Kangaroo Islanders lost a lot in the recent bushfires. Much of the wilderness and wildlife is gone from the western end, many homes have been razed and businesses destroyed. But, amongst the devastation is a resilience to be admired, a community spirit to be envied and a sense of hope and determination.
The bushfire recovery process is already in full swing. Still, KI (as the locals call it) needs a hand and the best way to give it one is to visit, when the lockdown is lifted and we can travel again, and inject some TLC — tender loving cash.
The fun starts in Cape Jervis, 110km south of Adelaide on the Fleurieu Peninsula, where all ferries to KI leave from. You can take your own vehicle on the ferry, as I have done before. But this time, I left my car on the mainland, hopped on Kangaroo Island Connect’s fast passenger ferry and hired one of their campervans.
We have a big Jayco, so I wanted to see what travelling in a smaller campervan would be like, and it proved to be an ideal way to test a different kind of RV while also testing the island’s dirt and limestone roads (80 per cent are not sealed).
It was great to drive, easy to park and meant we could get into more areas, but felt a little cramped for two nomads used to a bit more space — next time I’ll hire a motorhome.
WHERE TO START
The eastern end of Kangaroo Island is closest to the mainland, untouched by fires and has a long and varied history. It’s here English and French explorers Matthew Flinders and Nicolas Baudin exchanged survival information, despite their countries being at war at the time. Nowadays, this is a great place to start exploring.
Penneshaw is where all ferries dock and there’s plenty to do — shop, refuel, walk the 1.5km Sculpture Trail, relax at the Fat Beagle cafe or the Penneshaw Hotel and grab a pizza at Sorrento’s Pizzeria.
Take an Ocean Safari to get in the water with fur seals and dolphins. The seals show off near the rocks and the dolphins come in close to swim underneath as you’re pulled along behind the boat. Make sure to stop at KI’s oldest winery — Dudley Wines — for the view, great lunch platters, a spot of golf and the wine, of course.
For a farm experience with a (big) touch of humour, try Rob’s Sheep Shearing and Sheep Dogs. Watch Bella and Champ work the sheep while Rob works the crowd.
False Cape Wines is the newest tourist destination on the island. After 17 years of wine making, Jamie and Julie Helyar opened a cellar door with wine tasting, platters and a playground to keep the kids happy.
The main road heading west out of Penneshaw is sealed and will take you past Baudin and Browns beaches and Sunset Food & Wine.
Island Beach, dubbed millionaire’s row, is full of shacks and mansions tucked into the scrub and right on the waterfront. Surfers and those looking for rugged coastal views, meanwhile, love Pennington Bay.
A few hundred steps will get you to the top of Prospect Hill. One of the highest points, this is where Matthew Flinders discovered that KI was actually an island.
Stock up on all things shellfish at the Oyster Farm Shop and take time out to watch the birds in Pelican Lagoon Conservation Park.
DIRT ROAD DETOUR
The next two stops require a dirt road detour and you will see pockets of burnt land where spot fires broke out.
The first stop is Cliffords Honey Farm. Protectors of the last pure strain of Ligurian bees to be found in the world, this family-run business has taken a hit from the bushfires, losing many of their bees and hives. They are still open, so try (and buy) the honey and learn how it is collected and bottled.
Head north on Elsegood Road to Emu Ridge Eucalyptus oil distillery. Eucalyptus oil was one of the first exports from KI. Displays explain the labour-intensive distilling process, and there’s a shop with everything from oils to skin-care products, a cafe and art exhibition — you might even meet some of the orphaned kangaroo joeys they look after.
BACK ON TRACK
Follow Starrs Road to meet the sealed Birchmore Road, which turns into South Coast Road and takes you to Seal Bay. Home to Australia’s third largest colony of Australian sea lions (about 800), it escaped the fires. If you want to get close to the sea lions, take a guided tour and head onto the beach with a National Parks ranger.
