Why Kangaroo Island Deserves a Longer Stay
Beautiful coastal views, fabulous scenic drive routes, great dining and adventure pit-stops are some ‘ingredients’ necessary for a memorable road trip. Kangaroo Island in South Australia ticks all the boxes for a perfect laid-back yet exciting vacation. So it comes as a surprise to me that most people would think of this beautiful island as a day-trip or a 1-night stopover destination. I hope my travelogue based on my recent trip there will encourage more visitors to stay longer and explore this gem of an island.
Kangaroo Island Location & History
Kangaroo Island is Australia’s third-largest island, measuring about 4,405 km2, after Tasmania and Melville Island. It is situated in the state of South Australia, 112 km southwest of Adelaide. Its closest point to the mainland is Snapper Point in Backstairs Passage which is 13.5 km from the Fleurieu Peninsula.
The island was once part of the mainland and inhabited by Australian Aborigines, who dispersed when the land evolved into an island following rising sea levels several thousand years ago. Sealers and whalers in the early 19th century subsequently settled intermittently on the island, which was then established as the colony of South Australia in 1836. The island’s economy has been mainly agricultural, with a southern rock lobster fishery and with tourism gaining in importance. The local population is just about 4500 based on a 2011 census with Kingscote being the largest town and administrative centre. The island has several nature reserves to safeguard the remnants of its natural vegetation and native animals, with the largest and best-known being Flinders Chase National Park at the western end.
Day 1: Adelaide to Cape Jervis and Kangaroo Island
Access to the island requires a transfer via the Sealink Ferry, which operates twelve hourly trips daily (except on Christmas) at Cape Jervis. Sealink operates two large, modern vehicular cum passenger ferries- Sealion 2000 and Spirit of Kangaroo Island, taking about 45 minutes for the 16km crossing. The ferry lounge sells snacks and beverages and comes with free WiFi. For those without transportation, Sealink also runs a coach pick-up service from Adelaide.
The Sealink Ferry getting ready for vehicles to be directed onto the deck. Passengers in cars at this point are required to alight and proceed to the lounge, leaving only the driver behind and be reunited after the vehicle are parked on the deck. The ferry staff manages the loading order of vehicles. It was an exciting experience for a first-timer like me. I discovered that many locals prefer to drive in last so that they can disembark first upon arrival at Kangaroo Island.
The deck filling up fast and orderly. Ferry staff are on hand to guide each vehicle to maximize the limited space. The “first-in-last-out, last-in-first-out” meant those parked at the innermost section will leave last. But the vehicle flow and pace were very brisk upon reaching the island and takes less than 8-9 minutes to clear.
Cuisine pit-stop – The Oyster Farm Shop
After a quick visit to the Kangaroo Island Information Centre, our first stop on the island was to check out the popular Oyster Farm Shop at 483 Tangara Drive, American River, just about 30min drive away. This shop is the farm-direct processing and packaging facility for Kangaroo Island Shellfish, the island’s largest commercial oyster farm. Local oysters are shucked and sold fresh from the water along with Shellfish’s truly authentic sheoak-smoked oysters. Sheoak is a type of wood used for seasoning and smoking meats to add a mild smoky flavour
The shop nondescript facade belies what’s within, which features a Local Produce Tasting menu including fresh oysters and highlights Kangaroo Island aquaculture and local sustainable seafood – Kangaroo Island Abalone, Abalini, King George Whiting and Marron. They also produce their own delicious Smoked Oysters, Smoked Oyster Dip and KI Kilpatrick sauce.
Jetabout Holidays travel manager, Cindy Loo, browsing the shop menu. The opening hours are from 11:00 am to 3:00 pm daily including weekends and public holidays! Last orders for Produce Tasting Menu are taken at 2.30pm, so do visit early as the business is usually brisk.
Oysters lovers will certainly savour the freshly shucked Pacific Oysters which were superbly fresh and reasonably priced.
My lunch of King George Whiting was fresh and delicious. This marine fish forms the basis of one of southern Australia’s most important commercial fisheries, reportedly worth over five million Australian dollars per year. The species is also heavily targeted by recreational anglers, who value the whiting for its sporting and eating qualities.
