Foreign Travel: Planet Marsupial

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, January 1996

Foreign Travel: Planet Marsupial

Kangaroo Island, a pocket-size Australia
By David Hochman

If everything you imagine Australia to be were crammed into one 90-by-40-mile landscape, that microcosm would be Kangaroo Island, a place that Dr. Suess might well have dreamed up. Armies of emus, platypuses, koalas, fairy penguins, short-nosed bandicoots, wallabies, sea lions, and of course kangaroos frolic among eucalyptus groves, sand dunes, and sparkling seas off craggy granite cliffs.

Instead of joining the day-trippers from Adelaide, 70 miles north on Australia's southern coast, plan on spending at least four days roaming this island, where sheep outnumber people 300 to one. Once your plane or ferry has arrived in Kingscote or Penneshaw on the north shore, you can rent a four-wheel-drive utility vehicle, known locally as a "ute" (about $68 a day from Hertz Kangaroo Island, 011-61-848-22-390). Then head to nearby American River to spend your first night at Wanderers Rest (doubles, $85; 848-33-140), a bed-and-breakfast overlooking Backstairs Passage, the channel that separates Kangaroo Island from the mainland, and a natural wallaby habitat.

Next morning, the earlier you get behind the wheel the better, since kangaroos and platypuses like to forage before the sun gets too high. Just south of Kingscote on the South Coast Road, the blacktop fades into an unpaved red strip. Old-fashioned filling stations give way to working bee farms, shearing shacks, and an abandoned salt mine.

First stop should be Seal Bay (your guidepost for the left-hand turnoff is the old Kaiwarra Cottage), where a colony of several hundred Australian sea lions lounges on the white sand. For the best views, hike from the ruins of Bales Cottage along the cliffs of Cape Gantheaume Conservation Park. Farther down the coast the landscape changes radically: Just past the intersection of the South Coast Road and Seal Bay Road, the first track leading left through the bush takes you to the whitest sand dunes on the planet. Scramble to the top for a view not of the sea but of dune after dune, bounded in the distance by deep green mallee scrub.

Vivonne Bay, next on the itinerary, is a good place to spend the night. It has a gas station, a phone, a campground, and some of the best surfing on the island. Swimmers beware: The sea here is rough, with a fierce undertow.

From there, keep your wheels rolling toward Flinders Chase National Park, where you'll find the surf-sculpted boulders known as the Remarkable Rocks set precariously atop a massive granite dome 500 feet above the ocean. Hike past sleek fur seals, gaze out toward Antarctica, and scope out fairy penguins at nearby Admirals Arch. Camp that night at the park's Rocky River Campground, ten miles north, where seven-foot 'roos have been known to pester sleepers.

For the return trip east, put away some fast miles on the paved Playford Highway, which will allow for a detour or two to the northern beaches. Stokes Bay, about halfway along the coast, has a protected rock pool for swimming, great bodysurfing, and camping facilities; farther east is Emu Bay's long swath of sand. For one final Kangaroo Island treat, spend your last night at Cape Willoughby, on the island's far eastern tip, where you can rent a cottage that sleeps eight on the lighthouse grounds ($18 per person per night; call Kangaroo Island Wilderness Accommodations at 848-37-235). Here you can dive among silver drummers and harlequin fish in Backstairs Passage or on nineteenth-century wrecks north of Kingscote. Contact Adventureland Diving (two-tank dive, $57; 848-31-072). Wildlife viewing and bushwalking trips are run by Adventure Charters (848-29-119). For round-trip flights from Adelaide to Kingscote ($50), call Albatross Airlines (848-222-96); the Sealink Ferry from Cape Jervis to Penneshaw ($40 round-trip; 848-31-112) takes about an hour.

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