At the turn-off towards Flinders Chase National Park is Raptor Domain. Learn about deadly critters, get up close and personal with the not-so-deadly ones and enjoy a show which highlights the natural talents of raptors.
Next stop is at Little Sahara for surfing with a twist — you will be surfing sand dunes. You can also take a Fat Bike tour through the sand dunes and scrub.
Just 6km down South Coast Road, about halfway along the 155km length of KI heading west, is the last fuel, food, alcohol and grocery stop — Vivonne Bay General Store. The surrounding landscape is charred, the bush blackened or gone completely. But Michelle Peacock’s store and Vivonne Bay Village was spared, and Michelle is still making her legendary whiting burgers.
Just out of town, Jetty Road leads to Vivonne Bay where, despite charred dunes, you can still enjoy the water. Take note of Vivonne Bay Campground and stop at KI Outdoor Action for a quad bike tour. The bush scenery has been replaced with a black and grey canvas, but it makes for a fascinating ride.
As you keep going, the fire devastation is more evident from the road. It’s bleak. The firefront spread across thousands of hectares and the ferocity was like nothing the locals had witnessed before.
While Kelly Hill Caves are preserved beneath the limestone ground, the visitor’s centre and infrastructure allowing tourists to visit are gone, as is Hanson Bay Koala Sanctuary and the KI Wilderness Retreat and Southern Ocean Lodge.
Flinders Chase National Park is closed with Army reservists guarding the entrance, meaning there’s no access to icons like Remarkable Rocks, Admirals Arch, Weir’s Cove and Cape du Couedic Lighthouse. However, they will reopen when it’s safe to.
ACROSS THE ISLAND
West End Highway, which starts almost at the entrance to Flinders Chase, takes you right across the island. For about 25km there is just devastation. Rolling hills which were full of vegetation are barren. Only black sticks remain, poking out of the ash, and winds whip that ash into clouds that look like smoke.
But thanks to the volunteers who helped fight the fires and who are helping clear the way and rebuild the island, it’s safe.
TURNING THE CORNER
At the end of the West End Highway, we turn the corner in more ways than one.
To the left is Cape Borda Lighthouse. Tackling this heavily corrugated dirt road (still closed) to Cape Borda is not recommended unless you have a 4WD.
On the right, however, Playford Highway leads to Parndana and pockets of hope and new life. There are patches of thick, green scrub and even in the areas where black prevails, bright green shoots and new red gum leaves shine in the sunshine. Hundreds of grass trees have green cores.
NORTH COAST MEANDER
The next detour along the North Coast Road to Western River Cove is for campervans, not motorhomes.
It’s one of the most beautiful parts of the island with rolling hills and deep valleys. There is a long, winding, steep descent to the bottom. Signs warn not to take caravans and I would not take a larger motorhome.
Our hired Toyota HiAce campervan handled the road just fine, but I was holding my breath in a few spots. At the base is a small council-run campground with shelter for picnics and toilets.
The setting is gorgeous with a river at the base of the surrounding hills winding into the ocean. Apparently, the fishing is good, but locals guard that secret carefully and getting details is impossible.
To continue along the coast, you’ll have to get back up that substantial hill then, halfway back to the highway, turn left on to North Coast Road. Watch for the next detour left (it comes without much warning or signage after about 4km) and drive into Snelling Beach.
Another picturesque bay awaits with protected waters and the odd visit from a pod of dolphins. It has a parking area but no camping.
Snelling Beach is also home to Lifetime Private Retreats so if you need time out of the RV, spoil yourself with a night in the Cliff House and dinner in the Shearing Shed.
Stokes Bay — one of my favourite spots on the island — is next. Don’t be deceived by first impressions. Rocks cover the beach, but there is a secret at this bay, and you have to head past the campground and Rockpool Cafe to discover it.
A tiny sign points to the beach through the cliffs. A few minutes of easy climbing and squeezing through some tight spots brings you out to an expanse of white sand, blue waters and a rockpool. Families love it because waves crash on the outer rocks but just a gentle flow refreshes the water in the rockpool.
