KANGAROO ISLAND: South Australia's National Treasure

Kate Ayrton discovers the culinary delights, pioneering spirit and natural wonders of KI.

Southern Ocean Lodge, KI

The Southern Ocean Lodge at West End of KI

Spanning 4,400 square kilometers, Kangaroo Island (known as KI by the locals) is roughly the same size as Bali, minus all the people and traffic, and the third largest island off Australia. With a ratio of approximately 1 square kilometer per person, there is plenty of space for all walks of life. Half of the island is native bush, 33% is national park and there are over 20 vineyards, as well as an abundance of quintessentially Australian wildlife such as the brushtail possum, echidnas, goannas and of course, kangaroos! Coming in to land after a 30-minute flight from Adelaide, the island looks arid and dry with pockets of agricultural farmland and expansive bushland rimmed with rocky, coastal outcrops and rolling seas. Whirly winds or “willy willy’s,” named by the Aborigines, can be seen dancing across the land once known as ‘Karta’, meaning ‘Land of the Dead’. Quite the opposite, KI is brimming with life and fertile soil making it a bountiful destination for gourmands and nature-lovers alike.

Baudin's map of KI

Baudin’s map of KI

KI’s Rich History
Founded by Captain Matthew Flinders in 1802, he and his crew feasted on kangaroos after months at sea with no fresh meat and so the island got its name. There is a distinct French undercurrent that also runs through the island, which comes from Nicolas Baudin, a French explorer who was the first European to circumnavigate and map the island, hence many of its French names. Baudin and Flinders, both distinguished navigators and cartographers, found themselves circling in the same waters when France and England were locked in conflict back home. But in an age of chivalry, rather than fire gunpowder across the transom, they dined and shared (geographic) intelligence instead like civilized men at the aptly named Encounter Bay.

A seasonal community of whalers and sealers soon sprang up and in 1836, Kingscote (the island’s capital) became the first free European settlement in South Australia. Fortunately today, all the wildlife on Kangaroo Island is protected based on the simple local wisdom: species – habitat = extinction. The ancient human history of the island is both rich and colorful, and also full of suffering, endurance, courage and bravery. The Aboriginal population mysteriously left the island about five thousand years ago returning again only in the early 1800’s when escaped convicts (from New South Wales and Tasmania) came to the island in search of a living dragging kidnapped indigenous women from the mainland along with them.

Seal Bay Conservation Park, KI Kangaroo,KI

The lighthouse keepers were another tough lot. Rough seas and hidden reefs made the island a deathtrap for even the most experienced sailors, so their presence was essential and the job was not an easy one. Many were sent mad by the mercury, if not each other. At Weirs Cove the remains of a store building and a cutting in the cliff can be seen. Until road transport improved in the 1940s, supplies were winched up the 92 meter cliff every 3 months on a flying fox from the jetty to the storerooms. At first horses were used to pull the winch until replaced by a motor. It was a solitary and grueling life. For a glimpse into the past, visitors can stay in some of the lighthouse keepers’ heritage cottages.

Remarkable Rocks, KI Cape du Couedic Lighthouse, KI

Following World War II there was a farming revolution and many of the returning soldiers were encouraged to work the land and start new lives. “Soldier settlers” as they were known were given virgin scrub to clear – no easy task – and in return had to pay back a portion of the revenue to the government over a number of years. But there was another catch. You had to be married and you had to have children. Fortunately, this time the women came voluntarily and were made of sturdy stuff. Together, these pioneering couples built strong communities forged in the fields and through a variety of shared tasks. Between 1941 and 1961 soldiers and their wives created towns, schools, churches, hospitals, fire and ambulance services, as well as community halls – most of which remain today.

Grassmere Cottage, KI

If you’ve ever heard the Australia expression, “it’s hard yakka” – it comes from here and it means back breaking, hard work on account of the extremely tough, almost impenetrable, local Yakka or Tate’s grass trees, which the soldiers had to clear before reaping any benefits. Many never did. (The Parndana Soldier Settlement Museum provides an excellent insight into these times.)

KI Local Attractions
Exceptional Kangaroo Island Tours offers relaxed nature-based eco-tours of the island in comfortable 4×4 vehicles, visiting private sanctuaries, pristine beaches and National Parks, as well as other local highlights that include a private picnic at a secret campsite where koalas can be watched in their natural habitat. Local guides happily share their island knowledge and stories, as well as their wives’ delicious home-baked cakes, over cups of tea while enjoying the views at Snelling Beach or hanging out at Seal Bay where you can get up-close and personal with Australian sea lions in their natural habitat.

