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Epic Aussie Road Trip Part 5: Kangaroo Island

November 3, 2010

Penguin crossing!

Getting to Kangaroo Island is expensive, but I had been especially excited about going and worried I would regret it if we didn’t go. So we made the decision to part with the dear sum of money it takes to get over on the ferry ($332 roundtrip for one car and two people!) and go for it.

On the ferry over we ran into none other than the Melbourne couple who had let us stay at their house! We spent the 45 minute ferry ride reminiscing on our Outback experience and talking about what we’d done in the time since. Arriving in Penneshaw, we went our separate ways.

But being the small town that it is, it wasn’t long before we ran into each other again. Oscar and I had spent all evening sitting by the beach watching for fairy penguins (AKA little penguins/blue penguins). We hadn’t seen any, so we went off to check another spot. Just up the road we ran into Bill and Chris (the couple) who had spotted a few just next to the road. We stood for a while watching the tiny penguins stumble over the rocks and make all kinds of hilarious noises (apparently the way they call to their partners).

While it is easy to go penguin spotting on your own, if you are on K.I. on a less tight budget, there is a $13 tour you can take. You have access to a couple purpose-built spotting areas and an informative guide, and the money goes to taking care of the penguins which is good. In all honesty, though, you don’t need a tour and from what I heard the only penguins the tour saw were the ones that we saw (they came up after we’d spotted them).

Emu Bay beach

Plus after everyone had left, Oscar and I went to look a little bit more, and on our way back to the caravan park we spotted another one who had snuck under the fence and was on the rocks on the side of the road (see video). He then hopped down on the road, which had us worried especially because a car was approaching, so we were following after him to watch him, wondering what to do. He was a smart little guy, though, and hopped back up on the curb at a spot where the fence didn’t go all the way down and hopped right under. We were relieved we weren’t going to find a flat penguin on the side of the road the next day.

We did, however, see a lot of other dead animals on the side of the road the next day. We were beginning to wonder if the island should be renamed Roadkill Island. In fact, we never saw a single kangaroo (alive) in our entire time on Kangaroo Island. We did see plenty dead on the side of the road, though. It seems a lot of people still don’t heed the warnings to drive carefully at dawn and dusk and not to drive at night.

Our van at Snelling Beach

Our first day on the island we decided to check out the beaches on the north coast. We drove up to Emu Bay, a beautiful white beach that we walked along admiring the many shells on the shore and also hung out with some pelicans. Then we decided to head for Stokes Bay (passing some random wild turkeys on the way).

One of my biggest complaints about Kangaroo Island is that most of the roads are unsealed. I found it interesting that all the material I read about KI before going claimed that most roads were sealed and those that weren’t were quite suitable for conventional vehicles. We definitely didn’t find this to be true. Despite taking a long way around that was supposedly “almost all paved” to Stokes Bay, we found ourselves in for what felt like an eternal drive on absolutely horrible gravel roads. The ruts in the roads were so deep we were both clenching our seats and hoping to get through it without damaging the van at all.

Big koala!

Thankfully when we made it to Stokes Bay we were able to forget about the terrible roads by enjoying the gorgeous beach. At first it appears to be just a rocky shoreline (“We went through all that for THIS?!”), but climbing around a bend of rocks and through some little tunnels you find yourself on an absolutely incredible white beach, complete with a perfect little lagoon of calm and safe ocean to swim in. We walked the entire length of the beach and climbed over some more rocks on the shore, taking in everything. On our way back we explored little caves out in the lagoon, spotting some pretty fish hiding in the water inside. It was definitely our favorite beach on the island.

Rather than taking the terrible road back, we decided to take our chances on another (unpaved) road toward Snelling Beach, which the Lonely Planet had described as a beach where “you won’t be able to stop the word ‘wow’ from escaping your lips” or something to that effect. While we definitely had the entire place to ourselves (perhaps it was the still-terrible roads!), it didn’t really live up to our expectations. Australia has so many spectacular beaches that you come to a point where a beautiful, empty white sand beach that you would have drooled over before becomes just another beach. Crazy!

Baby koala!

We ate our sandwich lunch by the beach and headed off again. We had intended to stay the night at a cheap campsite further up the coast, but it would have meant a lot more driving on unsealed roads and we weren’t sure we, or the van, could handle it. So instead we made our way down past Flinders Chase National Park (while the road cuts through it, unfortunately there is not much to see but dead and re-growing trees due to the huge wildfire the park experienced in 2007).

This decision ended up probably saving Kangaroo Island from being a disappointment. While we were spending a lot more than we would have been at the campsite (which would only have been $5), we decided to stay at the West KI Caravan Park since it wasn’t too far a drive and was on a major, sealed road. It was still early and the park actually had a few walking trails so we decided to take a stroll along the “Koala Walk.”