The next stop — along sealed roads — is in the heart of Kangaroo Island.
Parndana was established after the Second World War as part of the Soldier Settlement Scheme. In 1948, 174 returned soldiers and their families began to arrive in Parndana, living in huts brought from a former internment camp. They moved on to farms from 1951 and have worked the land since.
Dana and Sam Mitchell’s Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park & Aquarium is located in Parndana. You might have seen Sam on TV during the fires refusing to leave his animals. Since then they have been caring for hundreds of koalas. You can get really close to koalas or can hold one for an extra fee.
HEADING EAST TO KINGSCOTE
Travelling towards Kingscote, Playford Highway takes you through Cygnet River. Fire struck some areas here as well but not much damage is visible from the road.
Spring Road and Islander Estate cellar doors are open for visitors, as is Kangaroo Island Spirits for a taste of their award-winning O’Gin or to blend your own. On the way, stop off at Kangaroo Island Brewery and Emu Bay Lavender for lavender ice cream.
Kingscote is a commercial hub and about 1800 of KI’s 4500 population live here. You’ll find everything from fuel and a supermarket to pubs, restaurants and shops for the all-important retail therapy fix.
Although Kingscote escaped the fires, it was touch and go for a short while. Grab breakfast at Cactus and owner Louis will tell you how the whole town slept on the jetty or at the oval when the sky to the west turned bright orange and they thought it was all going to go up in smoke.
While you’re here, visit Reeves Point, the historic site of South Australia’s first settlement.
For more Kangaroo Island wine, try Bay of Shoals Winery and an alfresco dinner at Amadio Wines. Or, if local seafood is on the wish-list, the best fish and chips are at KI Fresh Seafoods at the Caltex petrol station.
Island Beehive offers another lesson in the island’s honey industry and the chance to taste the final products.
If you’re looking for a road trip that offers wilderness, wildlife, jaw-dropping scenery and plenty of things to do, Kangaroo Island is hard to beat, despite the fires. You will see the bushfire damage – that’s unavoidable. But Kangaroo Island is already recovering. Plants are starting to shoot, birdsong is back, businesses are open. There are smiles on faces of locals, hope in their hearts and they are hanging out to say g’day.
KI CONNECTS FAST FERRY AND CAMPERVAN OR MOTORHOME RENTAL
The fast ferry takes about 30 minutes to cross Backstairs Passage to Penneshaw, and you can hire a campervan or motorhome on arrival. The ferry costs $50 per adult return, or there is a ferry and hire option. Hire starts at $150 per day for a campervan or $300 for a motorhome (conditions apply). Contact: Email firstname.lastname@example.org, phone 0419 100 100 or go to kic.com.au
SEALINK VEHICLE AND PASSENGER FERRY
The crossing takes about 45 minutes to reach Penneshaw. Costs from 1 April 2020 will be $98 per adult return, and vehicles start at $196 return. Contact: Email email@example.com, phone 131 301 or go to sealink.com.au
WHERE TO STAY
- Kangaroo Island Seafront Holiday Park seafront.com.au/ki-shores
- Campgrounds along Chapman River in Lashmar Conservation Park environment.sa.gov.au/parks/booking
- Vivonne Bay Campground sacommunity.org/org/199374-Vivonne_Bay_Camping_Ground
- Western River Cove Campground aircamp.com.au/campsite/western-river-cove-campground
- Stokes Bay Campground aircamp.com.au/campsite/stokes-bay-campground
- Emu Bay Campground aircamp.com.au/campsite/emu-bay-camp-site
- Discovery Lagoon Camping Grounds sa-parks.com.au/caravan_park/8020/discovery_lagoon_caravan_and_camping_grounds
- Kingscote Tourist Park & Family Units kingscotetouristpark.com.au
- Western KI Caravan Park: temporarily closed but rebuilding work has already started westernki.com.au