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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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.
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
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