Our Kangaroo Island Experience

It was the bushfires of 2019/20 that prompted our interest in Kangaroo Island. We saw a tour operator on the telly pleading with the public to keep visiting the tiny island because: “We rely on tourists to keep us afloat but everyone has gone!”

We decided right then that we’d go on a holiday to Kangaroo Island to help them out. All we had to do was book a time in our calendar to get away from our busy jobs in Perth (W.A) and go.

The devastation is well recorded. Lightning started the firing process and then the firefront moved fast. Large swathes of vegetation were decimated. Animals perished. Businesses were lost. Many people thought they were going to die. The scar it left in its wake is going to take many years to heal.

On the television, things looked pretty bad. It gave the impression that the entire island was scorched to a crisp. Nothing was left except a few pockets here and there. As it turned out, only half of the island was affected. The rest (mainly in the east and where most of the accommodation and services are) was untouched.

“So come on down and visit us now. We’ve still plenty to see and do.”

And then COVID-19 put a stop to any plan we had of supporting the KI community in the immediate future. The timing couldn’t have been any worse.

Flash forward to now. The word isolation is fading from our daily vernacular. People who were previously forced to stay home can travel long distances without the thought of being caught in some quarantine regime along the way. Our Kangaroo Island holiday was finally coming into sight. We booked our trip and packed our bags.

Four days, three nights. That is what we settled on — incorporating a flight, a bus ride (airport to Cape Jervis) and then a ferry trip across the water. Each leg of the trip took between two and three hours.

Yes, the ferry crossing was much longer than the 45min quoted on the brochure. Thirty-knot winds forced the skipper to work the sea longer than usual (having had to do that many times with Last Laugh). People were throwing up all over the place. By the time we went stepped ashore, green faces and jelly legs clung to the gangway, slumped against the side of the terminal and staggered about the arrivals car park.

Poor things. I’m sure the journey isn’t always that bad. It’s usually a cosy 45min, flat, ride just like the brochure says it should be.

We chose to pre-book a rental car from Hertz and pick it up when we got to the island. It made sense. Hertz served me well in the past and always had good prices, service, and locations. Wherever I travelled in Australia, Hertz was only a few steps from an airport terminal. This time, I lucked out on having such a convenience so near. Hertz wasn’t found in the ferry terminal at all. I had to drag my suitcases up a long hill, right across the town to get to their office. The tiny wheels on one of my bags didn’t fair well on the bitumen and gravel surfaces. If I were to do it again, I’d go with Budget. Their office is right inside the ferry Terminal and their car pick-up lot is just across the road from the terminal.

(Author’s note: The office clerk rang and left us a message just as our boat docked. She said she could pick us up and take us to the office. Unfortunately, we were handling our bags at the time and never got her information until much later… but now I know why she left it until the last minute to make the call!)

There are island tours but we didn’t want to join one. We feel tours try to cover too much ground in too little time. We wanted to choose where we went. If we saw a nice place to visit, we wanted to leave the route to see it. Car rental was our preferred choice.

The best places to visit are about half an hour to forty-five minutes drive-time apart and we could take any of them in our own time. (If you drive the entire length of the island, it takes about an hour.) There are gin distilleries, lavender and bee farms, pristine beaches, restaurants and sanctuaries to include in any self-drive tour. We wanted flexibility and our rental car gave us that.

The two largest towns (Penneshaw and Kingscote), have roads that are sealed and they are safe. There is a sealed highway that runs east and west across the island and another that goes north and south (they kind of divide the island into quarters) but the rest of the roads around the island are made of gravel or limestone. They aren’t dangerous or difficult to traverse but care must be taken when taking corners at speed. Dust will cover the rear window of any vehicle so it’ll need frequent cleaning to see out the back.

No, we didn’t rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle. A simple Corolla did us just fine (two adults and two suitcases).

One thing I noticed was minimal road signage, especially when approaching secondary and tertiary road intersections. I didn’t mind that so much (visual pollution is low on the island) but it took some getting used to. I often passed a turnoff before I realised I needed to stop and turn around. On the matter of signage in general: There are no billboards or advertising at all on KI! (There are no McDonald’s or other fast food outlets either). Phone reception is limited but best inside the two main town centres (and sporadic in various places on the eastern part of the island).

Margo looked after the accommodations for our three-night stay while I handled the travel components. She chose a place called Mercure Kangaroo Island Lodge in American River (based on a review she read in a post like this one). On arrival, the rooms were sufficient although looking a little tired in places. The lodge redeemed itself with its restaurant and the quality of its meals. There was another benefit — this crisp, clear, unimpeded view of the river outside our window!

American River at American River

To be fair on the lodge (and every other accommodation venue on KI), it’s been a tough few years, economically speaking. The fires and COVID disruptions would’ve made it hard. If you put that up against the laid-back lifestyle of KI, not everything is of a ‘city standard’ where the competition is fierce and aggressive. Kangaroo Island isn’t like that. She won’t fight you for big smoke ideals! You go for its natural serenity, not a hotel’s floor coverings or its choice of decor.

