Kangaroo Island, South Australia, is Australia’s Galapagos, the country’s third largest island with 450 kilometres of wild coast, a pristine undeveloped interior, and an abundance of animal, marine and bird life, making it the perfect place for some wildlife watching.
Australia’s third largest island after Tasmania and Melville Island north of Darwin, Kangaroo Island lies just 13km off Cape Jervis on the west coast of South Australia’s Fleurieu Peninsula. It’s just a couple of hour’s drive or a thirty-minute flight from Adelaide, yet the unspoiled island feels far more remote.
In many ways, Kangaroo Island is a microcosm of Australia with a quintessentially Aussie interior of old growth bushland with towering eucalyptus trees, impenetrable mallee scrub, and golden pastures speckled with sheep.
The dramatic coastline is typical of Southern Australia, skirted by sheer soaring cliffs, striking rock formations that resemble public art works, and colossal boulders smoothed by the wild sea.
Aside from its rugged natural beauty, Kangaroo Island teems with native fauna and flora. There is such a wealth of wildlife that Kangaroo Island – or KI as the locals like to call it – is frequently referred to as Australia’s Galapagos Island
I was lucky to experience the island first as a child with my family and Terence and I have visited a couple of times on assignment for magazines. We’d return in a heartbeat and here’s why.
Kangaroo Island, South Australia – Wildlife Watching on Australia’s Galapagos Island
If you only get to one Australian island, make it Kangaroo Island, for its arresting geological features as much as its diverse abundant wildlife and birdlife habitats.
One third of Kangaroo Island is protected – there are myriad national parks and conservation parks – and there’s a gobsmacking range of fauna here that is unscathed by predators or disease.
Kangaroos, wallabies, koalas, echidnas, goannas, possums, bandicoots, sea lions, and fur seals are everywhere you look, climbing trees, crossing roads, and lazing on beaches. While there’s such an abundance of birdlife, it’s regarded as one of Australia’s best birdwatching spots.
While you could get a taste of Kangaroo Island in a weekend, allow at least four days to take in all the attractions, including Seal Bay, Little Sahara, Remarkable Rocks, Flinders Chase National Park.
Seals, Sea Lions and Little Penguins
When Kangaroo Island’s beaches aren’t being beaten by pounding surf, the creamy stretches of sand, punctuated by serene bays and tranquil estuaries bobbing with fishing boats, are dotted with playful seals, sea lions and penguins.
Penneshaw’s low cliffs are home to the handsome Little Penguins, whose antics can be observed on the nightly Penneshaw Penguin Tours (daily 9pm and 10pm). These are the times when they return from feeding in the ocean and march adorably across the beach to their cliff-side burrows.
On our last trip to Kangaroo Island we got to watch playful Australian sea-lions and New Zealand fur seals, both native to Kangaroo Island, frolicking on the rocks at Cape du Couedic, and on another day we visited the Seal Bay Conservation Park, home to hundreds of sea lions and one of the largest breeding populations in Australia.
At Seal Bay we got to walk quite close to the colony, accompanied by a national park guide (tours daily 9am–5.15pm in holidays, at other times til 4.15pm). Some 7,000 fur seals live and breed on the splendid sandy beach at beautiful Seal Bay and I’m sure we got to see most of them lolling about that day.
Bill, our easygoing, dreadlocked guide from Kangaroo Island Wilderness Tours, who showed us around the island for a few days on our last trip, advised us to walk tentatively around a family of seals.
“They look friendly, but they can get feisty when their sleep is disrupted,” Bill warned.
After Sydney’s Harbour Bridge and Opera House, Uluru in the Red Centre, and Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef, most tourists visiting Australia want to see a koala. However, the cute, chubby, bear-like creatures – which aren’t bears at all, but are marsupials – are next to impossible to see outside zoos and wildlife parks in Australia.
The koala’s grey-brown fur blends in with the bark and leaves of the eucalyptus trees in which they like to hide and dine, and they spend most of their time still – sleeping and eating – making them difficult to spot.
Yet on Kangaroo Island we saw koalas every day, and I also spotted a couple of the lazy creatures, on two different occasions, leap from the ground onto trees and energetically bound up the branches. It’s a rare sight on Australia’s mainland, but not on Kangaroo Island.
I became so hooked on spotting koalas – they are so ridiculously adorable – that one day Bill took us on a spontaneous detour to Hanson Bay Wildlife Sanctuary where they are supposedly plentiful. Ironically, we saw fewer of them there than we saw in the wild. Not surprisingly, we arrived during their nap time.
Kangaroos and Canapés
On mainland Australia, it’s unusual to see kangaroos and wallabies outside sunrise and sunset when they come out of their hiding places to feed, yet, just as with the other wildlife, we saw hundreds sprawled out in paddocks in the sunshine or dozing under leafy trees.
We spotted both the Kangaroo Island kangaroo – a smaller, darker, furrier sub-species of the Western Grey kangaroo found on the mainland – and the tiny Tammar Wallaby, which has a pretty face with fine features. Almost extinct on the mainland, there’s an abundance of Tammar on Kangaroo Island.
