My aunt and uncle were recently on a cruise touring New Zealand, Tasmania, and southeastern Australia that terminated in Sydney and wanted to see a bit more of the country. They generously offered to include Sharon and me in their travels, so we began looking at various places to go. They had a limited amount of time and Australia has a large number of places to go so it was a tough decision, but eventually we settled on Kangaroo Island and the Barossa Valley, both in South Australia.
Early Wednesday morning we met at the airport, still groggy from a late Tuesday night dinner, flew into Adelaide, picked up a rental car, and drove the 2 hours south to Cape Jervis where we would take a ferry over to Kangaroo Island. The drive down the coast and through the hills was stunning. In parts you've got the ocean on your right and high, rolling hills on your left. Then you get deeper into the hills and are swallowed up on both sides as you zoom past farmsteads and quaint towns.
We boarded the ferry with our SUV and then clambered up to the top deck for the 45 minute ride over to Penneshaw on Kangaroo Island. I decided not to get a GPS, thinking I would just use my iPhone to navigate once arriving on the island. It didn't occur to me that I might not have any service…which it turns out I didn't. We resorted to using a map in a free tourist booklet from the ferry to navigate to our lodge in Cape Willoughby, on the far eastern side of the island. This led us up a deeply rutted dirt trail. As we bounced and lurched up the trail and I worried about breaking an axle we encountered a downed tree blocking the trail and decided this couldn't possibly be the right way…no one would stay at this place if this was the only way to get there. We retraced our steps and stopped at a gas station, got directions, and were on our way again.
Kangaroo Island is big, about 90 miles long and 35 miles wide at its widest point. Only a few of the roads are paved so an SUV is recommended (and for this reason I'm not even sure if a GPS would have the dirt roads programmed in). We quickly ran out of paved road en route to our lodge and rumbled the rest of the way there on hard packed mud and gravel.
As we turned up the private road to our accommodation for the next two nights, the Sea Dragon Lodge, we saw our first wild kangaroos snacking nearby. We'd all seen kangaroos, or roos as Aussies call them, in zoos before, but there was something about seeing them in the wild that made it much more exciting.
Quentin and Dale, the lodge hosts, came out to greet us and show us our rooms. The house had three large suites; two were off the main living and dining area, with a third requiring a 5 second walk out on the huge deck facing the water and down to the door. The two suites I saw were both very large (one had its own living room) and looked out onto the water. The setting was beautiful -- besides one other home a few hundred yards away there was no one else around us. The yard in the rear of the house tumbled towards a small beach and the water and Eucalypt trees filled the hills. We could see kangaroos grazing in the distance. Kangaroo Island roos are a subspecies of the Australian Western Grey that are only found on the island. They are similar in size to the Western Grey, but have a darker and thicker coat of fur, which makes them easy to spot against the golden-hued grass in clearings.
We sat on the deck, drank some wine, and ate some cheese and crackers while taking in the view before going inside for a dinner prepared by Dale. There was another couple there on their honeymoon who were very pleasant. Tired from a full day of traveling we all crashed early.
On Thursday morning we woke up and enjoyed the continental breakfast the lodge provided. Quentin helped us map out a plan of attack for the day and by 10:30 we were back in the car and rumbling towards the far western side of the island, 90 miles away. Despite the bumpy roads, the scenery was spectacular. Besides a few small towns on the island -- and I do mean small, the entire population on the island is 4,000 -- the land is mostly wild or planted with vineyards or given over to sheep for grazing. After 45 minutes we met up with a paved road and continued west.
Quentin had recommended stopping at the Koala Walk in Hanson Bay Wilderness Retreat. Dale said sometimes a lady was there with a baby kangaroo that we could see. When we arrived we were the only ones there. A box requested $2.50 per person and I dropped in a $10 for the four of us. The Koala Walk is basically a long dirt path lined with tall Eucalypts. It wasn't exactly what I expected: the koalas were indeed there, but they were so far up the trees all you could see were tufts of fur hanging over a branch. We later learned they're more active in the morning and evening and even climb down the trees, but for the time being I was ruing the wasted $10.
Then we saw a guy who worked there and asked if the baby kangaroo, called a joey, was there and whether we could see it. The guy, Mark, said no problem. He led us to a large pen where there was not one but two joeys.
(It turned out Quentin had told us to stop at the Eucalyptus Oil Distillery, where the woman often has a joey with her. We just remembered the instructions incorrectly and lucked out that the wilderness center was raising a couple roos).