Tammar wallabies

Almost right away we spotted some Tammar wallabies, tiny wallabies only found on Kangaroo Island — very adorable! Distracted by this sighting of a new animal, I didn’t really look for koalas at first. After all, I had already seen one in Port Stephens. But then we rounded a bend and were in a pretty open area with some gum trees. Remembering how high up I had spotted the koala before, it wasn’t long at all before I spotted one here. It was huge! We couldn’t quite figure out if it was really fat or if maybe it was hiding a baby koala that we just couldn’t see (the sun was shining in just such a way that it was hard to get a good look at the koala). Either one is possible, as apparently the koalas (which were actually introduced to KI in the 1920s as people feared they would become extinct on the mainland) are thriving so much on KI that they are more in danger of starvation. It did look to be old (or sick), as we noticed that its nose was turning pink.

After this sighting I was excited about koalas again and remarked that my goal was to see a koala with a baby. Oscar noted that it would be cool to see a koala in the trees by our campsite. We set up our little table and chairs by the van and started playing cards and having a glass of wine. After a little while we noticed a small group of people at the site on the other side of the trees looking up at something. We walked over to see there was a koala up there! Then as we were about to walk away, someone asked us if we’d seen the baby koala.

Admiral Arch and some sea lions

They showed us on the ground beneath the tree: the baby had obviously lost its grip on its mother and fallen to the ground. Thankfully, baby koalas are probably built to withstand that kind of fall, and it was alive (though obviously shaken). We kept a bit of a distance so as not to stress the baby anymore, but we were able to get some photos as well. When we went back a little later we could see the mother koala had climbed down a bit and was looking at the baby, so we hope that she rescued it that evening.

A little later, before sunset, we decided to do the other walk at the park to a nearby lagoon. There we saw tons of little wallabies, all grazing together in groups. There were also lots of geese, swans (including some black swans with their babies, teaching them to fish!) and even a few more turkeys. We then returned to our chairs to hang out until the sun went down (which unfortunately meant mosquito bites all over our feet and another swollen ankle/foot for me!) At dusk tons of wallabies suddenly appeared out of seemingly nowhere, hopping past our campsite (we were the only ones in our area) and grazing all around. Whenever we moved or made any noise they would hop away, but more always came. It was definitely pretty cool.

Remarkable Rocks

The next day we headed into Flinders Chase National Park. Basically there are only two main things to see here (especially if you’re not willing to go off the paved roads), which in the end may or may not have been worth the $9 park entrance fee (each). First we went to Admirals Arch. The arch formation itself is cool but not really that cool, but the best thing about the area is really the seals. There’s a large colony of New Zealand fur seals all over the place and they’re definitely fun to watch. We were the only ones there (as was the case with pretty much everywhere on Kangaroo Island) so we took our time watching the seals. I’m pretty sure we also saw one seal very, very close to giving birth. She was absolutely huge and the bottom half of her body would kicking around like crazy every once in a while. If we had wanted to spend a couple more hours there (it was cold and a bit rainy) I think we would have witnessed a seal birth (unless they go into the water to give birth, which is something I have no idea about).

Surfing the Remarkable Rock wave

Then we headed to the Remarkable Rocks which are, indeed, remarkable. From afar it looks almost alien, and when you climb up to them you can imagine them to be all kinds of crazy things. A wave, a whale, a spaceship…the possibilities are endless with these crazy formations. We had some fun climbing around and taking photos on, in and around the various rocks, enjoying the fact that, again, we pretty much had the place to ourselves.

We then decided we wanted to do a walk to these platypus watering holes. In a book in the Visitors Centre we had read that, instead of doing the walk from the Visitors Centre, we could drive a little bit down an unsealed road to a carpark and then do a shorter walk from there. Since my foot was pretty swollen from mosquito bites, I didn’t want to do a lot of walking and have a repeat of the Lares trek in Peru where I could hardly even fit my foot in my shoe. After a long, scary drive down unpaved roads, we came to find that this car park no longer seemed to exist. We should have probably asked at the Visitors Centre, but we found a blocked off road that we believe probably went there but had obviously been damaged by the wildfire.

So we drove back to the Visitors Centre and decided to take the longer walk. After a while walking through pretty much nothing but dead trees we arrived at the one and only viewing platform. Again, we hadn’t asked but you’d think, being three years after the fire, either the brochures, maps, etc. would reflect the fact that almost none of the trail is open or they would have fixed it up by now. The track was supposed to be a big loop with numerous viewing platforms around the various waterholes.

Vivonne Bay

We could see where one of the other platforms had been, but all the rest of the trail was blocked off and the platforms were destroyed. We still stood for probably 30 minutes on the one platform hoping for a platypus sighting, but there was no sign of life anywhere. Since this was the only walking trail from the visitors centre (and therefore pretty much the only one accessible by paved road), we were pretty disappointed and surprised that more restoration work hadn’t been done.

