I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back to Kangaroo Island. My first visit, nearly 20 years earlier, had been one of the highlights of my honeymoon. Engraved in my memory was an island of endless eucalyptus forests replete with koalas, and rolling paddocks where wild kangaroos grazed morning and night.
A rugged coastline made frequent accommodation for vast windswept white sand beaches, some populated by colonies of endangered seals, others left free to the devices of fewer than 5,000 human residents.
In the years since that magical trip, however, the island had been discovered. Like the islanders I befriended during that first visit, so many of whom displayed a sincere pride of ownership in their home, I feared that development might forever ruin what was so special about the place. Chief among those concerns was a $2,000 a night hotel that opened in 2008 and immediately attracted an international spotlight.
I needn’t have worried.
“A lot has happened, but not much has changed,” said Craig Wickham, a naturalist who showed me and my wife around during our first visit, and who has remained a mate ever since. In addition to raising two kids and growing his island touring business, he’s been active in the effort to keep Kangaroo Island the way it has long been. He’s been a relentless advocate for truly sustainable tourism, and has gently enlisted visitors in the effort by showing them the beauty of this unspoiled place.
Two of Kangaroo Island’s premier attractions, Admiral’s Arch and Remarkable Rocks, are geological spectacles thousands of centuries in the making, so I didn’t expect much of a metamorphosis in just 20 short years. But the Arch, a land bridge created by the erosion of a sea cliff, has been made all the more remarkable by the arrival of a colony of New Zealand Fur Seals. Between fishing expeditions out at sea, they decamp in the sun along the more horizontal slabs of limestone surrounding the Arch, where they’re occasionally joined by their lighter-coloured cousin, the Australian Fur Seals.
The Arch is also the island’s foremost example of how modest expenditures on tourism infrastructure have increased access to wonders of nature while reducing human impact on them. New wooden boardwalks leading to the prime viewing spots have kept admirers off the rocks, allowing the seals to feel less vulnerable in this siesta spot.
Boardwalks at Remarkable Rocks have produced similarly gratifying results. Visitors are still free to climb all over these massive, irregularly eroded granite boulders—they can’t cause a fraction of what the elements have already wrought over millennia—but thanks to a path from the expanded parking lot, gawkers no longer trample the surrounding vegetation in their rush to snap photographs.
My bad back was also pleased to note that more of the island’s roads are paved, although a few are still so rutted that you literally can’t carry on a conversation while driving over them. And there are a few more—and more upscale—lodgings than the simple motel-style accommodations I stayed in the last time. But to my unexpected delight, they’ve been in keeping with the island’s independent nature. The Cliff House, with its astounding perch over secluded Snelling’s Beach, is a perfect example. It’s one of just three villas in the family-run LifeTime Private Retreats collection.
More controversial is Southern Ocean Lodge, a super-luxurious resort on the island’s south coast, not too far from the landmark Flinders Chase National Park. You can’t see a single other building from the hotel, whose minimal footprint practically burrows into the surrounding eucalyptus forest. Twenty-one rooms slope down a single corridor cleft from a headland, each with a full-frontal view of a stunningly gorgeous – albeit an unswimmable beach.
The building is designed to maximize heat flow in winter, cooling breezes in summer, and rainfall capture year-round. Desalinated well-water supplements whatever nature doesn’t deposit onto the tin roof, and diesel generators power whatever the solar panels can’t. A report in the lobby details the day’s water and energy usage.
Italian limestone tiles throughout the property and an equally luxe spa are harbingers of the kind of development I worried about. But overall, Southern Ocean Lodge has changed the island in positive ways that a pessimist like myself wouldn’t have predicted. After talking to local residents, I concluded that it was exactly the kind of smart growth that they had been trying to encourage for the past two decades.
The hotel sources most of its food from island farms and dairies – everything from grain-fed beef and free-range geese to artisan Manchego and fruits drizzled with Kangaroo Island’s own Ligurian honey. This commitment to serving local food proved a valuable safety net when the Australian government stopped subsidizing the price of wool, leaving Kangaroo Island sheep farmers with thousands of tons of excess.
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Ever-entrepreneurial, local farmers have shifted land into production of tomatoes, wheat, canola oil, and even some excellent pinot noir grapes. And Southern Ocean Lodge’s choice to purchase these products has lent an imprimatur of quality that encourages retailers throughout Australia to do likewise. Kangaroo Island wines, for example, now attract attention that previously might have been limited to the Barossa Valley.
More importantly, however, an island that has long been a poster child for environmental biodiversity is becoming more economically diverse as well. Original art in each of the Lodge’s spacious guest rooms, for example, has planted the seeds of a burgeoning arts community. The most striking pieces are from Janine Mackintosh, who skillfully arranges hundreds of found objects like eucalyptus leaves and seashells into beautiful patterns.
And yet in so many ways, Kangaroo Island remains the same. Often dubbed the Galapagos of Australia for the uniqueness of its fauna, it’s still a place where you don’t have to go far to spy a koala or a kangaroo in the wild. “Just find some god-forsaken place with a few shade trees and you’re bound to flush a kangaroo,” says Ron Swan, one of Craig’s mates.
To prove his point, he drives maybe five minutes off the main highway into a land of rolling brown hills, pocked by eucalyptus trees, and stops the car near a thick copse. Kangaroos typically make themselves scarce in the midday heat, but we gradually discover that we’ve happened upon a mob cooling their heels beneath the canopy of flora.
First, one becomes visible through the branches, then another, and as we approach the stand, three or four more come into view. Finally, there are six of them, and their ringleader calls for a quick exodus. They bound down the landscape, one behind another, in no particular hurry, knowing that they can escape us without much effort. Still, they don’t disappear from view; rather, they stare back at us from a safe distance, wondering whether those yahoos in the car are going to leave their resting place, or whether they have to choose another from the millions available on the island.
Over the course of just one day, I’d be privileged to see Tamar Wallabies (extinct on mainland Australia), endangered Australian Sea lions, endangered Rosenberg sand goannas, and rare white-bellied sea eagles. Oh, and I almost forgot koalas, which are so plentiful that authorities have had to start sterilizing them because they were eating away all of the island’s malley gum trees.
If anything, I’m the one who has changed. I’ve seen plenty of wild kangaroos since that first visit, including one in Adelaide the day before on a hike to the top of Mount Lofty. But this sight, six ‘roos in a row, hopping in formation, still had the power to move me.
I’ve witnessed scores of coastlines just as beautiful as those found here and stretched out on dozens of beaches no less secluded. On the strand not half a mile from my house in Santa Monica, I routinely see dolphins while I’m doing yoga.
But never have I swum among them the way I did on this most recent trip. This was no SeaWorld petting zoo, but rather a pod of about 20 bottlenose dolphins who didn’t seem to mind a few humans, trying futilely to keep up with them as they dart around the water. These are animals that outsmart sharks, so they weren’t worried about some pale finless creatures flailing about in their midst.
I’ve also moved 3,000 miles closer to Australia in the interim. When I first travelled there from my home in New York City, Kangaroo Island felt like a once-in-a-lifetime destination, a mythical faraway place where I’d never be privileged to return. But from Los Angeles, it seems more like the kind of place I could revisit frequently. For a destination this exceptional, I see no reason to limit myself to one trip per lifetime.
I was wrong to worry about Kangaroo Island changing. It’s not the same as it was; it’s better.
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