Koala at KI Snelling Beach, KI

If your trip coincides with the first Sunday of the month, check out the Kangaroo Island Farmers’ Market by the beach at Lloyd Collins Reserve, Penneshaw. There you can peruse a selection of KI’s top food producers offering delicious seasonal, farm gate and artisan food. Other local enterprises worth visiting are Andermel Marron & Two Wheeler Creek Wines and The Islander winery. Marron’s are a local delicacy – a large freshwater crayfish that tastes like a lighter lobster with a more delicate flavor. Marron breed once a year and can have up to 600 “sprats” per female. Andermel Marron is one of Australia’s largest marron fish farms with over 50 growing ponds. Visitors can see the marron up-close in the holding shed with their life cycle and operational aspects of a modern marron farm presented in an interesting and educational way. Gourmet tastings are also available at the Marron Café with a range of bushtucker products to also try.

Andermel Marron, KI Islander Estate, KI

the-islander-estate-wally-white-semillon-viognier-kangaroo-islandThe Islander is an artisanal onsite winery founded by Jacques Lurton in 1997. The Frenchman fell in love with the island when visiting and liked the place so much, he decided to stay. A dynastic vigneron from Bordeaux with grape-growing roots dating back to the 17th century, you might wonder what he is doing on KI, but Lurton, like many of the island’s predecessors, prefers to go against the grain and was drawn to the land for its independent spirit and rich terroir. His 11-acre vineyard sits on a sunny, schisty hill near Parndana and is planted with multi-varietals of cabernet franc, malbec, sangiovese, shiraz, grenach, viognier, and semillon. Although Lurton makes wines all over the world, here he only makes ones that he likes to drink such as the Investigator – a cabernet franc – named after the ship that brought Captain Flinders to the island and his favorite, Wally White – a Semillon-viognier – named after the soldier settler that once lived nearby. A drop of Islander wines is as good a taste of Kangaroo Island as you will ever find.

KI’s Room With A View
While there are a variety of excellent places to stay on Kangaroo Island, the jewel in the crown is the acclaimed Southern Ocean Lodge located on the West End of KI. After a few days learning about the history and culture of the place, it isn’t hard to see that the ‘luxe base camp’ is an inspired metaphor for the island’s unique pioneering spirit. At first, you will simply be dazzled by the boldness and beauty of the place. It’s where the past and the future collide on a wild bluff at the edge of the world. The weather can get pretty squally as the waves pound the coastline, but the Southern Ocean Lodge stands firm and proud meeting the winds and rain head on, as if ready to face-off Neptune himself.

Osprey Pavilion ©SOL SOL Spa Shower

Inside, the simple but elegant interiors transition seamlessly into the rough-hewn sea and landscape that surrounds the lodge, and every guest suite has a front-row view of the Great Southern Ocean from the bed, the sunken lounge and the bathroom. (Opt for a room with a bath and enjoy a luxurious soak adjacent to the world’s biggest bathtub or book into the Southern Spa for a relaxing massage and panoramic clifftop shower.) The architect, Max Pritchard, is a genius. His clever use of glass, stone, wood, and iron is both utilitarian and aesthetic. The Southern Ocean Lodge also has a green streak utilizing both solar power for its energy needs as well as rainwater catchments to conserve one of the area’s most valuable commodities. Designed to protect itself and blend into the landscape, the lodge hunkers down into the harsh environment in an integrative and unassuming way. It is raw and beautiful. Daring, but unpretentious. Exposed to the elements, it remains defiant and embracing of them all at once.

SOL Entrance SOL Guest Suite

For those who can afford it, the Southern Ocean Lodge isn’t just a place to visit in the sun – it is equally mesmerizing on a wicked stormy day and not hard to understand how 80 ships came to their fateful end while being tossed around the island’s rocky perimeter. Each room is named after a wreck – a sobering reminder of the sea’s treacherous ways. Not many hotels are brave enough to name and number their rooms after human tragedies, but around here folks don’t sugarcoat the past. Instead, they embrace the islands rich and tragic history, showing true grit.

SOL SOL Guest Suites ©SOL

At night the exterior fades with the twilight and the interior lights resemble the southern hemisphere stars twinkling through the windows. The large open-air lounge, called the ‘Great Room’ looks like a James Bond lair – at any moment, he might appear at the ‘feel at home’ bar and shake up his signature martini before melting into the sofa with a leggy blonde by the suspended “Jetson’s” fireplace. The lodge is glamorous and elegant, yet cool and discreet for those seeking solitude or privacy.

