"Stop the car!" I yelled. Obligingly, Craig stamped on the brakes and I jumped out and started to run back down the road, panic prickling the skin on the back of my neck.
"Please," I whispered to myself, "please don’t be a figment of my imagination."
The Australian continent is vast and varied – and South Australia can get rather overlooked. It lacks an iconic opera house, a harbour bridge or a Bondi Beach.
There’s no Great Barrier Reef, no Uluru, no Kakadu. But it is perhaps the lack of headline attractions in South Australia that makes it so attractive for someone like me, who tries to avoid mainstream tourism.
The state capital, Adelaide, is no Sydney or Melbourne, but it has plenty of charm and is easy to get around, with lots of quirky independent shops and good food to sample. It also plays host to the maddest, most energetic fringe festival outside Edinburgh.
An hour or so drive away – just down the road in Australian terms – is the Barossa, which does make it on to some of the top Australian attraction lists.
One Glorious Greedy Morning
The road winds pleasingly through sweeping green hills and serried ranks of vines, giving the impression from a distance that the landscape has been upholstered with corduroy.
South Australia is justifiably well known for its wine, and there are plenty of places where you are encouraged to plop yourself down on a bar stool and swirl fragrant liquids about in a glass with a knowing air.
Food is as big a deal as wine in the Barossa, and the area has become something of a hub for foodies and artisan cooks and producers. I spent a gloriously greedy morning at a local farmers’ market, wandering contentedly between rows of stalls piled with the freshest vegetables and fruit.
There were cakes and chocolate, spiced nuts, juices, specialist coffees and irresistible Berkshire pork sausages being cooked to crispy perfection in one corner. But my most memorable Barossa meal was not about the food. It was about the company.
My husband, Ludo, and I were picked up from our hotel and driven 20 minutes down the road to a lay‑by. Opposite was the entrance to what appeared to be a sort of suburban nature reserve, with well-manicured paths and helpful signs showing the various walking routes.
Eucalyptus trees cast dappled shade and perfumed the early morning air. A jogger ran past in pink Lycra. Unfamiliar birds chirruped and called.
A slight rustle caught my attention and I looked around. What was that darker shadow among the other shadows in the undergrowth? It shifted again, allowing sunlight to fall across its body as it made its unhurried way through the trees and across the path right in front of us.
Taking Tea With Some Locals
I turned, grinning, towards our guide. “You wait until we get around the corner,” he said, and sure enough we came to a patch of open grassland where 20 or so kangaroos of all ages and sizes were grazing in the benign golden warmth of an early morning sun.
Our guide spread a blanket on the ground and put out plates, glasses and baskets of pastries. “Tea?” he asked, proffering a cup, and the nearest kangaroo raised her head graciously as if to accept.
Much of Australia’s wildlife is unique. Nowhere else in the world will you find a koala, or a wombat or be able to have breakfast with a kangaroo in the wild. And the wildlife here is gratifyingly easy to see without having to go to a game reserve or sit in the undergrowth for hours on end.
Cycling through the Flinders Ranges, I admired the rugged beauty of Wilpena Pound and almost fell off my bike when an emu emerged from the bush and accompanied us along the track for a stretch.
Wedge-tailed eagles swooped and soared in the sky above us and it was here that we managed a glimpse of the rare and delightfully named yellow-footed rock wallaby. This little creature hides itself with remarkable effectiveness in craggy rocks, its ringed tail and surprisingly vivid colouring providing better camouflage than I could have thought possible, thanks to the hard shadows contrasting with the squinting brightness of the sunlight.
In the rugged red landscape of the Eyre Peninsula we camped, or rather glamped, in great style, with owls and stars providing the after-dark entertainment and not one, but three species of kangaroo keeping us amused by day.
