Often referred to as ‘Australian Galapagos’, Kangaroo Island that lies off the coast of South Australia is one of the most remarkable wildlife-watching destinations in Australia. Because of its isolation, Kangaroo Island (KI) is free of many diseases (like chlamydia in mainland koalas) and pest species found on the mainland, providing a much-needed breeding safe heaven to a wide variety of wildlife species.
I was fortunate to visit Kangaroo Island twice. In 2000 I spent a weekend on the island and in 2018 I returned for a day trip during an impromptu weekend in South Australia with a friend. Below are the details of both trips.
In short, you’ll want at least a couple of days on the island, there is simply too much to see and do in a day. But if all you have is a single day, you can still make the most of it and see some incredible wildlife on Kangaroo Island.
Weekend on Kangaroo Island
The journey to the island
The two-hour ferry ride to the island from Cape Jervis on the South Australian mainland can be an adventure in itself in rough seas. It was already pitch-black outside when I boarded the ferry. And while it was light and comfortable inside the ferry cabin, it was impossible to ignore the massive swells as I was watching my coffee cup trying to slide off the table every time the ferry climbed a big wave.
Thankfully, I was met on the island wharf by a lady from the Penneshaw backpackers, where I booked my accommodation, and within 10 minutes of my arrival, I was having a hot shower and making plans for the following day.
Though, the only decision I had to make was which tour company to use for the day of wildlife viewing. And since in 2000 there were only two companies on the island that offered the tours, it wasn’t much of a choice anyway, and I decided to spend one day with each.
Looking for wildlife on Kangaroo Island
The first morning started with a drive across the island to the Rocky River grasslands in Flinders Chase National Park – the breeding grounds of Cape Barren Geese. At one point these handsome birds were heavily hunted which led to dramatic population reduction. The birds were introduced to Kangaroo Island in the 1920s and the island’s population is quite tame and can be easily viewed and photographed.
Apart from the very tame geese, the grasslands provide habitat to Kangaroo Island’s subspecies of the Western Grey Kangaroo and the endangered Tammar Wallaby. Three new species in the first hour of the day was a great start! Back on the road, we spotted a large Rosenberg’s Goanna and a few Short-beaked Echidnas.
Seal Bay Conservation Park
The next major stop on the itinerary was the Seal Bay Conservation Park. The bay is home to the island’s breeding colony of yet another endangered animal – the Australian sea lion. The breeding colony at Seal Bay is protected by the National Parks and Wildlife Services Department and the beach can only be visited in the company of an NPWS guide.
The size of the colony is quite impressive and the animals are very tame; they go about their business practically ignoring the humans walking among them. Most of the adults were snoozing when we visited, exhausted after spending days hunting at sea.
The juveniles, on the other hand, were very active. Sea lions have extremely flexible hind flippers that can be rotated forward and beneath the body. This enables them to easily move on land, unlike the seals that appear quite clumsy out of the water.
Not far from Seal Bay is one of the island’s most unusual geological formations called ‘Remarkable Rocks’. As the name suggests it is a cluster of large rocks, or granite boulders to be precise, that have been sculptured by weather erosion into some very unexpected shapes.
Cape du Couedic
Before leaving the coast and heading inland, we visited the colony of New Zealand Fur seals, at Cape du Couedic. Apart from the ease of movement in terrestrial environments, the seals differ from the sea lions in having external ear flaps and fully furred flippers.
Cape du Couedic is a far less hospitable spot than Seal Bay. The fur seals live at the bottom of wind-swept cliffs where the waves crash into the rocks with relentless ferocity. The waves and the wind are responsible for creating another one of the island’s well-known geological attractions – a rock arch knows as the ‘Admiral’s Arch’ down below where the rocks meet the ocean.
Little Sahara and Baudin Conservation Park
In the afternoon we visited yet another landscape wonder of the island – Little Sahara. It is a unique, expansive sand dune area located several kilometres from the coast. It is thought that originally the sand was blown in from the coastal beaches to create this little desert. Even now the dunes are in constant motion, slightly changing their position each year.
Just before dusk, we visited Baudin Conservation Park for another chance to view Tammar wallabies. This species, the smallest of the wallaby family, were once extinct on the mainland, though they have now been re-introduced from a breeding population found in New Zealand.
Naturally, the wildlife watching opportunities did not end after the sun had set. The guest house I chose to stay in on the island was located right next to the Little Penguin rookery in the town of Penneshaw (which was, of course, the reason behind my accommodation choice).
At about 8 pm a little tour group from the guest house took off to the beach to watch dozens of the world’s tiniest penguins making their way home after a hard day’s fishing. The rookery was well protected and additional burrows were made in the rock face to accommodate the penguins.