Great Room, SOL, KI

Mealtimes at the Southern Ocean Lodge should not be missed. Set in the stone walled dining room or al-fresco on the terrace, Chef Tim Bourke’s daily changing menus are driven by fresh local produce based on the hotel’s ‘locavore’ philosophy which could mean oysters, saffron, ducks and geese, or local South Australian cheeses, depending on what’s in season. I enjoyed delicious butter poached white asparagus, local manchego cheese, caper raisin puree, almond steamed Kangaroo Island marron with rocket cream, spring leaves and vegetables, beautifully paired with Islander Estate’s Wally White. For desert, the Kangaroo Island honey crème caramel with lemon marmalade, sheep milk sorbet and almonds was surpassed only by Henschke’s delicate 2012 Muscat of Tappa Pass from the Eden Valley.

SOL Marrons ©SATC

The Southern Ocean Lodge is run in much the same way it was built. It takes a community of dedicated people who like the lighthouse keepers have to bunk down together and make it work on their own on a day-to-day basis, supporting each other and using all the local resources and supplies to keep them going. The staff is congenial, knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and passionate about both the lodge and the island. Residents from the local community also support the lodge’s exclusive guided tours. This gives visitors the opportunity to connect with locals who have been on the island for generations, some even direct descendents of the first settlers. The ‘Wonders of KI’ is their signature experience with a trip to the famous Cape de Couedic lighthouse, the spectacular Remarkable Rocks that look like prehistoric sculptures, and the lively Fur Sea Colony at Admirals Arch; a stunning natural phenomena that the seals have laid claim to. Other bespoke SOL experiences include a kayak adventure beginning at Hanson Bay, beach fishing, hiking, and Quad bike safaris. Right on the hotel’s doorstep is a scenic coastal clifftop trek along the limestone cliffs – truthfully a photographer’s dream. Another popular favorite is ‘Kangaroos & Kanapés’ at sundown (aka, Roos & Booze) where guests can graze alongside local marsupials on a beautiful historic island property that serves as a local food bowl.

Admirals Arch, KI

The Southern Ocean Lodge is an environmental and tourism success story, but it was a battle hard fought and hard won. Owners James and Hailey Baillie spent years petitioning for the right to build on the site, which is still considered controversial by some, but is gradually being accepted by most as a beneficial addition to the local culture and community. It has brought a high level of international interest and attention to the region and a rise in tourism that benefits everyone.

Soldier Settlers hard at workTo survive on KI in the early days you had to be tough, independent, self-sufficient, and resourceful. The lighthouse keepers received deliveries only every three months and once they hauled it up the cliffs from the ships below in rough seas, it had to last them a long time. They all had to get along as they were dependent on each other for many things and so there was a strong sense of community and support, which continues today. What makes KI and SOL so special is that both are built on national heritage. A heritage made up of stone, convicts, soldiers, blood, sweat, tears, and the dreams of generations past.

The Southern Ocean Lodge is a national treasure perhaps best summed up in a book from within its own library by the late British art critic John Ruskin: “…there must be, in this magnificently human art of architecture, some equivalent expression for the trouble and wrath of life, for its sorrow and its mystery…”   – The Seven Lamps of Architecture.


By Air: Regional Express (REX) provides direct flights, taking just 30 minutes from Adelaide to Kingscote Airport, 14 kilometers from the town centre.

By Ferry: SeaLink operates Sealion 2000 and Spirit of Kangaroo Island, two large, luxurious vehicle and passenger ferries, between Cape Jervis and Penneshaw. There are four departures daily, with additional services during peak times. Travelling time is a comfortable 45 minutes. Mainland coach connections are available to/from Adelaide and Goolwa to Cape Jervis. Island connections are available to/from Penneshaw to American River and Kingscote. Be sure to book in advance. For more information, call 13 13 01 or visit www.sealink.com.au.

Southern Ocean Lodge: run by Baillie Lodges and a member of Luxury Lodges of Australia. Rates start at $990 per person per night (twin share), including all dining, open bar, in-suite bar, selected guided KI experiences and island airport transfer. For a complete list of rates and packages, click here. To make a reservation, call +61 2 9918 4355 or email: reserve@baillielodges.com.au

Hot Tip: For foodie die-hards, join Chefs Maggie Beer, Simon Bryant and Damien Pignolet on the Southern Ocean Lodge’s popular annual KI Food Safari (24-30 August 2013). This 6-night special event is a hands-on, muddy-boots paddock and vineyard discovery of Kangaroo Island’s best produce and its journey to the lodge’s renowned kitchen.

Kangaroo Island: For more information visit www.southaustralia.com or www.tourkangarooisland.com.au

Want to read more about South Australia? Click on our other stories about Adelaide and the Barossa Valley and the Eyre Peninsula.

Book this trip!

* Photos by Kate Ayrton and courtesy SOL and SATC. (Wandermelon traveled as a guest of the South Australian Tourism Commission.)

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