South Australia's Kangaroo Island: Land of hops and glories

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The air is pure, the land is rugged and the native wildlife brings even the most committed urbanite closer to Mother Nature

I've been pondering the koala in front of me, and my quandary is this: is it cute, or is it sinister? How does the consensus on a species develop? I grew up with those Qantas advertisements from the 1970s in which a curmudgeonly, xenophobic little furry-eared marsupial by the name of Sydney starred as a slow-moving senior citizen with the tourist-baiting catchphrase "I hate Qantas". He was lovely – grumpy but cuddlesome – and he probably convinced a whole generation of people to fly Down Under and meet their own private koala.

But now here I am (having, in fact, flown with Qantas) standing in front of one in the wild, and I'm not sure anymore. It has spittle on its beard and the kind of red eyes that Rosemary's Baby might develop after a neat Scotch bender. Its claws are enormous. Its vast button nose is weird. And yet ... I can't help but feel fondness for something that sleeps 19 hours a day and is so very woolly to the touch.

There's a plethora of these plush herbivorous cuties clinging to the trees of "Koala Alley", a koala-infested strip of Hanson Bay Sanctuary on Kangaroo Island. Infested is the right word; after the introduction of the species here in the 1920s a population explosion saw trees stripped of everything that could photosynthesise. The government was about to instigate a cull but the Japanese (who would probably put Hello Kitty on their currency if they could decide on her outfit) were outraged and threatened boycotts. So instead, the Australians have been sterilising the creatures (despite headlines this week that koalas "face extinction in 30 years"). The ones with the red plastic earrings constitute the end of the family line.

There are also, perhaps unsurprisingly, a lot of kangaroos on Kangaroo Island. There are spiky echidnas, scaly goannas, seals, sea lions and rare birds too. "The Galapagos of Australia" is how the tourist board sells it. As you stand on the south coast – next stop Antarctica – it really does feel like the most unspoilt, elemental place on Earth. Mankind hasn't messed up much here just yet – the air is noticeably pure and the land is wild.

Now, Mother Nature and I have always had a slightly difficult relationship, but we've come to an understanding: I stay away from her and she doesn't trouble me much. But Kangaroo Island is so very seductive that I've changed my mind. Once you've watched a baby sea lion meander up to you with big-eyed curiosity, or offered grain to a kangaroo and had it grab your hand with its teensy little claws and nibble off your palm, you can't help feel, if not at one with Nature, than at least a lot cosier with her than you were before.

Tourism is a relatively new industry here. In fact, the island itself is quite new – it was separated from the mainland by a rise in sea level less than 10,000 years ago. Kangaroo Island lies 13 miles from the coast of South Australia, and is the third-largest island off the mainland (after the state of Tasmania and Melville Island, part of the Northern Territory). Seal hunters settled on the island before the official colonisation of Australia. Since then the main occupations have been agricultural, including production of the only pure Ligurian honey anywhere in the world (the bees were introduced from Italy 125 years ago) and some excellent wines.

It's an unashamed backwater that relishes its eccentricities. As I drove around the island I noticed scores of "humorous" mailboxes at the entrance to estates; toilet bowls or huge boots fashioned from oil drums. Then there's the "Vivonne Bay Post Office", a row of farmer's letterboxes, each a different piece of naïve sculpture in its own right.

Sheep farming was the hot industry here before a crash in wool prices at the start of the 1990s made paupers out of the land workers. Peter, now a tour guide with Kangaroo Island Wilderness Tours, was a full-time sheep farmer during the boom but now supplements his farming income with stints offering visitors "soft adventure" tours – island safaris that stop at midday for a luxurious barbecue with table linen and chilled chardonnay.

"We want to get more people to come here," he said. "The government and conservationists want to cap it at a certain level of tourists per year, but there's still a lot of room for growth." Peter won't be out of a job again – the island is impenetrable without a skilled guide, and he knows the life-story of every whisker and leaf.

There was a huge bush fire at the end of 2007, which scorched vast tracts of the countryside. Peter stops our car where the single fatality occurred: a 22-year-old caught driving as the fire was raging. There are still marks on the road from the incident. "It's very sad," says Peter. "If he'd been older and more experienced he'd have known to drive on. Fires happen all the time here; you learn how to handle yourself." From the scorched black sticks of forest, new life is growing – flashes of emerald leaves are sprouting at the base of trees.

The roads of Kangaroo Island are latticed with black rubber tyre skids. It's a tragic fact that you see a lot of road kill here; every local has a horror story of a kangaroo bouncing out of nowhere and across their bonnet and roof. Not all the marks, though, are from fatal encounters. Many are deliberate high-speed burn offs, evidence of bored teenagers out "hooning". There isn't a lot to do on the island if you're 17 and bored by wallabies. The population is less than 4,500 and the biggest town, Kingscote, is where you go to get the plane to get away – the nightlife is nonexistent.

On my first night on Kangaroo Island I dined at my home for the evening, the Kangaroo Island Seafront Resort. You don't come to Kangaroo Island for five-star resorts – it's about the nature. Seafront, with its teenage staff and its ugly function-over-form picture windows, reminds me of childhood fortnights on Jersey in the kind of 1970s hotel that would bandy about the term "luxury" though never actually embrace it. However, there are some pretty good local wines to choose from and a management that is clued into its environmentally aware tourist market: instead of Evian you get rainwater. Very nice it is too. As is the rich and fleshy King George whiting, an odd bedfellow for a dollop of hummus à la Seafront, but still one of the tastiest locally caught fish I've ever eaten.

There are a couple of haute hotel options on Kangaroo Island. At one of the Lifetime Retreat cliff-top V C properties you get an all-inclusive, champagne-flowing, all mod-cons approach to lodging. It's popular with corporate groups and the European jetset travelling romantically à deux.

