Sure, it has bright lights (Kangaroo Islanders call them stars) but this is no big city. Discover a wilderness escape with creature comforts on Adelaide’s doorstep – this is our essential guide to planning your perfect weekend on Kangaroo Island.
Twenty years ago, Kangaroo Island was a destination known almost exclusively to South Australians. It was a place of farmers, fishermen and the odd self-exiled artist living in a beach shack.
But that was before it became famous as a wildlife haven where native animals have thrived, free of foxes and rabbits. These days, visitors are as likely to come from Amsterdam or Abu Dhabi as they are from Adelaide. But wherever they’re from, people are reliably surprised by three things: how vast Kangaroo Island is, how beautiful it is and how grounded it is.
Measuring 150 kilometres from east to west and often cited as “nine times the size of Singapore”, KI is home to just 4600 people, most of them living in Kingscote, the largest town. The landscape is diverse and expansive, with a mix of pasture, vast tracts of virgin bush, rugged sea cliffs and beaches that seem to stretch forever. Less than 10 per cent of the island’s road network is sealed.
KI is a paradise for children of all ages, a place where they can run as wild as the island’s fauna. This itinerary for enjoying the perfect family weekend on Kangaroo Island is confined to the middle third of the island, which keeps the driving to a minimum (kids and long drives are rarely a happy combination).
Day 1 PM
You’ve landed at KI’s airport near Cygnet River and collected your hire car. There’s a busy afternoon ahead so start with a laid-back lunch, a suitable introduction to the island’s tenor.
The rustic café at the Frogs & Roses Garden Centre is a five-minute drive away. It has a nursery on one side, a truck yard (Ugly Dog) on the other and paddocks all around. The chalkboard menu has $20 pizzas topped with ingredients from the owner’s vegie patch, plus homemade cheesecake. Thanks to a garden with swings and a trampoline, younger children will magically disappear.
After lunch, head south-west for about 30 minutes to Vivonne Bay, your home for the weekend. At the Vivonne Bay General Store & Bottleshop (08 8559 4285), with its distinct surf-shack vibe.
Vivonne Bay is a lone coastal community within a bowl of mallee scrub. For a long time it was entirely self-sufficient – and mobile coverage is still patchy. But at the end of its sandy roads, you’ll find some quintessential beach shacks, including Beonne the Bay, a two-storey weekender that sleeps up to 10, with prices starting at $290 per night. Newly renovated, it has all the mod cons: big-screen TV, aircon and a deck with a barbecue.
Take a short walk and you’ll be looking down on the bay’s five-kilometre curve of white sand, a mecca for fishermen, beachcombers and surfers who ride the pale turquoise waves. Exhale.
At 5pm, it’s time for a sunset quad-bike tour with Kangaroo Island Outdoor Action. Family members older than six will be sized up for their own bikes for two hours of fun. Led by a guide, you’ll traverse narrow sand trails through thick bushland and across open fields. Guides stop along the way to point out KI kangaroos, koalas and, on some tours, a remarkable 4.5-metre- high yacca, or grass, tree. (The resin from yaccas was used to make explosives and varnish and, according to our guide, it provides the orange colour in fireworks.) Natural attractions are plentiful but it’s the roaring quad bikes that leave the kids revved up all the way back to the shack.
For dinner, fire up the barbecue and fill the night air with the aroma of steaks and sausages. With so little light pollution, the stars will be doing their best to impress.
Day 2 AM
An early walk to the beach will pay off with sightings of Tammar wallabies and superb fairy-wrens among the mallee. Afterwards, drive five minutes to Rustic Blue café. Overlooking paddocks with mobs of wild kangaroos, it serves great coffee and a light breakfast from 9am (Wednesdays to Sundays). A colourful gallery is stocked with works by local artists.
Happily caffeinated, drive 10 minutes east to Little Sahara, where pristine dunes rise to the height of 17-storey apartment blocks. At the foot of the tallest dune is the Little Sahara Interpretive Centre (designed by Max Pritchard, the architect behind Southern Ocean Lodge), where you can hire toboggans and sand boards. “It’s kind of like surfing – but without the sharks,” says owner Brenton Davis. Your kids will soon get the idea, though they may be surprised by the descent speed.
When they’ve had enough, depart for Raptor Domain, on the corner of South Coast and Seal Bay roads, where a rather good food van, KI Tuckerbox (0432 606 451), serves huge Predator Burgers. If you have time, watch the excellent In-Flight Birds of Prey Display, featuring owls, hawks and wedge-tailed eagles – many of them rescued. It’s hosted by owner Dave Irwin, who shares the same enthusiasm for wildlife that made his late distant cousin, Steve, a star.
Day 2 PM
At 12.15pm, start the easy highway drive to Kingscote to arrive at the nearby Emu Bay Boat Ramp for 1pm. You’ll be greeted by Andrew Neighbour, a fifth-generation islander and the genial skipper of a twin-engine RIB (a large jet boat designed to skid over shallow waters).
It’s time for the family to don wetsuits, masks and snorkels for a remarkably close dolphin encounter. Your three-hour experience with Kangaroo Island Marine Adventures begins in glassy Emu Bay, home to two pods of bottlenose dolphins. After 13 years of tours, Andrew’s boat is well known to the marine animals that frolic at the bow to check out his passengers. “We call this the dolphins’ lounge room,” says Andrew. “They’re safe in here; it’s where they chill out.”
The tour also visits a colony of long-nosed fur seals and there’s a chance you’ll see peregrine falcons, white-bellied sea eagles and Australian sea lions. Andrew was a fisherman for 20 years so he can’t resist jagging for a squid. “You’re welcome to take it home!” he says as one comes up blowing ink. “A bit of flour, some salt and pepper then onto the barbecue with sliced tomatoes – perfect for breakfast!” (Hint: ask him to gut it.)
You’re back on dry land at 4pm, when the light is golden – a great time to do a self-guided tour of Reeves Point. The 1836 relics of South Australia’s first European settlement there predate Adelaide – indeed, Kingscote was intended to be the capital before a lack of resources put paid to the plan.
At 6pm, head to the seaside Aurora Ozone Hotel. The menu at the on-site Zone Restaurant offers two specialties: KI whiting (battered, served with chips) and KI marron (locally farmed freshwater crayfish with pappardelle).
It’s a 45-minute drive back to Vivonne Bay; if it’s twilight, be extra-vigilant for wildlife.
Day 3 AM
After an early beach walk or a swim, pack up your shack, stow your bags in the car and head back to the general store, which opens at 9am. Repair to a table outside for a bacon-and-egg sandwich or try one of its celebrated whiting burgers. Then it’s a 20-minute trip to Seal Bay, one of KI’s hero attractions.
This protected and very dramatic cove is home to a breeding colony of endangered Australian sea lions. Join one of the regular guided tours that take you onto the sand as males weighing up to 350 kilograms square up to fight and females suckle their young.
There are about 12,000 of these distinctive grey-and-cream mammals along the coasts of SA and Western Australia. This 800-strong sea lion colony is the third largest in the country. “During the 19th century, the sealers nearly hunted them to extinction,” says site manager Alana Binns.