Australia’s Kangaroo Island is a wildlife-filled wonder

The Toronto Star | Monday, November 26th, 2012

KANGAROO ISLAND, AUSTRALIA – Craig tells me to put my head into the hole in the ground and I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. All morning, he’s told me to look up trees, into shrubs, under thorny bushes.

On hands and knees, I cautiously poke my head in and abruptly come face to face with a wee fairy penguin, the smallest species of penguin on earth. He looks equally amazed by my sudden appearance as I am with his, and we regard each other with wonder. I’m giddy – yet another animal to add to my growing list.

This article was published in The Toronto Star. See it on their website here.

Charles Darwin was so astonished by Australia that he described it as a separate creation, and how true this is of Kangaroo Island. The odd creatures that Australia is known for flourish here. In my never-ending quest for what is different or what is wild, I have found both a mere 30-minute flight from Adelaide.

Dappled light flutters across the SUV as we bounce down dirt tracks lined with towering eucalypts, their herbal, mentholated scent flooding in through open windows. I gaze out at pastoral lands – a homestead here, a vineyard there – sheep grazing on emerald hills, fields ablaze with yellow canola.

Suddenly, this tamed, cultivated earth disappears and we are immersed in the Wild; this is why I have come. One-third of the island is protected land – one-third of the island exists to exist. And as we drive through the dense, dry bush, I am acutely aware that in order for some living things to exist, they will bite, sting, prey and maim. The scars on Craig’s forearms, earned when he protected a client from an overeager kangaroo, are a reminder of this truth.

I am not a bird enthusiast yet I find myself swept up in the joy of spotting them. Blood red feathers streak across the sky – a crimson rosella! Then a superb fairywren, a wedge-tail eagle, a red wattle bird (with feathers on its tongue to lap up honey), yellow-tailed black cockatoos, Australian kestrels, magpies, pipits and darters.

The plants are unlike any I have ever seen: giant broccoli shaped mallee trees, spikey Tate’s grass and my favourite, sugar gums, which I’ve nicknamed “Dr. Seuss trees,” for each of its bare vein-like branch whimsically ends in a pom-pom of mutli-coloured foliage.

An echidna digs for ants (spikey porcupine-like creature, one of only two mammals that lay eggs), three wallabies peer out from under shrubs (wallabies outnumber the island’s 4,500 humans 220 to 1), sea lions laze on the beach like blubbery logs. And of course, the island’s namesake kangaroos – small eared and chocolate brown, found in great numbers grazing on the plains at sunset.

I would not have seen any of this without Craig Wickham.

Craig is a sixth generation Islander and was a National Parks Ranger for four years before starting his tour company Exceptional Kangaroo Island. I liked him immediately. He seemed happiest “out there,” out exploring true wilderness, and this resonated with me. This was his home and everything had a story.

Soon after Craig picked me up from the airport, I met his “neighbour,” a fat koala sleeping in a gum tree in his yard. Later, at our picnic overlooking a desolate beach, Craig demonstrated a koala’s loud sex sounds – a very un-cute demonic, guttural braying – then regaled me of the time he saw a female koala frantically escape the unwanted loving of a horny suitor by hanging from a branch like a trapeze artist.

Craig slows the SUV. “You see that?” he says, his blue eyes twinkling.

I scan the pasture, tense, alert. Should I grab the binoculars?

“That’s the Common Australian Farmer,” he says. “Drinks beer. Very dangerous during mating season.”

Though we are only a ten-minute drive to the lodge, Craig has treated me to an 11-kilometer hike. When we arrive to what feels like the very end of the earth, where Brontëan wind-swept coastal heath meets the sea, I lay eyes on where I will be staying and I am overcome with a feeling that I will never be content with common life ever again.

Southern Ocean Lodge sits on the ridge of a cliff, organically snaking along a sweeping bend so that each of its 21 suites has a flawless view of the coast, the fortress of hinterlands and the powerful ocean that gives the lodge its name. The floor to ceiling windows, the limestone walls are an architect’s opus on how to bring the outside in, bearing you back to someplace innate, almost elemental.

From my bed I sit and listen to the surge and crash of waves below. Tonight I am just another creature in a warm burrow.

I contemplate taking a midnight walk along the trail down to the beach. No respectable guest would be outside alone at this hour. The winds have picked up bringing with it a cruel chill from the sea. But the thought of shining a flashlight into the brush and having a pair of eyes shine back sends a jolt through me, a perverse pleasure derived from knowing that something – anything – could happen out there.

I press my face to the glass – the glass designed to keep the perils of nature at bay, or in my case, there to contain the wild within.

Cindy Fan is a Canadian writer based in Laos who recently drove across Australia in a campervan. Visit her blog SoManyMiles.com. Her trip to Kangaroo Island was subsidized by the South Australian Tourism Commission.

JUST THE FACTS

Craig Wickham’s Exceptional Kangaroo Island offers group and custom private tours. The popular “KI Wanderer” 3-day/2-night package starts at $1136 AUD exceptionalkangarooisland.com

STAYING

Award-winning Southern Ocean Lodge: rates start at $990 AUD per person per night, including all dining, open bar with premium wines and spirits, signature experiences and island airport transfers southernoceanlodge.com.au

ARRIVING

Regional Express (REX) flies Adelaide – Kingscote daily. There is also a ferry from Cape Jervis, trips daily with SeaLink (45 min).

WEBSURFING

southaustralia.com
tourkangarooisland.com.au

 

Award-winning Southern Ocean Lodge is the ultimate luxe basecamp for a Kangaroo Island “safari.” Glass walls and outdoor terraces allow guests to immerse themselves in the coastal wilderness.

 

Precariously perched on a coastal cliff, 500 million years of wind and water have sculpted granite boulders into Remarkable Rocks, part of Flinders Chase National Park.