A pair of Superb Fairy Wrens cosying up on the shop ledge just inches from us, separated by a window. The male is the one with beautiful blue plumage. We could not have asked for a better start to Kangaroo Island adventure ahead.
Seal Bay Conservation Park
With our hunger pangs satisfied, we drove straight to one of the island key highlights at Seal Bay Conservation Park, a protected area located on the south coast of Kangaroo Island and home of the third largest Australian sea lion colony in Australia. It is one of the most popular tourist destinations on Kangaroo Island. To safeguard the colony, visitors are only permitted on the beach by paying to go on a guided tour.
The Seal Bay Conservation Park entrance. While waiting for our scheduled guided tours to commence, we experienced a short passing hail storm with gusty winds which subsided just as the tour commences. Such is the local weather at Kangaroo Island, “just observe the clouds” as advised by a local.
The boardwalk leading to the beach are avail only those on paid guided tours, with access to the beach for a closer encounter with seals.
Once on the beach, our guide kept our group participants (limited to a maximum of 25) close so that we maintain a safe distance from the mammals. Seal Bay is home to the third largest colony of Australian sea lions with an estimated population of 800. This is about 5% of the world’s total seal population. The Australian sea lion was nearly hunted to extinction in the 19th century.
A juvenile seal yawning after returning from a swim. Australian sea lions are part of a group known as ‘eared’ seals. They use their front flippers to prop themselves up and their back flippers to help them to ‘walk’ on land. In the water, their back flippers function as a rudder. These fascinating creatures are one of the rarest species in the world and their entire population is estimated to be less than 12,000. Of these, 85% live in South Australia and the other 15% in Western Australia.
A timely shot of a seal returning to shore. When feeding, male sea lions will travel up to 100km and females up to 70km from their breeding colony. These hunting trips average about 3 days and in that period a sea lion would have dived 900-1200 times. The paid guided tour is certainly value for money and photographic opportunity as it let us observe the seals right on the beach.
The gorgeous beach scenery at Seal Bay is good even for those who opt not to go on the paid guided walk. A stroll on the boardwalk (see bottom left of picture) will let them spot the seals, which laid everywhere, among the coastal fauna.
Recommended stay – Kangaroo Island Wilderness Retreat
With its close proximity to the Flinders Chase National Park, this cosy nature lodge is the best choice for cutting down on travel time and freeing up more time at the park. The lodge itself is a nature park with great walking trails and wildlife sighting.
The lodge reception building is the only area to get fair WiFi connectivity, as the signal in the accommodation area was erratic at best and practically non-existent. But otherwise, the rooms are comfortable with good amenities. Service like therapeutic massages (Swedish and Filipino style) are available while free guided nature tours and a restaurant featuring excellent food cooked with local produce, make the immersion in nature much more enjoyable.
Ample parking and convenient access to the rooms meant less struggles with our luggage. Accommodation in Australia generally doesn’t come with porter service.
Day 2 – Flinders Chase National Park
The Flinders Chase National Park is the main nature reserve on Kangaroo Island. Within this huge reserve are iconic landmarks such as the world-famous Remarkable Rocks and Admirals Arch, which are the island’s ‘must-visit’ venues. It was said that no amount of pictures or words can fully justify the beauty of the island. Having seen the spectacular nature works, I certainly agree.
After about an easy 20min drive through scenic routes from the nature park office, the vista opens up to a spectacular view of the coastal area. Low-lying lush vegetation on the inland and wide expanse of the Great Australian Bight on the right, it is my favourite moment on the entire road trip.
The Remarkable Rocks are naturally sculptured formations precariously balanced atop a granite outcrop. To art aficionados, they allude to the works of British artist Henry Moore. This venue has been featured in many movies like the December Boys starring Daniel Radcliffe.
Visitors to this amazing spot will love the photographic opportunities when exploring the various angles for instagrammable moments. It took 500 million years of wind, rain and waves to carve out these huge and peculiar granite boulders into the odd shapes we see today. Many are covered in bright orange lichen giving off a lovely golden glow during sunrise and sunset and the black mica, blue quartz and pink feldspar that make up the granite make them a lot more colourful than they first appear. Depending on the timing of visit and weather condition, they can glow with red and orange hues late in the day, or look starkly white against the blue sea on a sunny cloudless day.
