Hooning through “bushland”on a quad bike, it’s impossible to escape the scenes of devastation at every turn. Charred mallee trees, once heavy with koalas, lean in sadly like some macabre guard of honour, and when the ignition is turned off, the silence is almost louder than the sound of my engine.
Suddenly, there’s a whoop and a holler as Sam Florance, my Kangaroo Island Outdoor Action guide and eighth-generation islander, jumps off his own quad with a Dukes of Hazzard flourish and gestures for me to join him at the foot of a blackened tree. “Check this out!” he grins as he points at the tiny bunches of bright green shoots bursting from the ground. “We’ve had some heavy rains since the fires and the land is already springing back to life. It’s far more resilient than we give it credit for – just like us islanders, I suppose.”
Sam, of course, is talking about the January bushfires that destroyed more than a third of the South Australian island his family have called home since the 1880s, taking with it Flinders Chase National Park – a habitat for much of the island’s wildlife including Kangaroo Island kangaroos, koalas, Australian sea lions, long-nosed fur seals – and Southern Ocean Lodge, one of the country’s tourism gems. Not only has a significant portion of its unique ecology been wiped out (reports vary, but it’s estimated some 250,000 island koalas have been killed), but local tourism is ailing.
So is there anything worthwhile left on the island to see? Consider Yours Truly the canary in the mine.
Southern Ocean Lodge might be gone (for now), but Kangaroo Island is hardly lacking in luxury lodges, such as Hamilton and Dune – the island’s most exciting and most recent addition. Overlooking a pristine, white sand beach along the Emu Bay coast, two luxury homes, Dune House and Hamilton House, are waiting to treat guests to the ultimate “just gatecrashed some mega celebrity’s beach house for the weekend” vibe.
We check into architecturally designed and impeccably furnished Dune House. With its sunken living room with fireplace and circular shape taking in full vistas of the sea, it’s somewhat reminiscent of Southern Ocean Lodge. I’m always thrilled when the fridge (and minibar) is stocked with goodies but, more than that, I appreciate the painstaking attention to detail. The knives are Global, the linen bedsheets are Weft Textiles and the Wonky Pots crockery is so utterly charming I want to pocket everything I see.
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WHAT OF THE WILDLIFE?
Driving along the island’s dusty red roads framed with homemade signs from the locals shouting, “Thanks for your help, everyone!”, I’m thrilled to discover I have to slam on my brakes regularly to prevent Skippy and friends from becoming roadkill, and when I meet Andrew Neighbour, owner/operator of Kangaroo Island Marine Adventures, he buoys my spirits further.
“So much of Kangaroo Island has been untouched by fire,” he says as we speed along at “complimentary facelift” levels in his Island Explorer, a rigid inflatable boat normally used by police and military, over to what he calls the Dolphin Lounge, the shallow bay where pods of wild dolphins come in to teach their young important life skills.
This morning they’re a little late but Andrew has an unexpected explanation for that. “Dolphins are actually documented drug users. They get high from sucking on puffer fish and they can often be found throwing puffer fish to one another until they’re in quite a happy state.”
When the dolphins do come in – all 20 of them – I hop into the water with my snorkel and am thrilled to discover they’re just as interested in checking me out as I am them. I’m in there until Andrew calls out “shark!” and we scramble back on board. “Sorry, but sometimes it’s the only way I can get people out of the water to get a move on,” he laughs.
There is a visit to Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park, not only home to more than 150 species of predominantly orphaned or rehabilitated wildlife, but the site of a new wildlife hospital filled with 300 heavily bandaged koalas, kangaroos and other wildlife rescued from the flames, before we head south to Seal Bay Conservation Park.
A much-loved spot on the island, the park has remained untouched by the fires, and today it appears its famous colony of sea lions are in recovery mode from the same puffer fish party. Close to 50 of the 900 majestic creatures bask in the sun as we take a guided beach walk and discover that while visitor numbers are down, the number of pups born during the current season are up.
THE LONG LUNCHES
Foodies who’ve visited previously will also know the joy of Kangaroo Island’s culinary scene: long lunches filled with freshly caught King George whiting, oysters, marron and sheep’s milk cheese.
While it would be irresponsible to pretend producers and growers haven’t also been affected by the bushfires, the show continues as usual on the eastern side of the island. KI Spirits and Kangaroo Island Brewery continue to serve their award-winning spirits and beer; tours and tastings at The Oyster Farm Shop are still a highlight of the American River region; and the degustation menu at Sunset Food and Wine provides postcard-perfect moments.
Dining on Parndana barramundi while the sun dips into the sea, kangaroos jumping around in front of your table, it’s as though Kangaroo Island hasn’t changed. In many ways, it really hasn’t.
On our final day we’re sitting at Emu Bay Lavender Farm, a farm gate cafe set among lavender fields and known for its oversized lavender scones and homemade lavender ice cream (both too good to share), the scene is bustling. Groups from Adelaide have come over for the weekend to support their South Australian brothers and sisters the best way they know how: by visiting and then spending, spending, spending. “I bought five bottles of gin this morning and I don’t even drink gin, darl,” one lady tells me. “In times like this we’ve got to help one another out.”
I’m still thinking about her words when my little one comes and puts her arms around my neck. “Mummy, will you let the readers know that Kangaroo Island isn’t on fire anymore and that they all should come?”
Yes, baby girl, I can certainly do that.
The writer and her family were guests of South Australia Tourism Commission.