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Sunday, Oct 23, 2005
Travel  XML
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Posted on Sun, Oct. 23, 2005
MICHAEL GOULDING/Knight Ridder Tribune

Koalas were imported to Kangaroo Island, off the coast of South Australia, in the 1920s. Since then the koala population has exploded, causing many problems.

JODI FEIFER/Special to The Star

On the west coast of Kangaroo Island is Admiral’s Arch, a natural formation that is home to a colony of New Zealand fur seals.

JASON FEIFER/Special to The Star; Kangaroo photo by BARBARA FEIFER/Special to The Star

Along one of Kangaroo Island’s typical dirt roads, Lisa Korf of Concord, Mass., gazes at a koala in a eucalyptus tree.

Island Hopping

Australia’s Kangaroo Island is teeming with wallabies, koalas and, of course, its namesake

Special to The Star

K ANGAROO ISLAND, South Australia — We were driving down one of Kangaroo Island’s bumpy dirt roads, which stretch along as bush turns abruptly into farmland and then back again. The land ahead was red and claylike, interrupted only by splotches of exotic roadkill — a wallaby here, a kangaroo there.

“How long do wallabies live?” my mother asked of our guide, a jolly local named Ken Grinter.

“Not very long, some of them,” he said with a hearty laugh.

Ken loves the wildlife on Kangaroo Island but not for the same reason we do. We’re a family of travelers, brought up on the image of the kangaroo as a sacred symbol of Australia. We wanted to take pictures with them, coo as their ears rotate like satellite dishes and then buy toys in their likeness.

But Ken eats kangaroo more than any other meat. He says it’s free of hormone injections, and eating them supports the farming of native species.

He also stays true to one of the island’s grimmer road rules: If an animal hops in front of a car — which it invariably will — do not swerve or the car will spin out on the dirt road and hit a tree. You can brake, sure, but the animal rarely gives you enough time to save it.

Locals don’t seem to mind. Many farmers shoot kangaroos, just because they hopped onto the wrong land. When we finally did hit a wallaby, after many close calls, everyone went silent. I suspected Ken felt worse for us than the animal.

This is the strange dichotomy of Kangaroo Island, a gorgeous 96-mile-wide wildlife haven off the coast of South Australia. It is full of remarkable species living in their natural environment, in a land unspoiled by kitschy tourism traps.

But going to see them also means going to see the people who live around them, for whom these furry friends are mundane and often pestlike. It is two worlds at once, the fulfillment of a traveler’s aspirations and the local lack of reverence. The mixture can be disorienting.

Something different

Even the island’s name bears this contrast. Kangaroo Island may sound like a dinky amusement park, but it was actually named by European explorers who were thrilled by the abundant source of meat.

Kangaroo Island feels a bit like the edge of the Earth. Roads go on for miles without sight of another human being. Its small towns are aberrations, little patches of suburbia contained in a block or two, barely denting the land. The southernmost tip of the island is so far south that the next spot directly west of it is Argentina.

There are regular accommodations around, as well as hostels and campsites. We, however, stayed somewhere a bit more unusual than we bargained for: Cape Cassini Wilderness Retreat, an ecotourism bed and breakfast on the north coast, which runs off solar and wind power and recycled rainwater.

The food, prepared by hosts Pat and David Welford, was extraordinary. To our surprise, we were given environmentally friendly shampoo and conditioner to use and were asked to keep our one-a-day showers to four minutes. Those showers also had buckets on the floors, to collect water instead of letting it go down the drain. I was so unused to the extreme conservation that I felt guilty every time I had to use the bathroom.

We came as a family — my parents, my sister, my girlfriend and me — in search of some sightseeing and a sense of Australia’s natural habitat. Kangaroo Island has that in spades: In local lingo, Kangaroo Island is the bush but it’s not the outback, meaning its landscape is thick with natural plants but not extremely remote.

Because of the diversity, many types of visitors swing through, and guides often quiz them on their interests to better cater the sightseeing. There are bird-watchers and fishermen, ecotourists and members of nature clubs. Then there are people such as us who had already seen Sydney and the Great Barrier Reef and were looking for something different.