An Australian Silvereye taking a dip in a water puddle. The reserve is a mecca for nature lovers and bird photographers. The island is famed for its abundant and beautiful wildlife but finding some of the more reclusive residents will require some local knowledge. So engaging a local nature tour specialist would be a wise decision.
Enroute to the Remarkable Rocks, I had my first sighting of wild Koalas among the eucalyptus trees along the road. Spotting wildlife in their natural habitat is definitely a more rewarding experience than in the confines of a zoo. The entire Kangaroo Island has been described in some travel journals as an “open-air zoo”.
On the way to the Admiral Arch, you will see the Cape du Couedic Lighthouse which was constructed between 1906–1909. It consists of a tower built from 2,000 pieces of local stone, together with three four-roomed cottages to house the head keeper and two assistants with their families. The cottages now serve as holiday accommodation.
A short walk from the carpark at the Cape du Couedic Lighthouse is the Admirals Arch, one of the island’s most spell-binding and unusual natural landmarks. It took thousands of years of erosion to create this distinctive rock bridge. The boardwalk leading to the Admirals Arch also serves as a great spot to observe the New Zealand fur seal colony that has established itself below the arch. Summer is the main breeding season and the rock pools underneath the arch are a favourite playgrounds for seal pups. Between May and October, you can spot whales on their migratory route but dolphins can be frequently spotted year round. Admirals Arch is just one of 27 officially designated geological monuments situated throughout the island.
A couple of New Zealand fur seals resting beneath the arch. The local conditions like strong waves and rugged habitat are harsh but the seals have perfectly adapted to the environment.
Spectacular scenery amid harsh coastal environment. The wind is strong and with high powerful waves constantly pounding the cliffs. You will develop instant respect for the workers constructing this fabulous boardwalk.
The boardwalk leading to the Admirals Arch is simply a beautiful work of human labour itself. You can best enjoy this scenery during sunset. But do take note that the drive out of the park takes about 30min and you need to factor in the fast receding light as driving in the night is discouraged as wildlife tend to forage after dark on the road.
The coastal scenery is truly memorable that you will want to come at least twice during your stay- for sunrise and sunset. This is just one reason why Kangaroo Island deserves a longer stay.
Plants on Kangaroo Island, like most plants in Australia are extremely hardy and can tolerate many environmental conditions, such as wind, heat, cold, salt, droughts, floods and particularly fire. KI is home to around 890 species of plants, 47 of which are endemic to the island, meaning they are found nowhere else except on this island.
On the way back to our car, I had my picture taken at the boardwalk by my travel mate. Just look at the gorgeous landscape, definitely one for the album.
Cuisine stop – Marron Cafe for lunch (Update– as at Aug 2018, the restaurant is closed, do Google for latest info).
This famous dining venue was one of our list of “must-visit”. Located in the middle of the Island and a very convenient stopover to or from Remarkable Rocks or the Western end of the Island, this is a brunch, lunch or afternoon venue. The Marron (a large Australian freshwater crayfish which lives on the sandy bottoms of rivers and streams) is the signature dish of this restaurant.
My lunch order of The Marron on Pasta with seafood was delicious and certainly worth the 1-hour drive from Remarkable Rocks. While the crayfish flesh may not have the springy chewy texture of marine lobsters that we are used to, the flavour, presentation and freshness of the dish are spot on.
For those preferring non-meat dish, their Portobello mushroom dish on Barley Couscous is a very healthy and sumptuous option indeed.
The Marron cultivation factory, just steps from the restaurant where you get to view the various stages of the breeding process.
Now in the tanks, soon to be on the table Marrons. The freshness of dish is guaranteed.
Kelly Hills Conservation Park – Caves Tour
Just 3omin away from Marron cafe, we visited the Kelly Hill Conservation Park, which showcases unique old-growth woodlands. This park serves as a vital link in a high biodiversity vegetation corridor traversing the south coast of Kangaroo Island. A guided tour of the limestone cave system which takes hundreds of thousands of years to form is recommended as you walk amidst cave formations and discover spectacular nature artwork. The cave tour is cosy with the perfect temperature of around 16 degrees Celsius and 70-80% humidity regardless of external weather.