With Flinders Chase behind us, we drove out to Vivonne Bay where we were at least met by a happy surprise at how nice the campsite was (with power even!) for just $10.

The next morning I went down and walked the length of Vivonne Bay, another very gorgeous beach that I had entirely to myself. It was the start of a beautiful day and it was peaceful having the beach to myself. Then we packed up the van and drove to Little Sahara, an area of tons of white sand dunes. It was pretty awesome. Again, we were the only ones there and we ran up and down the dunes. It was really windy and it was cool watching the sand whip across the top of the dunes and to see your footprints disappear quickly behind you.

Wandering the Little Sahara

On our way to American River (not American, not a river), we made a couple stops at some local businesses. First we stopped at the KI Lavender Farm. We took a short walk through some gardens and by their lagoon, then bought some lavender fudge — I had lavender breath for hours! (A weird sensation.) Then we went to the Pure Island Sheep Dairy where we tried their various cheeses (splurging on their fantastic Manchego and Haloumi cheeses to liven up our meals for the next couple days).

We had a picnic at American River on the beautiful shore, then decided to go on a walk toward the old fish canneries. We were determined to spot a glossy black cockatoo, a rare endangered bird of which there are only a little more than 200 left. We were also hoping to spot some dolphins, which could supposedly be spotted in a cover somewhere along the walk.

Not too far into the walk we heard a strange noise and looked in some trees off the trail to see two glossy black cockatoos eating! Lucky for us, they aren’t too hard to find because they are so noisy when they’re breaking open the nuts in the trees. We walked a little more down the trail but didn’t have much hopes for dolphins and were satisfied with our cockatoo sighting (which we repeated on the way back) and decided to just go back and relax.

Little Sahara

So we drove over to the American River campsite (the campsites are definitely the best money saver on KI) which was in a great location. We parked right on the shore, overlooking the harbor. As we were setting up the van I thought I saw something in the water that looked like dolphin fins. I almost didn’t say anything because I had been “spotting” buoys and such often over the past few days, but Oscar heard me make a bit of a noise and looked over and confirmed that I wasn’t imagining it. It was pretty awesome sitting at our campsite watching dolphins glide by right in front of us! And then sitting in the van playing cards and hanging out we could still watch a gorgeous sunset over the water right out the window. Nice!

The next day was our last day on the island. We made a quick stop at a winery on our way back to Penneshaw, where we would catch the ferry back. We had a lot of time to kill, so we went down by the beach and grilled our haloumi on the BBQ, eating a little cheese-and-cracker picnic looking out on the lovely Hog Bay Beach.

Glossy black cockatoo

Overall, we definitely had some great experiences on Kangaroo Island. We didn’t see any kangaroos, but we did see plenty of wallabies, birds of all kinds (pelicans, swans, geese, turkeys, ducks, egrets, lorikeets, cockatoos and of course penguins), dolphins, and not to mention a baby koala! The nature was great and the scenery beautiful. I think my expectations were maybe a little too high, as KI is played up to be this incredibly unique, amazing destination but I felt that many of the things we saw and experienced we could have (and indeed have) seen and experienced in other parts of our trip on the mainland (without the huge added expense). As its own trip, or part of a smaller trip, though, I think Kangaroo Island is probably very worth it.


KI Shores (Penneshaw) – $30 for powered site – Pretty good location by the beach (close for penguin viewing), but a bit overpriced maybe. So-so facilities (for the price).

Western KI Caravan Park – $20 for unpowered site – Highly recommend this place! Good facilities and lots of wildlife and walks to do. Good location also.

Vivonne Bay campsite – $10/car – Good value (especially with power included!) but no showers. Good location too, you can walk right down to Vivonne Bay (and have some good views above it).

American River campsite – $15/car – No power, but does have showers (on 3 min. timers). Also a good location, right on the water. Small, laidback.

This is part 5 of a 12 part series. Read the rest of the Epic Aussie Road Trip series or watch the video to drive across Australia in 2 minutes.

Sunset at American River

8 Comments leave one →
  1. March 30, 2011 8:11 pm

    Sounds like a fun, relaxing and unstructured trip. Those remarkable rocks look especially intriguing. Thanks for sharing!

  2. April 30, 2011 5:20 am

    Sorry you didn’t see any (live) roos. Roadkill’s a big problem for local wildlife, and there have also been issues with people travelling at high speed (on both sealed and unsealed roads) and swerving to avoid wildlife – then rolling their vehicle and getting injured. With over 1000km of roads and only a small rate-base to pay for it (the roads are Council’s problem) it’s likely they’ll stay unsealed for a long time – but if that means slower speeds, so be it!

    Anyhow, did you get a chance to try any of the local roadkill recipes?

  3. May 30, 2014 7:23 pm

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