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Sea Lions Are Better Swimmers Than Us
Out in the vastness of the open bush, shimmering with heat haze in a pleasing cinematographic way, the grey kangaroo, the same species that had been our breakfast companion, was joined by the smaller, more elegant red kangaroo and among the crags and rocks we met the shy euro, a thickset, slightly thuggish-looking wallaroo that would not have looked out of place in a boxing ring.
At the coast another treat awaited us, this time underwater. Australia’s coastal waters harbour various creatures – sharks, box jellyfish, saltwater crocodiles – that few would wish to have a surprise encounter with, but Baird Bay offered us the chance to swim alongside sea lions.
These elegant, acrobatic swimmers seem to relish human company, or perhaps just enjoy the chance to show off their infinitely finer aquatic skills.
But it was on the appropriately named Kangaroo Island that we managed to see many of the animals and birds that were on our wish list, as well as some we hadn’t dared hoped for. Kangaroo Island is Australia’s third biggest island and a third of it is nature reserve.
A short hop from Adelaide by plane, it has more than 480 kilometres of coastline, lagoons, eucalyptus groves, grassy plains and small farms.
Kangaroo Island produce – its honey, cheese, lamb, lavender, wine – is much sought after. The young, prodigiously talented chef at Southern Ocean Lodge, a gloriously designed eco-hotel that perches breathtakingly on what seems like the very edge of the world, uses local ingredients, both farmed and foraged, to great effect, although dinner, remarkable as it was, still played second fiddle to the wildlife.
Successful wildlife viewing of unfamiliar species in unfamiliar territory is very much dependent on your guide. Craig has lived on Kangaroo Island most of his life, knows the best stretch of coast to get close to the island’s endangered sea lions and fur seals, and has an unerring ability to find koalas.
There Are 400 Of These Left On The Planet
As you’d expect from the island’s name, kangaroos are abundant, but more of a challenge to find is the much rarer tammar wallaby, which lives exclusively in only a few locations in South and Western Australia. Kangaroo Island has a small population, and Craig knew exactly where to go to give us the best chance of finding them.
It is also a great place to see birds, being home to 260 species, including some real rarities such as the yellow-tailed black cockatoo, which Craig spotted munching pine cones in a tree alongside the road.
But then he surpassed himself, and our expectations. “We’re just going to swing by the office,” he said casually. “There’s something I want to show you.”
Craig led us not into the building, but to a small group of trees outside the door. “Look up there,” he said, softly. We peered through the leaves and branches and saw a handsome black cockatoo, with a patch of pale yellow on its neck and a flash of red beneath its tail.
“That’s a glossy black cockatoo,” whispered Craig. “There are only about 400 left in the world, but luckily for us they seem to like our trees.”
Nothing, I thought, could top that, but then I spotted something at the side of the road and my heart leapt. After Craig slammed on the brakes, I dashed madly back to the place where I thought I’d seen it. There were scuffle marks in the red earth. Something had been scrabbling for insects, but that something was no longer visible.
Nose To Nose With An Echidna
There was nothing for it. I got on my hands and knees and crawled into the undergrowth. And suddenly there it was curled up tight, perhaps hoping that because it couldn’t see me, I couldn’t see it. I lay down on my front, hair hopelessly tangled in the thorny scrub into which we had both crawled, and waited.
An echidna is Australia’s equivalent of a hedgehog. Small and spiny, with a long nose and tiny eyes, it belongs to a very unusual group of mammals, called monotremes, that lay eggs, rather than give birth to live young.
Like a hedgehog, when threatened it will curl up into a prickly ball of unappetising spines until it feels the danger has subsided. My echidna was either very brave or judged that a woman in her mid-40s, lying on her stomach in the mud, trapped, sleeping-beauty-like in a cage of thorns, didn’t represent much of a threat.
Slowly it unfurled and blinked its little pink eyes at me then shuffled just a little bit closer, until we were nose to nose.
There are plenty of reasons to visit South Australia. And I’d just found one more.
Visit your local Flight Centre or call 131 600 for more advice and the latest deals on travelling to South Australia.
This article was written by Kate Humble from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.