While not as spectacular as the Jenolan Caves at the Blue Mountains, its still a nice introduction to limestone cave systems and for visitors to admire the array of stalactite, stalagmite, helictite and column formations.
Cave tour gets more interesting through the guide as they narrate interesting information and history of the structure. Our cave guide Adam spiced up the occasion with his humorous antics and stories, like how early cave explorers were lost and trapped in the cave for days in total pitch darkness. He switched off the cave lighting system thereafter to let us experience what’s total pitch darkness and joked that he’s new to the job and can’t remember where the switches are.
We finally got to meet a wild Echidna at the park. It was searching for ants under the ground. Echidnas, sometimes known as spiny anteaters, are egg-laying mammals and are very timid animals. When they feel endangered they try to bury themselves or if exposed they will curl into a ball, using their tough spines to shield themselves.
Sand Boarding at Little Sahara
From Kelly Hills, we drove just 27min to Little Sahara for a quick session of sandboarding before retiring for the day. This venue is a dune system in the gazetted locality of Vivonne Bay. It is a naturally occurring sand dune system covers some two square kilometres. The dunes vary in size with plenty of small dunes and the highest dune is approximately 70 metres above sea level. Little Sahara is one of twenty geological features on the island that have been listed as a geological monument by the Geological Society of Australia.
The first thing that struck me was how huge and beautiful the place was. With the flowing sand and clouds formation, one might mistake this place to be the real Sahara Desert. Just add camels and some Bedouin costumes, you have people thinking they are really being teleported. The two visitors in the picture at the left side of the picture gives a gauge on how the huge sand dunes are.
The clean lines and contrasty colours of the dunes make great photographic opportunities. I had Cindy to do some “advertorial” pose, just for fun.
I did not do too well at the sand boarding. Instead of gliding down the dune, I was more like tumbling down. But it was all great fun.
At Little Sahara, I finally got the chance to fly the drone for some aerial footage, as the rest of the island nature parks are a no-drone zone. This is one venue drone pilots will love as the area is huge and obstacle free.
The Kangaroo Island Outdoor Action owner, Brenton Davis, showing us the sandboard. The sports centre at this venue also offered quad bikes (ATV) and kayaking.
Recommended stay – Kangaroo Island Wilderness Retreat
Day 3 – American River
Day 3 saw us doing a relaxed day schedule as we head eastward to the American River, located on the western shore of Eastern Cove of the island. Known locally as ‘The River’, American River region sits on the western shore of Eastern Cove and also includes the Pelican Lagoon. The region is named after American sealers who stayed on this part of the island for four months in 1803 and there is a memorial plaque in the main town to commemorate this.
The main village sits on a hillside surrounded by bushland with spectacular views of the cove and mainland Australia. The channel houses KI’s most sheltered harbour which provides berthing space for numerous yachts, sailboats and fishing boats. The outer bay offers some superb sailing and fishing while the 2.5 miles long Island Beach is ideal for swimming and sunbathing.
The inner bay, also known as Pelican Lagoon, is a protected Aquatic Reserve where visitors will find the Pelican Lagoon Conservation Park, a 397-hectare nature reserve just south of the region’s main town. The park is spread across the island and includes five small inlets that provide habitat for woodland and wetland birds.
The lake has a big resident flock of swans on the lake. In fact, it would sound good if they call this place “Swan Lake”. But it is certainly a bird photographer’s heaven.
The resident flock of Australian Pelicans. Unlike their North American cousins, Australian pelicans have some peculiar properties – for instance, apparently they can’t dive underwater, they just float. They can also contort their bills into all sorts of shapes.
This is the oldest lighthouse to be built in South Australia in 1852. It is located at the eastern end of Kangaroo Island. Like all lighthouses it operated to prevent shipwrecks from occurring, however, the irony was that it did not prevent many as evident by the number of ships which sank off the coastline, remnants of which can still be found in the area. Cape Willoughby Lighthouse is steeped in maritime history so a guided tour is encouraged where you will get to enjoy spectacular panoramic views across Backstairs Passage from the top of the lighthouse.
Lighthouses, while serving an important nautical function, is always a favourite photographic subject. The ambience of a lighthouse always evokes a romantic feel and imagery of a bygone era.
