4th Jun 2012 4:03am | By Alex Harmon
The harsh, untamed landscape of Kangaroo Island is home to some of Australia’s most endearing, disarming wildlife.
I used to be obsessed with the Jurassic Park films. This wild island where dinosaurs roamed, free from their shackles, a land of mystical beauty, magical sunrises and menacing thunderstorms. I wanted to be on that helicopter on my way to meet an eccentric Richard Attenborough and discover a new world. Granted, I was about 12. Flash-forward to the present and with the rationality that comes with adulthood, combined with Ross from Friends turning me off a career in paleontology, I’ve put those dreams aside and I’m on a ferry to Kangaroo Island. I’m still dreaming of a magical place, not unlike my childhood fantasy, but I now hope it’s a lot safer.
A couple of hundred of years ago, Kangaroo Island was a violent, untamed island inhabited by convicts. It was a place the Aborigines called “island of the dead”, where they refused to live. Mainland Aboriginal women were kidnapped and brought here by escaped convicts who used them to help hunt seals. The island has a dangerous past but also a natural, present beauty; rolling hills, scenic coastline, clean air and all of those cute animals who run wild.
Like two sides of a coin, the north and south are incredibly different. Perfect surf on the north, where the water is warmer and calmer, but head south and you’ll find rugged terrain, winds and wild surf. Down on the south, the rocks are weathered by Arctic winds, their unique beauty beckons you closer to the edge of sheer, menacing cliff faces. Here you take a huge risk surfing – rolling through the waves, you could be mistaken for a seal by Great White Sharks.
Our tour takes us to both sides of this yin and yang island. The guide tells us this is Australia’s Galapagos Island. Kangaroo Island is only 110km from Adelaide but like the Galapagos – or Jurassic Park – it feels miles from civilisation.
Our first move is to hike up Prospect Hill, where we retrace Matthew Flinders’ footsteps. This is the hill he climbed when he realised he had made a big, big mistake. He wasn’t on mainland Australia like he thought he was. He was on an uninhabited island. And he was running out of food. Living off kangaroo meat, he thought it only natural to name the island in tribute to the food that kept him alive.
The sign at the top of the mountain claims he was Australia’s first backpacker, which just goes to show how much backpacking has changed. It would be unfortunate
if the place was named Goon Island. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to visit – well, on second thoughts, there might be
a few. The view there is spectacular and it’s hard not to feel an affinity with the directionally challenged Flinders.
Next we traverse over to the rugged south side, to Flinders Chase National Park. I don’t normally get excited about rocks, but these are Remarkable Rocks and as we approach, I see these dazzling artistic beauties, basking in the sun. They definitely live up to their name. Move over Bondi – these rocks are the original Sculptures by the Sea.
I have this theory that modern backpackers are less concerned with the history of a place and more about the photos they can splash online. I discovered this when all these holiday photos starting popping up of people, through the tricks of photography, lying on Coke cans or holding groups of people on Bolivia’s salt pans.
I call it the Leaning Tower of Pisa phenomena. I hadn’t actually experienced it myself until climbing the rocks pretending to hang over the ocean from a ledge. Our guide helps us pose in ways that make great photographic illusions.
“Jump now," he says, and it looks like we’re falling over the ocean. “Put your head over that rock and someone else put your feet through that” – and it looks like we’re being crushed to death. I have to admit, I enjoy every minute of it and can’t wait to upload them.
Photos aside, these massive granite boulders create some optical illusions of their own, glistening red with the setting sun over the coastline. Up close, they’re smooth and grey, like my parents’ driveway.
We race the setting sun and fit in a quick visit of some very cute New Zealand fur seals at Admiral’s Arch. The sun sets through a perfectly framed arch – the cameras start clicking immediately – and we then make our way over to a colony of seals as they flirt with the sea. They are the most adorable things I have ever seen, especially the baby fur seals that cuddle each other to fight the cold.
Our guide tells us about how he went surfing nearby one day and saw a Great White Shark in the water. He also saw
his life flash before his eyes. The group is silenced by this astonishing tale. My mind boggles.
I didn’t think it could get much cuter than sleeping fur seals until later on that night when we go exploring for fairy penguins. It’s dark but we’re given red-light torches that shine into the penguins’ burrows. We unfortunately just miss their evening “march of the penguins”, when they make their pilgrimage from the sea. But this is even better – we see them in their caves, grouped together like families. It feels like we’re shining the spotlight into their homes, invading their privacy.
The next morning we’re up early to conquer Little Sahara. The sand dunes stretch for miles, rising 70m above sea level. As you climb one peak you are confronted with another, they’re like waves of sand that continue as far as they eye can see. What better way to conquer these waves, than with a sand board? Sure, it’s a poor man’s snowboarding but it still has the fun, thrills and spills, plus no pricey bill at the end. We run, slide, carve and throw ourselves down the dunes until we’re out of breath. Did I mention there are no chair lifts?
Everything seems to be named literally on this island, but Seal Bay is a little off course. The beach is adorned with masses of Australian sea lions, lying on the beach sunning themselves while their babies run in and out of the ocean.
Just to satisfy my etymological curiosities, I find out that there are actually a colony of seals living in Seal Bay but they are rare and endangered because the killing of seals only became officially outlawed in 1972. The sea lions are pretty endangered too – they are the rarest sea lion in the world. Because of this they have full run of the beach and we are instructed to stay back as they frolic.
They’re docile, sun-seeking, happy-looking animals, rolling around on the beach like Italian tourists. When I die, I want to come back as a sea lion. Either that or an Italian tourist – they seem to spend just as much time sunbathing. Kangaroo Island was like two days of living in an animated Disney film – cute and cuddly animals, friendly people and happy endings. One thing that needs to go back to the drawing board is the name – it sells the place short. I think they should get Mr Spielberg onto the case.