The £6m Southern Ocean Lodge, which opened last year, has the dramatic sweep and essence of a Ken Adams' James Bond set, all vast open-plan glass oval spaces and stone-clad curved walkways. It's aiming at the hang-the-expense spa aficionado and it's an impressive property, though some of the raw edges and the 4x4 nature of the island may not be what a lot of Southern Ocean's clients are looking for. It has a great view over Hanson Bay, but some upscale B&B properties, such as Seascape in Emu Bay, have views to spare too.

The best base for an island adventure is in the thick of it, at somewhere like Kangaroo Island Wilderness Retreat which parades its environmental sensitivities, right down to the low ambient lighting that attracts hordes of wallabies four feet from your dinner table at teatime, but also has Wi-Fi and a clued-up modernity about it.

Dawn and dusk are the best times to see much of what bounds around the bush on the island, particularly during summer when the roasting sun sends even the hardiest, road-kill scavenging goanna scuttling back into the undergrowth to shelter. Winters are mild, but most of the cuter species are still nocturnal in nature, so there are more families of kangaroos bouncing across the old farmland of Grassland at sundown than at midday.

Grassland was once a one-woman sheep farm that's now been given over to the 'roos. Although there is no shortage of farms and sanctuaries that let you get up close to a joey, there's nothing like the thrill of seeing scores of them bouncing unfettered and free across wide-open spaces. Grassland is dramatically visual but baffling – if you go guide-free, you'll get lost. You can try and mark your tracks by remembering the location of Aborigine-smoothed stones in the parched earth, or by the post-apocalyptic remnants of farm trucks and machinery, but you will get lost. And there aren't just marsupials out there.

"So, are there snakes?" I asked when checking in at one residence. "Yes," enthused the receptionist, entirely misunderstanding my reason for asking. "They're mostly quite venomous!" There's an abundance of tiger snakes, apparently, a species which is just waiting for just a couple of near relatives to become extinct before it makes it into the top 10 deadliest serpents list. Then there's the red-back spider, which can kill an infant. During my time on Kangaroo Island, I saw neither.

Instead, each new hour conjured up another magical experience. Descending the stairs at Admiral's Arch I watched in awe at the seals playing defiantly against the violent swirl of the south coast ocean, being hurled and dashed against the rocks before swimming out to do it all again. Later, I walked through the Remarkable Rocks in the midst of the blinding, horizontal rays of a blood-red sunset – the mangled, smoothed, russet-coloured stones glowing, reminiscent both of Henry Moore and mangled, beaten car parts.

I trekked through Little Sahara, which as its typically Aussie-prosaic name suggests, is an inland collection of sand dunes. It felt as though I'd been transported to an entirely different island. Early in the morning, only the long, widely punctuated paw prints of bounding marsupials, and the denser patterns of the feet of smaller creatures, decorated the sand. A favourite pursuit at Little Sahara is sandboarding: you take a board to the top of the highest dune, sit on it, then slide down the other side. You get sand in places that you wished you hadn't, but it's an amazing experience, and right afterwards you can drive to Snelling Beach on the placid north coast and swim to get grit free.

The water at Snelling is too inviting to ignore. It's vibrantly blue and crystal clear; clear enough, indeed, to reassure even the most reluctant visitor that the waters, or the shallows at least, are tooth and fin free.

Plenty of people visit Kangaroo Island on a day trip from the mainland, but you need to spend at least three days here to cover enough of the highlights. You need to walk around the Remarkable Rocks and feel their strangeness on your own. You also don't want have to queue up to pat a koala at Parndana Wildlife Park, feed the rescued kangaroos or, best of all, cuddle an abandoned joey that has being reared by the park keeper in its own cotton pouch. As I threw the papoose strap over my shoulder, took the tiny kangaroo in my arms and started grinning like an idiot, I came to the realisation that no matter how twitchy I am about wildlife generally, a baby kangaroo is just too adorable to have issue with. If human babies were anywhere near this cute, I'd consider parenting. As it is, I just want a baby kangaroo.

Getting there

* The writer travelled with Qantas (0845 7 747 767; qantas.com.au/uk), which flies between Heathrow and Adelaide via Melbourne or Sydney; return fares start at £871.

* Domestic connecting flights to Kingscote, Kangaroo Island, take 30 minutes with Air South (00 61 8 8234 3244; airsouth. com.au). One-way fares start at A$77 (£43).

Staying there

* Kangaroo Island Seafront Hotel, North Terrace, Penneshaw (00 61 8 8553 1028; seafront.com.au). Double rooms start at A$171 (£96), room only.

* Kangaroo Island Wilderness Retreat, South Coast Road, Flinders Chase National Park (00 61 8 8559 7275; kiwr.com). Double rooms start at A$160 (£89), room only.

* Lifetime Private Retreats, various locations (00 61 8 8559 2248; life-time.com. au). Double rooms start at A$1,500 (£838), all-inclusive.

* Seascape Emu Bay Bed and Breakfast, Lot 3 Bates Road, Emu Bay (00 61 8 8553 5199; seascape lodge.com.au). Double rooms start at A$1,354 (£755), full board, including activities.

* Southern Ocean Lodge, Hanson Bay (00 61 2 9918 4355; southernoceanlodge.com.au). Double rooms start at A$1,800 (£1,008), full board.

Visiting there

* Kangaroo Island Wilderness Tours (00 61 8 8559 5033; wildernesstours.com.au). One-day tours departing from Kingscote Airport start at A$355 (£199) per person, including lunch and admission fees; two- four day itineraries are also offered.

More information

* tourkangarooisland.com.au; 00 61 8 8553 1185

* southaustralia.com; 00 61 8 8463 4547

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