What to do

Kangaroo Island is a 30-minute plane ride from Adelaide — often aboard Emu Airways, an airline mysteriously named after a flightless bird. Emu flies into a tiny airport with two gates and pilots that often double as baggage handlers. The island of 4,000 people is made up largely of farmers and fishermen. Its largest town is Kingscote, population 1,800.

The animal population is larger and more diverse. Animals are mostly scattered among the brush, which at times looks tropical and Floridian. Leaves are pointy and stubborn, and everything grows in dense clumps that turn green or brown according to the season.

With such density, it’s best to explore these areas in some of the island’s 21 national and conservation parks, which have walking trails to make them penetrable.

We spent two days there, which was plenty for us casual nature observers. We zipped around the island with our guide, stopping frequently to wander around its constantly changing scenery.

We began by looking for koalas, then went climbing on the rocky edge of King George Beach. Some time later we were gazing into Admiral’s Arch, a natural and jagged arch that perfectly frames the ocean with New Zealand fur seals lounging below.

Most of the wildlife keeps a comfortable distance, with two notable exceptions: The kangaroos that hang around park visitor centers are fed by people — “kangaroos on welfare,” our guide called them — and they’re so tranquil they’ll let you do anything short of picking them up. And on Seal Bay, visitors can walk on a beach filled with wild sea lions, whose pups will occasionally saunter over to investigate humans up close. Visitors cannot touch them, but the experience is extraordinary.

Other animals turn up at random: Echidnas, rare egg-laying mammals that evolved separately from porcupines but have the same defense mechanism, waddle aimlessly around. Glossy black cockatoos, found only on Kangaroo Island, hang out in groups. At night, guides offer nocturnal tours along the coastlines, where fairy penguins nestle between rocks and make aggressive gurgling noises that belie their tiny size.

Then there are the appropriately named Remarkable Rocks, a collection of natural rock formations that look like the background of a high-fashion photo shoot. We visited them on our way to Seal Bay. They are smooth and angular, some stout and others reaching skyward, a surreal spectacle that more nimble visitors can climb like a jungle gym. Others just pose for pictures.

Local issues

Exploring Australia’s wildlife means always finding something new to fear. In the Queensland rainforests, it is hairy caterpillars and stinging trees, the latter of which we were told cause six months’ worth of pain. In the desert, it’s snakes and spiders. In the water, it’s jellyfish and man-eating crocodiles.

On Kangaroo Island it’s the dreaded inch ant, which is considered to bite like a bulldog and sting like a wasp. When one dropped from a tree onto my mother’s shirt, my father swatted it off and we all spent the afternoon attending to phantom itches.

But these events are amusingly routine for locals, many of whom have absorbed every punch Mother Nature can throw. Once after being stung by a bug, a guide of ours in another part of the country nonchalantly claimed he was in “extreme pain.”

The island’s animals are mostly native to the land, although some things have changed since the first official settlers arrived in 1836. Species of all kinds have been killed off or severely damaged by hunters, and many farms have herds of cows and sheep that are not part of Australia’s delicate ecosystem. There are also feral cats, which many residents think of as weeds.

The koalas were shipped over from the mainland years ago but now are multiplying faster than eucalyptus trees can grow to feed them. In response, the local government has shipped some of the animals to the mainland, but that hasn’t stopped what some consider an impending crisis of dead trees and starving koalas.

People have lobbied to kill a certain amount of them, but that was considered bad for tourism. Instead, thousands have been tranquilized and made infertile, which has not put much of a dent in the problem. Now, some residents are frustrated that more drastic action isn’t being taken: “The decision … should not be based on the perceived cuddliness of the animal,” chided an editorial last year in the local newspaper, The Islander.

But for now the koalas can be found calmly clutching the top of their beloved eucalyptus trees, which bear the scars of their deadly sharp claws.

As we stared up at them during our trip, they gazed back down — wholly unconcerned and occasionally dozing off. Ecological problem or not, it’s hard to agree with the locals. They are really cute, and that’s worth something.

Jason Feifer is a newspaper reporter in Concord, Mass.

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