We planned to eat out while travelling. If it were only to be on the island for three nights, what’s the harm, right? Our first stop was False Cape, a winery located between Penneshaw and Cape Willoughby Lighthouse. It has a small restaurant and offers wine-tasting plates. Yes, we were very happy here — even bought a few bottles of their wine to take back with us as a result of how good it was. (Margo is a fine wine connoisseur and isn’t easy to please)

We met a nice American gent at Cape Willoughby. He was standing on the park’s office veranda looking at us while we were approaching him — and he had a quizzical look on his face. He was wondering if we were interested in taking a tour of the lighthouse. He wasn’t a tour guide, just a solitary tourist (from Chicago) looking for someone to join him on a tour. The lighthouse staff wouldn’t run one until there were at least three people signed up to do it. “Sure, why not?” we replied. The four of us (Parks and Wildlife Officer too) then had an educational but amusing time exploring the lighthouse. The laughs just kept coming as we pretended to be lighthouse keepers, keeping the light lit, the clockwork wound and the radio communication up to date. It’ll be a highlight of mine to remember for a long time to come.

I loved the town of Kingscote. If I had to live on KI for any length of time, I would choose Kingscote in which to set up a home. It’s got every modern convenience and has a sweet coastal feel too. There are eateries, bars, coffee shops and a grocery store. I could suggest that this might be a suitable home base while spending days touring the island. Mobile phone coverage is fantastic in Kingscote too!

Mobile Phone Tower in Kingscote

Pics of communication towers? What can I say? Here’s your proof that Kingscote is connected!

Aurora Ozone Hotel was our choice in Kingscote. Again, the mainland has a higher standard for this level of hotel accommodation. The carpets were more soiled than expected and an unpleasant odour permeated the air conditioning system every time we used the bathroom sink. (I could see the drain from the air-con had been connected to the under-sink plumbing after the ‘S’ bend).

What’s a little fart-like smell being pumped thoughtfully into the bedroom after using the bathroom? Nice, eh?

I explained the symptom and diagnosis to the manager (I’m a resort maintenance guy at my day job) but I don’t think he was interested in pursuing the problem. No one else had reported it before. Let me say, we stayed in town on the hottest day of the year. The air conditioner in our room was in use all night long. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t experience the stink either, but we did use it and we sure did smell the results!

Seal Bay Panorama (with seals!)

Seal Bay was a complete surprise. This place took my breath away (in a good way).

A colony of seals call this southern bay home. After spending days at a time at their feeding spots in the southern oceans, they come ashore to rest, play, nest, give birth and such. I’d read about Seal Bay and dismissed it almost right away. I’ve been on penguin and turtle spotting trips before and the hype was always greater than the reality. The brochure always managed to show hundreds, sometimes thousands of animals frolicking along a shoreline with giddy tourists in the background. (I once waited four hours in rainy weather for one penguin to show). The reality can be quite different!

And then we walked down the boardwalk that leads to Seal Bay expecting to see nothing but another pretty beach at the end of it. Well, that wasn’t the case. In the bright sunshine, during the middle of the day, we saw a figure on the sand… then another… then another! By the time we reached the viewing platform and got much closer, we could easily see about thirty seals lying and playing in the sun. There is a catch though. The beach is a no-go area. All humans must keep to the paths and venture no further than the last platform. It’s understandable. The bay is their home and we are just visitors to it. Why spoil that for the sake of some seal selfies?

If you pay a wee bit more, a parks officer will let you get just a bit closer to the seals (if you enlarge the pano-photo, you’ll see a group of people on the far and distant right) and tell you all about the seals while you watch on but, due to our previous experiences, we weren’t prepared to spend and speculate on what we might get on a tour. (View the video below to see just how close the viewing platform really is to the seals. The wide-angle panorama doesn’t do it justice!)

Speaking of the video, I’ve spliced a few shorts of the trip together. I popped in a scene of the seals, plus something of Stokes Bay (the very best beach in Australia). Our Gin experience gets a mention too.

Our last night on Kangaroo Island was inside a glamping tent at Kangaroo Island Seafront Holiday Park. This allowed us to be in Penneshaw so we could catch the ferry back to the mainland first thing in the morning. The tent is installed on a fixed platform and has a properly plumbed bathroom like any hotel would (yes, it’s a real bathroom inside that tent!). The bedroom is air-conditioned (has to be) and the side flaps come down so you can see the nearby bushland and let the natural breeze pass through it. Ironically, this accommodation cost the most of all and, if it wasn’t for the 20-knot winds shaking the canvas throughout the night, it would’ve been the perfect way to end the K/Island experience.

On the issue of Penneshaw and the penguins said to frequent its beach each night (more like published because we believed Penneshaw was the KI’s penguin capital). They don’t frequent it at all. For some reason, the penguins have moved on. The penguin centre that once hosted tours has been closed indefinitely. (This conflicts with the reviews we read online when while planning our trip.) They say climate change has affected the animals behaviour. Some writers suggest it has something to do with sharks as there appear to be more of them around these days. Whatever the reason, don’t count on seeing penguins when visiting Penneshaw (who knows, my review may be outdated by the time you read this and the little penguins may have returned).

Penneshaw Beach (with ferry and terminal to the left)

I say it could be a combination of those issues, plus a giant vessel that stirs up their water several times a day (the boat is literally just a few metres from their old habitat).

I loved KI. I know my post sounds like it has a gripe or two but I would go back to Kangaroo Island in heartbeat. We ate well and all staff were hospitable. The vibe is one of relaxation and harmony. If you go, take your time and see as much of it as you can. We only saw the eastern half and a little bit of the middle. Our four-day visit just wasn’t long enough to see it all. Eight to ten days probably would’ve covered it for us and the pace at which we see things.

That’s it from me. Watch the video and send me a message. Let me know about your own Kangaroo Island experience! (if you have one to tell)



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Website Built with WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: