Go island hopping

Kangaroo Island off the coast of South Australia is - unsurprisingly - teeming with kangaroos. However, Kathy Marks discovers that the island, with its rocky cliffs, lonely beaches and sugar-gum forests is a Noah's Ark of Australian wildlife

When the English navigator Matthew Flinders landed on a large, rugged island off the coast of South Australia 200 years ago, he did not procrastinate long about what to call it. The kangaroos hopping about the place were not only striking in their profusion, they also provided a hearty meal for Flinders' protein-starved crew.

When the English navigator Matthew Flinders landed on a large, rugged island off the coast of South Australia 200 years ago, he did not procrastinate long about what to call it. The kangaroos hopping about the place were not only striking in their profusion, they also provided a hearty meal for Flinders' protein-starved crew.

Nowadays, the marsupials on Kangaroo Island are strictly protected. Although the population has reached plague proportions and farmers are permitted to shoot limited numbers, their meat cannot be legally consumed. The kangaroo served up in the island's restaurants is imported from Outback areas on the mainland.

This paradox, which has arisen out of attempts to deter poaching, was explained by Marion Chambers, who runs the Penguin Stop Café in the fishing village of Penneshaw. Marion had kangaroo on the menu the night I ate there - guava-glazed fillet served on garlic mash, accompanied by beetroot and roasted red pepper. It was wonderfully tender and succulent.

The quality of the cuisine is an unexpected highlight of a visit to Australia's third biggest offshore island, reached via a short flight from Adelaide or a choppy ferry ride from the Fleurieu Peninsula. Kangaroo Island has several highly rated restaurants and is also home to an expanding gourmet food industry based on fresh seafood - crayfish, oysters, abalone and King George whiting - and sheep's milk cheese.

The other surprise is that while kangaroos may be ubiquitous, the island's wildlife is far more varied than its name suggests. In the space of one day, visitors stand a good chance of seeing koalas, wallabies, emus, goannas, echidnas and brush-tailed possums. You can watch fairy penguins waddling home after a day out at sea and walk among rare Australian sea lions. If you are really fortunate, you might even spot an elusive platypus.

It is this instant fix of native creatures that is the big draw of Kangaroo Island, particularly for overseas visitors. Tourists who have spent weeks on the mainland without seeing a single kangaroo are enthralled to discover that "KI" is a Noah's Ark of Australian wildlife. In fact, animals rule the roost on this island that has a human population of just 4,000. Penguins and their chicks stroll along the pavements of Penneshaw at night and nest in locals' back gardens. Wallabies bounce around the streets of American River, another hamlet on the north coast.

The reason for this happy abundance of wildlife is that foxes and rabbits were never introduced here. When Flinders arrived in 1802, the kangaroos were so tame that his men simply walked up to them and clubbed them to death. They killed 31 in a single day and, Flinders wrote, feasted on a stew made from "half a hundred-weight of heads and tails and forequarters".

The turtle-shaped island, 10 miles off the mainland, was uninhabited before the first white settlers - two boatloads of English farmers lured by reports of excellent agricultural land - arrived in 1836. KI was destined to be the site of Australia's first non-convict settlement, and the capital of the new colony of South Australia. But the reports proved erroneous and the farmers upped sticks and founded Adelaide instead.

Tourism is a relatively new industry here, developed in earnest only since the collapse of wool prices in the 1980s. The place feels like it's on the cusp of being discovered and although there are no resorts, developers are hungrily eyeing the land. As yet many of the roads are red ironstone - potentially lethal for inexperienced drivers and blacklisted by some Adelaide car hire companies. It takes a while to get around the 90 mile-long by 37 mile-wide island, but locals are resisting pressure for more roads to be sealed.

You don't have to look far for the animals. Within half an hour of touching down in a turboprop plane, I had experienced, for the first time, the peculiar thrill of looking up and seeing a koala draped over a high branch overhead. Ken Grinter, a tour guide, had driven us to a clearing by the Cygnet river, where the red river gums cast reflections on the water. Frogs croaked like pizzicato cellos, while above us honey-eaters and rainbow lorikeets whirled and shrieked.

Ken pointed to nesting hollows created by termites. "They hollow out the dead wood at the centre of the tree, a branch breaks off and, bingo, you've got another high-rise apartment for possums, bats, owls and other birds," he said. "This is a real residential zone."

The island is home to more than 200 bird species, including black swans, Cape Barren geese and massive wedge-tailed eagles. One area, Lathami Conservation Park, is set aside for an endangered subspecies of glossy black cockatoo found only on KI. Much of the island's original vegetation remains; one-third of the territory is preserved in national parks and conservation areas. The largest, Flinders Chase National Park, has a colony of New Zealand fur seals and a series of unusual geological formations that include the Remarkable Rocks, a collection of sculpted boulders perched on a sandstone promontory, and Admiral's Arch, a limestone cave carved by the turbulent seas.

KI has beautiful white sand beaches such as Emu Bay and Vivonne Bay which, even in high season, you may have to yourself. There are peaceful forests of sugar gum and stringybark. But the animals are the chief attraction, particularly the penguins and sea lions. In Penneshaw, nightly tours wind along a viewing platform from which you see fairy penguins (at barely one-foot tall they are the world's smallest species) climbing the rocky shoreline as they return to their burrows amid the dunes after a day's feeding at sea.

Two of these creatures stood convivially in bushes near the main road as we made our way to the Penguin Centre in Penneshaw. Down below, penguins were shuffling up the beach. Some paired off and tenderly preened each other's feathers while others stood guard outside their homes like miniature nightclub bouncers, growling at passers-by. Sociable animals, they are also highly territorial and will wallop intruders with their wings.

The next day, another memorable experience awaited. The Australian sea lion, hunted almost to extinction in the 19th century, is one of the rarest species of seal. There are 600 of them at Seal Bay Conservation Park in the island's south-east, and this is one of the few places in the world where seals tolerate humans at close quarters. As they lie prone on the beach you can wander among them - although you will be expected to keep a discreet distance.

It was whipping up a storm when we walked across the sand, and the bolts of lightning across a leaden sky provided a dramatic backdrop as the adult sea lions huddled together for warmth while their pups scuttled in and out of the sea.

There is much debate about how to manage rising visitor numbers on Kangaroo Island. As yet, the place is unspoilt, with an air of innocence about it. But it is hard to imagine it staying that way.

SURVIVAL KIT

GETTING THERE

The most convenient international gateway is Adelaide, which has no direct flights from the UK. The usual connections are via Singapore on Qantas or Singapore Airlines, or via Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific. In November, you can expect to pay around £700 return. Flights between Adelaide and Kangaroo Island cost A$242 (£95) return on Emu Airways (00 618 8234 3711; www.emuairways.com.au).

STAYING THERE

Situated near the south coast, Stranraer (00618 8553 8235; www.stranraer.com.au) is a restored homestead where doubles cost from A$180 (£70). Seascape (00 618 8553 5199; www.seascape.ws) is a new guesthouse overlooking Emu Bay where doubles start at A$200 (£78).

FURTHER INFORMATION

Local tour operators include Adventure Charters of Kangaroo Island (00 618 8553 9119; www.adventurecharters.com) and Alkirna Nocturnal Tours (00 618 8553 7464; www.alkirna.com.au). For more details on the island contact Tourism Kangaroo Island (00 618 8553 1185; www.tourkangarooisland.com.au).

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