Fun with the Natural World

My two-day Kangaroo Island tour was all about fun with the natural world. There was hiking, combing beaches, climbing dramatic boulders perched at the sea’s edge, barreling down sand dunes on boards greased with furniture polish, watching sleepy sea lions & cavorting fur seals, & checking out excellent local products like aromatic eucalyptus oil & delectable honey. It was a fast, fun frolic – too fast, actually, because I would have enjoyed adventure caving and other activities that can be had on KI during longer visits – and I wanted a journal entry that reflected that. So in a shameless rip-off of American talk show host David Letterman, I present my `Top 10’ reasons for visiting Kangaroo Island:

10.  You find out why so many places in Australia are named “Flinders.”

Over 100 sites around the country are named after British seafarer, explorer and cartographer Matthew Flinders (though the modest Flinders never named anything for himself). These include Flinders Ranges, Flinders Ranges National Park, Flinders Chase National Park, Flinders Island in Bass Strait, Flinders University in Adelaide, Flinders Medical Centre in Bedford Park, Flinders streets in Adelaide and Melbourne … you get the idea. The first I read about Flinders was at the start of our tour, when we climbed 512 steps to the top of Prospect Hill to get oriented with a 360-degree view of KI. It’s a fairly easy climb, and our guides and signs at the lookout informed us that Flinders climbed the very same hill in 1802 and gave it its name. During multiple explorations of Australia’s coastline, Flinders discovered that Tasmania was an island, became the first man to circumnavigate the continent, and suggested the name Australia in a letter to his brother, wherein he wrote, “I call the whole island Australia, or Terra Australis.” Flinders had an adventurous life that included a nearly 7-year imprisonment on the French colony of Mauritius, where he stopped for repairs en route to England in 1803. Having had a friendly encounter with a French ship off the Australian coast, he did not expect trouble. But alas, England was at war with France by the time he arrived, and he was arrested as a spy and imprisoned until his parole in 1810, when he returned to England. He died just a few years later, in 1814, but he’d made his mark, and it’s nice to think of Flinders on top of Prospect Hill, marveling at the panoramic view of hills, a windy coastline, Pelican Lagoon, Pennington Bay, the American River and the Southern Ocean and wondering what else lay ahead for him. For all his historic importance, I particularly liked a comparison I read on one sign between Flinders and Robert Brown, a botanist who traveled with him, and today’s explorers. It described them as adventurous twenty-something men who were “not very different from many backpackers who climb this hill today.” Well, from one backpacker to another, thanks, Capt. Flinders. Australia is wondrous. We owe you.

9. You get a break from the heat. If you come down from the North, that is

I did KI from Adelaide after a day’s rest from six days of Outback exploration in the Northern Territory and South Australia, where it was pushing 40 degrees, so cool spring days were welcome and easier on the body. That said, mornings were cold, making it hard to rise and shine at 6:30 a.m. at our Flinders Chase Farm dorm-style accommodation, where we spent our one overnight. Fortunately, this being Australia, there was plenty of tea, so I pulled on a fleece and made a big mug of sweet, milky Dilmah for fortification as I groggily trudged around the grounds, shooting photos of a sunlit grove, chickens and old machinery. OK, so I needed tea AND coffee to fully embrace the experience. But I was also happy for weather, flora and fauna that were different from my recent desert experience (which I adored), even if I prefer hot weather to cold. Because part of the fun of travel is exploring a country’s regional differences – and Oz has plenty, from the barren heat of South Australia’s Outback, to the East’s sunny beaches, to the bracingly cold winds off the Southern Ocean in Victoria. (And, thankfully, plenty of tea to fuel one’s path.)

8. 1,001 uses for eucalyptus

What do you think of when you hear “Australia”? (You were going to say koalas, weren’t you?) How about … eucalyptus?! Yes, eucalyptus, a species ubiquitous in Oz that’s been immortalized in song, art and stories since … well, honestly, I have no idea, so let’s just say forever. In any case, eucalypts are a real part of the Australian identity. Also called “gum trees” because some of them exude a lot of sap when their bark is damaged, there are over 700 species, most of which are native to Oz. Australia’s original aboriginal inhabitants considered eucalyptus an all-purpose remedy, and historically it’s been used for everything from mulch to fighting malaria.

At the Emu Ridge distillery in Kingscote, we learned how eucalyptus oil is distilled from the leaves of the narrow-leaved mallee (a variety known for its aroma) by cooking them in a giant cauldron, capturing the steam and purifying the oil. The distillery boasts of producing “100 percent pure Australian eucalyptus oil,” and as South Australia’s only commercial eucalyptus oil distillery, it has revived an industry that once flourished on KI. Today, it’s a tourist attraction. They screen a film on distillation in a room with a stagecoach and have a shop that sells the best variety of eucalyptus-infused soaps and body products I saw anywhere in Australia. They also sell the pure oil, which is labeled “poison” even though it’s touted for a zillion and one uses, from cleaning to cough medicine. I think the basic idea is that a drop or two is good for just about anything, but more than that can kill you. I bought some, of course. On the way out, I stopped to visit the lone emu that, I assume, gives the place its name. He ran right over, which meant he either wanted company or thought I had food. It was probably the latter, but I want them to get him a companion anyway. I don’t think my opinion will hold sway – I didn’t buy THAT much soap – but put in a good word for him if you go. (And send me a tin of their eucalyptus body mousse, which I stupidly passed up when I was there. I’ll pay you back.)

