AFTER A PLEASURABLY hectic week in Sydney and the Blue Mountains, followed by a long, serpentine drive along the spectacular Great Ocean Road (Australia's Big Sur, between Melbourne and Adelaide), it was time for a strong dose of solitudeand for an intimate encounter with the wildlife of Oz.
Kangaroo Island's untamed west end gives you both. Ninety-six miles long, the nation's third-largest island is 70 miles southwest of Adelaide and a short ferry ride across Investigator Strait. This isolation from the mainland has preserved an abundance of native speciesthe island has invasive pigs and goats but lacks the cats, foxes, and rabbits that wreak havoc on indigenous wildlife elsewhere in Australia. Moreover, a third of the landscape is protected in 21 national and conservation parks. Much of the east end is rolling, pastoral lowland and farms, but Kangaroo Island tilts upward as you head west, and juts into the Indian Ocean, with sheer cliffs rising as high as 900 feet. At the far southwestern tip, there's nothing between Cape du Couedic (pronounced cootie), in Flinders Chase National Park, and Antarctica, except the Roaring Forties and 3,000 miles of open water.
The best introduction to the island's natural history is a stay at one of three century-old lighthouse keepers' cottages at Cape du Couedic; like the lighthouse itself, these were built from limestone quarried out of the Cape's own rock, strong enough to withstand the fiercest southern gales. The dim, cool, echoey interiors are furnished with funky period furniture, wood-fired cookstoves, andaccording to the guestbookghosts. (There have been more than 50 shipwrecks along the Kangaroo Island coast, and the survivors' tales make for grisly reading.) Our only visitation came daily at dusk, when nocturnal Tammar wallabiesminiature 'roos nearly extinct on the continentappeared at the back door, nibbling the grass.
The wallabies were only a taste of the critter action to come. Just down the road from Cape du Couedic are the high cliffs surrounding Admirals Arch, a massive open-sided cave lined with convenient haul-outs for a colony of 6,000 New Zealand fur seals, presided over by power-mad beach-master males. Despite violent breakers and an intense reek of seal poo, wooden walkways and stairs allow unparalleled viewing of the bellowing, frolicking, moshing, and bickering populace. (Seal Bay, on the island's southern coast, is another great place to ogle pinnipeds; rangers escort groups on walks to view Australian sea lionssome scarred by encounters with great white sharksand, if you're lucky, their pups.)
Elsewhere in Flinders Chase National Park, we were approached by a few harmless K.I. kangaroos (a subspecies of the western gray) that were interested in our water. But soon we were staring up: Koalas, wedged in the forks of a eucalyptus tree, were swiveling their teddy-bear heads in slow motion, staring down at us. And that was just in the parking lot of the visitor center.
On the Rocky River hike, which starts at the center and takes you along dense bush trails to blinds along the Platypus Waterholes Walk, you're likely to spot Cape Barren geese, goannas, and wallabies crossing your path. The fur-bearing, egg-laying platypuses are more elusive, but we were thrilled to see the bubbles rising from their underwater dens.
The birdwatching was first-rate during our entire week on Kangaroo Island, the highlight being our sighting of a white-bellied sea eagle soaring low over the dusty Playford Highway, on the north shore. The only disappointment: Our late-afternoon ferry from Penneshaw back to the mainland sailed before we had a chance to watch the nightly parade of fairy penguins returning to their harborside nests after a day spent at sea. Next time.
For bookings at the lighthouse cottages and information about Flinders Chase National Park, 011-61-8-8559-7235, www.environment.sa.gov.au/parks. Kangaroo Island information, 011-61-8-8553-1185, www.tourkangarooisland.com.au.