A bonus sighting of the night was that of a Tawny frogmouth, pretending to be a part of a branch overhanging the walking trail.
Seabirds at Kingscote
The next day’s tour was more or less identical in terms of itinerary and species observed, with a single deviation of visiting a seabird colony at Kingscote. Unfortunately, the birds were too far away and there was no ‘covert’ way to approach the colony.
During my free time, I explored the island on foot watching out for birds and reptiles. I found a few different species of parrot, gulls and some adorable Sooty Oystercatchers.
On the morning of my departure, I woke up before the sunrise in the hope of photographing some dramatic seascapes in the early morning light. While the light wasn’t quite as dramatic as I expected it was a perfect way to say goodbye to this amazing island, that as far as I was concerned has certainly lived up to its nickname of ‘Australian Galapagos’.
Kangaroo Island in a day
The next time I visited Kangaroo Island was just for a day trip. My friend, Alexi and I made a spur of the moment decision to spend a weekend in South Australia. And even more on the spur of the moment, we made an ambitious plan to spend a day wildlife watching on Kangaroo Island.
In the middle of nowhere in Middleton
We got off to a smooth start: the plane landed on time and within half an hour we were driving off in our rented car towards Middleton with the giant full moon hanging low in the sky leading the way like a swollen northern star.
By the time we got to what must have been Middleton, a thick layer of clouds blotted out the moon and the world plunged into complete darkness.
The town of Middleton is aptly named, as it seems to be pretty much in the middle of nowhere. Well, to be fair we didn’t actually see the town itself, our Airbnb cottage was located on farmland on the outskirts of town and driving on the country road in complete darkness increased the feeling of being miles away from any civilization.
A message from the owner came in on my phone, warning us that the severe rainfall over the last few days has washed out the driveway, and advised to proceed with caution. We hardly needed a warning – the driveway was cut by ditches so deep, we would have needed a bulldozer if our little soap dish of a car sunk into one of them. I held my breath while Alexi expertly navigated the treacherous path up to the cottage on the top of the hill.
The cottage was magic and full of rustic country charm: a wood-burning fireplace, solid country furniture and décor, surrounded by green hills as far as the eye could see.
Day Trip to Kangaroo Island
Saturday morning dawned warm and sunny, despite the gloomy forecast and after a quick breakfast, we got underway, anxious to get to Cape Jervis in time for the 9 am Kangaroo Island ferry. Since we haven’t planned a visit to KI until the very last minute, we picked a cottage on the opposite side of Victor Harbour – an hour away from Cape Jervis.
On the upside, it gave us a chance to see a little bit more of the region. The road was empty, the sun was shining and we were heading to Kangaroo Island. What could possibly go wrong?
By the time we arrived in Cape Jervis, the sky turned borderline stormy. It made for some dramatic scenery: dark purple clouds in stark contrast to the orange, lichen-covered rocks of the coastline and deep green colour of the ocean. But it also held a promise of rain, which was particularly undesirable on the island that only has two sealed roads.
Kangaroo Island post-Armageddon rainfall
After a rather bumpy and windy ferry ride, we arrived on Kangaroo Island on what was probably the coldest spring day in history and only days after Mother Nature unleashed Armageddon-like rainfall on the island. As a result, most of the unsealed roads were closed and detours were in place for parts of the main road that were currently underwater.
We decided to head straight to Seal Bay, thinking that we’ll see the sea lions first before the weather deteriorated further. We stopped for a quick look at Christmas cove to check out an attractive section of the island’s trademark orange rocks and dropped into the visitor centre to get the latest info on road closures.
As we were leaving the coastline, the sky was still dark and dramatic but it was hard to tell whether the storm was coming or going. We followed the road across the countryside until we suddenly found ourselves in a scene out of Game of Thrones. The mighty eucalypts interlocked their branches above the road creating an almost mystical tunnel.
The scene was incredibly photogenic. We pulled over on the side of the road and since the road was completely devoid of traffic we were able to sneak right into the middle of it and steal away a few shots of perfectly aligned road and trees.
Almost as soon as we got back in the car it started to rain. Light drizzle at first, it quickly gathered momentum and soon became a proper downpour. The sky turned uniform grey without a single break in the cloud cover. The rain was here to stay. What do you do on Kangaroo Island in heavy rain?
We gazed through the windshield at the flooded paddocks on both sides of the road. The water has reached the edge of the road. Another few millimetres of rain and even this road will be flooded, effectively cutting the eastern end of the island from its western part. One road, pouring rain outside – we didn’t have too many options and continued driving ahead.
Seal Bay Cottages and Cafe
Without any scenic stops on the way, we arrived at Seal bay about an hour later. The only alternative to spending the day at the gift shop was the barn-style restaurant of Seal Bay Cottages and Café conveniently positioned right across the road from the Seal Bay turn off.