One of my most vivid memories of our last Kangaroo Island trip was seeing majestic kangaroos grazing in the golden light of sunset on a straw-coloured paddock, which sprouted with the grass trees the locals call yakkas, at Kelly Hill Conservation Park.
We were with a guide from Southern Ocean Lodge, which was our luxurious home for a few nights on both of our recent trips, on their signature ‘Kangas and Kanapés’ tour. This must-do outing involves little more than an easy stroll to get as close as possible to the animals without intruding to silently take in the scene
If you’re lucky, you might spot a baby joey in its mother’s pouch, as we did. It was the cutest thing I’d seen on the island. The experience is celebrated with glasses of sparkling wine and scrummy canapés that the guide served from the back of the luxury four-wheel drive as the small group of guests savoured the sunset.
Our Kangaroo Island Guide
How to Get to Kangaroo Island
Domestic airlines JetStar and Tiger Airways fly between Australian cities. From Adelaide Airport, Regional Express Airlines (REX) flies daily (30 minutes) to Kingscote Airport on Kangaroo Island. Planes are small so you may need to store luggage at your Adelaide hotel. You’ll need to organise airport transfers through your accommodation or a tour company.
You can also hire a rental car in Adelaide and drive the 2+ hours from Adelaide to Cape Jervis, from where you can take the SeaLink ferry to Penneshaw on Kangaroo Island. This way you have a vehicle to independently explore Kangaroo Island.
If you don’t wish to drive and are planning on doing a guided tour on Kangaroo Island, then from Adelaide you can travel with SeaLink, which offers a comfortable bus that meets their ferry at Cape Jervis, and arrange for the guide to meet you at the ferry.
Getting Around Kangaroo Island
If you are flying from Adelaide to Kangaroo Island, you can also book a car rental with Budget or Hertz for pick up from Kingscote Airport on Kangaroo Island, and explore the island on your own wheels.
Kangaroo Island Wilderness Tours offers 1-4 day tours around Kangaroo Island and they offer pick-up from the airport, ferry, or your accommodation.
Where to Stay on Kangaroo Island
Southern Ocean Lodge, located at the southwestern tip of Kangaroo Island is one of Australia’s most luxurious lodges and one of its most eco-friendly.
Kangaroo Island Wilderness Retreat by the entrance to Flinders Chase National Park offers eco-friendly rooms, suites and self-contained apartments on 113 acres of beautiful native bushland. There’s free WiFi and a restaurant and bar.
If you prefer to be located in town, with cafes and restaurants in walking distance, the Kangaroo Island Seafront Hotel in Penneshaw has a range of sea-view rooms and villas, as well as a pool, spa, sauna and tennis court, bar and pizzeria.
Sea Dragon Lodge, just out of Penneshaw, offers self-catering accommodation with fully equipped kitchens and free WiFi, set on 250 acres just a few minutes walk from a small private sandy beach. The restaurant makes use of the excellent local island produce and wines.
Villas on the Bay at Kingscote is a complex of modern, minimalist, air-conditioned villas with fully equipped kitchens, barbecues, access to a grocery delivery service, and the friendly owners even provide a starter kit of bread, butter, bread, jam, coffee, and tea, along with airport transfers.
Kangaroo Island Bayview Villas located on a hillside near Kingscote, a 15 minute-drive from Emu Bay and Kingscote Airport, have floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Nepean Bay, well equipped kitchens, private patios, and BBQ facilities.
Where to Eat on Kangaroo Island
Feast on fresh seafood and fish and chips at Rockpool Café on gorgeous Stokes Bay, locally farmed marron with bush tucker herbs at the Marron Café, or a ten-course degustation meal (allow 2-3 hours) under the Enchanted Fig Tree (Dec-April) or in the 150 year-old Shearers Shed (April-Nov) at Hannaford & Sachs.
Kangaroo Island Essentials and Tips
If you’re not an Australian or New Zealand citizen, you need a Tourist Visa, Electronic Travel Authority or eVisitor before you travel to Australia. To determine which visa you need contact your nearest Australian embassy.
Kangaroo Island uses Australia’s currency, which is the Australian dollar. ATMs aren’t plentiful, so take lots of cash, although major credit cards are accepted. Tipping is at your discretion in Australia, but is appreciated for good service.
Kangaroo Island has a mild climate. Temperatures in summer (Dec–Feb) average 24˚C and 15˚C in winter (Jun–Aug). Summer has the least amount of rainfall.
Pack mosquito repellent, sun cream, swimwear, hat, and flip-flops for the beach, light cotton trousers, walking boots for hikes, and a fleece or sweater and lightweight wet weather jacket.
Buy a Telstra pre-paid SIM card to make local calls and access the Internet from your phone. Telstra is the only service provider that operates in remote areas.
South Australian Tourism www.tourism.sa.gov.au
South Australia National Parks www.environment.sa.gov.au
We travelled to Kangaroo Island as guests of South Australia Tourism and Southern Ocean Lodge but all our opinions are our own obviously.