974 on a school trip from Adelaide. Later we bought the holiday shack - it was all fishing, we had a little dingy, Christmas on the beach, it was nice. And the wonderful thing is that it hasn't changed much compared to the mainland; that's why I really like it. It's the last frontier, almost like going back in time a bit. The freedom, the nature, the wilderness, it's untouched. It's like an open zoo," said Johnny.
"I love showing other people the island. What's best is when people come straight off the plane, they haven't been to Australia before and they come directly onto this tour and I love it when people go, "Wow" or "Oh My God." I love to see the joy in people, especially kids, they love it too."
Johnny said that while the tour has a healthy dose of adventure it still offers a comfortable holiday experience. He called it flashpacking. Even with a backpacker feel, our accommodation at the Vivonne Bay Lodge was extremely comfortable. The timber deck adjoining the rooms provided a glorious setting for drinks and dinner.
Overall, the tour was perfectly paced and offered terrific variety - one minute we were spotting koalas in the trees, the next we were chilling on Snelling Beach, or tobogganing down sand dunes at the aptly named, Little Sahara. The following hour we'd be hiking through spectacular scenery to the Remarkable Rocks and then later we'd have the option of watching pelicans being feed by John The Pelican Man, near the Island's capital, Kingscote. There was even free time at the end of the first day; some people grabbed a kayak to paddle up a local river, while others heading down to the nearby beach.
In between each activity, Johnny managed to keep the whole bus entertained with his anecdotes, informative commentary and mix of classic tunes. He certainly loved sharing the island that he discovered almost forty years ago with tourists who have all come to experience Kangaroo Island for themselves.