I got out of the car and dashed for cover at the reception, certain that Alexi was following right behind. By the time I was done with the greetings and some polite banter with the girl at reception, Alexi still hasn’t appeared.
I poked my head out and noticed her gesticulating excitedly next to a large tree, under which we parked our car. Whatever it was that she was so excited about, it had to be good enough to stay out in the rain for. I jogged towards her getting my camera ready for action. “There’s a fluffy dude up the tree, but I can’t see what it is” she offered in terms of explanation.
The fluffy dude turned out to be a wet koala that had wedged its fluffy bum into the fork of the tree and tucked in its chin into its knees. As it was our first wildlife sighting on the island, and quite possibly the last, we braved the rain and watched it sleep for a few minutes. And then ran back to the restaurant.
The restaurant was quite cozy. It looked exactly like a barn, with a bar in the corner and a few dining tables on the floor. The fireplace kept the place warm and filled the room with the smoky scent of burning wood. We claimed a large wooden sofa padded with a multitude of dark-coloured cushions and settled in for a long lunch.
Over the next hour and a half, the rain went through different stages of intensity and finally, it stopped just in time for the 2.30 pm session at Seal Bay. We knew we didn’t have any time to waste – the rain could return any time, so we hurried to the car for the short drive to the bay.
As we reached the ‘koala tree’ I noticed that the ‘fluffy dude’ was no longer sleeping in the spot we originally found it in. We scanned the canopy and spotted it much higher up, doing what koalas do – browsing on eucalypt leaves. We watched it for a while and were stoked to notice a small shape clinging to its back. The mama koala was carrying a young – a little fluff ball holding on to her for dear life.
As we got into the car I noticed a sign nailed to the base of the tree that read: “Look up and smile, say hello to Kyle the koala”. So much for our excitement of discovering a wild animal. Though the fact that Mr. Kyle had given birth to a young, was still an unexpected development.
Sea lions of Seal Bay
When we got to Seal Bay the clouds have parted enough to allow some rogue rays of sunshine to come through. Although, as exciting as the brightening sky was, it did nothing to warm up the day.
Our guide Susan came up from the beach, rounded us up, explained a few basic rules and led us towards the wooden walkway and into the gale-force wind. The walkway meandered through the wind-blown coastal bush that was crisscrossed with tunnels made by the sea lions.
‘When it’s cold on the beach’, Susan explained, ‘the sea lions come up to the shrubs, where it’s much warmer than on the sand’. As if to prove her point, she led us past a large male lion that was deep asleep on top of a flattened bush right by the trail.
The next group of lions we came across was far enough from the path to be considered ‘a safe distance away’, which gave us an opportunity to stick around and watch them for a while. The group consisted of a large mature male and two smaller females. And all they did while we watched them was pensively scratch themselves. They have long sharp claws on their back flippers that are excellent for this exercise.
September is a good month to visit Seal Bay because this is when the pups are born. Just a few days old, the tiny chocolate brown pups were very shy and for a while, we could only catch brief glimpses of them. Their mothers tried to coax them out of hiding, calling to them insistently and patiently waiting out in the open.
Down on the beach, some lions braved the cold and the icy wind, doing whatever it is that sea lions do. Lazing around mainly. Some were coming out of the surf, often taking a snooze halfway through their journey to the beach.
An impressive looking male lion was relaxing surrounded by his harem of smaller, lighter females. Male Australian Sea lions reach sexual maturity at seven years of age. The younger males live on the outskirts of the colony, watching and learning, biding their time.
Before we left the beach we were treated to a sight of two chocolate pups giving themselves a swimming lesson in the surf.
Once the formal tour was finished, we went on a self-guided walk along the elevated wooden walkway. The Lions don’t come as close to the path here, but we had fantastic vistas of the broader landscape that gave us a good sense of the Lions’ world.
There is a huge whale carcass half-buried in the sand. Amazingly, it belonged to a juvenile humpback whale, not a fully grown one.
Vivon Bay and the road back
From Seal Bay, we made our way to Vivon bay where we caught up with my good friends, who have been living on the island for a few years now. Like most of the island, the beach was cold and not particularly welcoming, though we did catch a rainbow that stretched all the way across the sky.
And just like that, our day on Kangaroo Island came to an end. As short as it was, it was quite an experience to see the island in adverse weather. The wind, the dark sky, and the rain revealed the other face of Kangaroo Island – harsh but none the less beautiful.
As we drove back to Penneshaw, the sun was setting over the ocean, bathing the landscape in warm golden light – the photographer’s magic hour.
We pulled in at Christmas cove just in time to catch the last rays of the setting sun before catching the ferry back to Cape Jervis.