Ruby had been orphaned when her mom was hit by a car (there are tons of dead wallabies and a few roos on the side of the road in KI); she was found alive in her mom's pouch. Matty was also found abandoned at a young age, though Mark didn't know what happened to his mother. Mark had initially put the two roos in his room to make the 4:00 AM feedings less painful. Now, at 12 months old, they slept in a shed inside the pen. They were about 2 1/2 feet tall and probably weighed around 30-40 pounds.
As soon as we entered the pen they hopped over to us and lifted up their heads for a good chin scratch. Then Mark asked if we'd like to feed them. Already feeling that just getting to pet them had more than made up for the Koala Walk, we jumped at the chance. Mark went in the shed to heat up two bottles of milk while we kept Matty and Ruby entertained.
As Mark walked out with the milk his walkie-talkie buzzed and he picked it up. A tour bus driver wanted to see if it was okay to stop by even though it wasn't scheduled. Mark, who was beginning to seem like the most accommodating person on the planet, said no problem. He asked us if we wanted to help out and carry the roos down the path to the beginning of the Koala Walk where the tour bus would stop. He pulled out two fleece bags, which the joeys gladly went tumbling into head first, to use as carrying cases.
My Aunt Holly picked up Ruby, who was slightly smaller, and Sharon picked up Matty, although she passed him to me for a break mid-walk. We sat on a bench at the end of the path and bottle fed the roos while all the other tourists took photos and ooh'd and aah'd over them. The experience really set the bar for all future wildlife encounters. Mark said they'd be released back into the wild (which is pretty much the entire island) once they got older. I'm sure they'll have an affinity for human contact the rest of their lives.
After parting ways with the joeys we got back in the car and made our way to the entrance of Flinders Chase National Park, a huge conservation area encompassing the southwest and west of the island. First we stopped to see the Remarkable Rocks. These are massive rocks perched on the edge of the ocean, surrounded by scrub bushes. They are formed from granite and are ancient. Some parts of the magma that formed the granite when it cooled was weaker than others, and these parts have eroded more quickly, leaving fantastic shapes. It really is a worthwhile trip.
We then drove over to Admiral's Arch, which is a another rock formation. This one is not as remarkable for it's structure so much as the fact that it is base camp for a colony of New Zealand Fur Seals. There were hundred of seals lounging, playing, and fighting with each other. Great White Sharks inhabit the ocean and feed on these seals, and we were told sometimes sharks can be seen from the boardwalk. Unfortunately, we didn't see any.
We made the 2 hour drive back to Penneshaw for dinner at the only pub in town. I was determined to eat kangaroo (Sharon said she couldn't after holding the two joeys), which was on the menu, but the pub was out. I settled for a burger which consisted of a small piece of stake, bacon, and a fried egg on top. We drove back to the lodge in the dark, driving slowly to make sure we didn't hit any roos that might be on the road.
On Friday morning we got started early since we had to be on the ferry going back to the mainland by 5:30. We drove about an hour to Seal Bay, which ironically is home to an endangered species of Sea Lions. There is a free boardwalk that goes down to the beach where the Sea Lions lounge. There is also a tour ($27.50 per person) that goes down to the beach. We opted for the tour and were underwhelmed. The guide didn't offer much information and my uncle had to keep asking questions to learn anything. I'd recommend checking out the boardwalk first, because sometimes Sea Lions sleep right next to it, and then if you can't see anything do the tour.
We piled back in the SUV and cut through the island to Stokes Bay on the northern side. It had been a grey, gloomy morning but the sun finally started to show around noon, which made a huge difference. Stokes Bay is a beautiful beach that can only be accessed by hiking through some giant rocks. On the western side of the beach there's an enclosed rock pool perfect for swimming.
We'd been told there was a wonderful café right by the entrance to the beach, but it was closed so the owners could attend the funeral of a young man from the island killed in Afghanistan. So after the beach, we drove 30 minutes east to Kingscote, the largest town on the island (which is still pretty small). Whereas Penneshaw had one pub and one Italian restaurant, Kingscote had several restaurants, some gift shops, and was the seat of the island's government. If you're looking for any kind of action, this is pretty much the only place to go. In fact, we saw a sign that any drunken behavior would result in a ban from all Kingscote bars for 6 months, which would effectively crater a local's social options.
We drove back to Penneshaw to board the ferry back to Cape Jervis and on to the Barossa Valley.