A Kangaroo with her joey at the lighthouse fringe. Although Kangaroo Island is named after this iconic animal, we did not spot much of them during our entire trip, possibly about less than ten. In fact, we saw more wallabies than kangaroos.
Cuisine stop – Dudley Wine
Prior visiting the Cape Willoughby Lighthouse, we made a rest stop at the award-winning Dudley Wine. This is Kangaroo Island’s pioneer winery, established in 1997 and makes a 100% KI product. As we were driving, we did not do any wine tasting. But the key attraction was the spectacular view.
The dining area at the winery with a superb unblocked view of the Great Australia Bight. The land in the distance is Cape Jervis on mainland Australia.
This is the restaurant with the most gorgeous view at Kangaroo Island. It helps that the kitchen serves top-notched food too.
Our order of pizza was wolfed down to the last grain. Fresh ingredients, balanced taste and texture combined to make the pizza just that much more memorable. But the restaurant carries a good range menu with matching wines to satisfy any gourmands.
Side trip to Clifford’s Honey Farm
This quaint bee farm was started by its owner, Dave with a couple of hives as a hobby in 1973. During the 1980s when the wool prices dropped, Dave and Jenny diversified by expanding their fledgling honey industry. They opened the shop in 1993 and it has been a buzzing success ever since. The farm now runs approximately 300 honey producing hives and it is increasing each year. With help from daughters Bev and Sharon and son-in-laws Tony and Greg, the farm can extract up to 20 tonnes of honey annually.
Just fresh from unloading the pollen at its nest (look at the clean legs), this Ligurian bee came back for more pollen.
A beehive “showcase” built in the wall of the farm showroom. These are Ligurian Bees, hardworking bees from Italy. Kangaroo Island is the only place on the earth to have purebred Ligurian Bees.
All ready to be purchased. Pure honey crystallizes while in storage, you know you have bought pure honey. The flavour of the honey is subject to the flowers in season.
Farm proprietor’s daughter, Sharon, giving us a run-down of the bee story. Very enlightening, indeed.
The honey farm retail shop with lots of knick-knacks and snacks to buy but most will buy the pure honey. The home-made honey ice cream is awesome too.
Recommended stay – KI Seafront Resort
This double-storey 4-stars boutique sea-facing resort is the perfect final-stay accommodation as it is just a 1 min drive away from the ferry terminal. Staying at this resort lets you wake up later and have a better start to the day. The Seafront is situated in Penneshaw – Gateway to Kangaroo Island and overlooks the magnificent Backstairs Passage.
The KI Seafront Resort facade. The resort has a pizzeria – Sorrento’s Pizzeria which serves very good food.
Certainly a lovely place for a cuppa and a pizza and pie. Just soak in the serenity and beauty.
The sea facing room is cosy and well furnished. WiFi signal strength is good too. And the sleep quality is fabulous.
Just 2 min drive away from the resort is the Christmas Cove where you can experience beautiful sunset and landscape of the surrounding area.
Day 4 – Depart on morning ferry
Just before departing Kangaroo Island, breakfast at Eatalians Kangaroo, which just 1 min drive from the KI Seafront resort is a great option to start the day.
The cosy Italian cafe, perfect place for a cuppa before departing the island.
Nice view of the Great Australian Bight. The human density here is low so it’s a relaxed atmosphere.
The cheesecake and latte are pretty good. So are their range of offerings like pies and scones.
What an adventure on Kangaroo Island! get off the beaten path and rediscover authentic Australia. Our trip to Kangaroo Island was indeed superb and filled with pleasant memories of the beautiful island, steeped in nature and wonderful cuisine. In fact, it would be great to stay couple more days to explore other parts of the island. Should the opportunity arise, I would not hesitate to revisit this island. On the last day, our early departure from Kangaroo Island on the first departure allows us to have another unique adventure at Victor Harbour, where you can Swim with Tuna.
Many sincere thanks for coming along the pixels journey. Should any readers be keen to go on a similar self-drive trip in the future, please feel free to drop me a message or check out Jetabout Holidays package HERE!
Footnote: All pictures used in this travelogue are copyrighted to Jensen Chua Photography and Jetabout Holidays and all rights reserved. The opinion expressed is factual, objective and that of the author.