7. Wondrous strange flora

All around KI we saw interesting plants, such as native cherry trees that produce yellow berries – one of many types of “bush tucker” or bush food used by aboriginal people for sustenance or medicine. There was lots of round-leaved pigface, a groundcover with spiky, deep-violet spring blooms, and yakka, a grass tree that grows very slowly, about 2 cm. per year. Yakka gum, used in explosives and fireworks, is derived from the plant’s resin, which is so hard to harvest that, our guide said, it gave rise to the term “hard yakka,” which is Aussie slang for hard work. The word yakka itself comes from aboriginal language. As proof of a well-functioning ecosystem, we saw a hollow tree trunk with an interior that was ideal for egg-laying iguanas and an exterior that was the site of an enormous termite mound. Termites, in turn, are the preferred food of echidnas, Australia’s spiny anteater that’s one of the world’s rarest animals and one of only two egg-laying mammals. It all seems to balance out pretty well.

6. Ligurian honey

I know, you probably thought you had to go to Liguria to get it. Which wouldn’t be bad, because Italy is fabulous. But this is Australia, and it was our good fortune that the world’s only pure strain of the Ligurian bee is on KI, the world’s oldest bee sanctuary. The reason the strain has stayed pure is because KI is too far for other bees to fly in, even if winds push them. And visitors are rigorously screened for bees, pollen, beeswax or any hive products that could pollute the strain. In any case, all you need is one taste of honey at Clifford’s Honey Farm – our last stop before boarding the ferry back to Adelaide – and you’re grateful for those Italian bees. They know how to make honey. We had just 10 minutes, but I managed to sample sugar gum, mallee and spring mix varieties before settling on a 500g bottle of spring mix to take home. This is heady stuff:  light, aromatic, sweet without being cloying, and just the right texture. Most of us also bought pre-packed cups of honey ice cream ($3.50 AUS), which was superbly creamy. I would have enjoyed learning about honey production and beekeeping on KI. But sometimes, you have to take what you can get.

5. Fun with fauna

We quietly checked out shy wallabies – I LOVE wallabies – as they fed along a wide, grassy roadside stretch. I was greeted by two very cute possums – don’t ask me what kind, there are 140 marsupial species in Australia and these guys didn’t stick around long enough for me to figure them out – on my dorm railing at dusk. We were lucky to spot an echidna scurrying down an embankment. And there were, of course, many kangaroos and koalas. On morning and afternoon walks, we spotted koalas high up in eucalyptus trees. Many were asleep. (And, by the way, that business about koalas being sleepy because of the narcotic effects of the eucalyptus leaves they eat is a myth. As much fun as it may be to think of millions of semi-stoned koalas hanging out in trees all over Australia, the reason they sleep a lot is because eucalyptus leaves don’t provide much energy. So that’s my myth-buster for the day.) We also saw climbing koalas and koalas with cubs, and heard a male’s loud mating growl, which sounded much deeper and wilder than you’d expect from such small, cuddly-looking creatures. Then there was the moment when I looked up to see if it was raining. No, friends, that wasn’t rain. Trust me, when you hear things drop or feel a gentle mist whilst standing in a eucalyptus grove, MOVE. Because like any other animal, when koalas gotta go, they gotta go. Mercifully, I’ve got quick reflexes.

4. Cool Hidden Beach

Stokes Bay is a lovely spot on the northern coast, but the best part of it is the narrow, hidden passage between rocks that leads to a secluded beach with aquamarine waters and rock pools. It’s a great place to chill out and pick your way gingerly over the rocks and into the shallow waters off the beach. My only complaint was that our guides didn’t alert us, before we left the bus, to bring swimwear. The water was chilly, but a few of us definitely would have gone in. As it turns out, I ended up going in anyway when I slipped off a rock and fell into the ocean. But as someone who hates to miss any chance to get into water, I can’t complain. It was kind of fun. And I’m not the type of traveler to let an opportunity go by.

3.  Sea Lions & Seals

At Seal Bay Conservation Park, an excellent guide took us for a walk along the beach to see a colony of endangered Australian sea lions, who were flopped all over the bright white sand, snoozing and sunning, while we watched and snapped pictures. The park encourages observation but no interaction, just as it should be. Some of the sea lions played in the surf. Mothers cuddled with cubs. And we saw a bit of drama when one old bull barked and chased a younger male who was acting like a pesky teenager. I felt privileged to see these animals. They are among the world’s rarest species and are found only off the south and southwestern coasts of Australia.The population has been estimated at 14,700, and efforts are underway to help the non-migratory species recover, with more than 100 pups born at Seal Bay each breeding cycle. We also saw New Zealand fur seals from viewing platforms at Admirals Arch, a natural rock arch formed from thousands of years or erosion at Cape du Couedic in Flinders Chase National Park. The dark brown seals stayed in or near rock pools while we were there; they feed at sea but rest and breed on land. Sealing in the 1700s and 1800s pushed these beautiful animals to the brink of extinction, but they have gradually recovered since receiving protected status in 1978.  In Australia, their population is up to 35,000, with an annual increase of 16 to 19 percent. They never ventured very far from the water, so we were deprived of a closer look, but that was OK. They’re there, and that’s what counts.

2.   Sandboarding

This is super fun, so if you get to KI, make sure you stop at Little Sahara, a sort of desert formed from eroded limestone that covers more than 2 square kilometers, including huge dunes where people sandboard and toboggan. Since most of our tour involved easy walks and hikes, it was fun to do something that elevated our heart rates; it’s pretty hard to walk up a dune, especially near the top. Our guides brought wooden boards, and we all took turns, some laying down and others standing, riding down. Special honors go to two Belgian women who made an art of sandboarding while filming their rides with a GoPro. My own performance was nowhere near as impressive; although I’m an alpine skier, I took the easy way and tobogganed on my stomach. Sand is not snow, and I didn’t want to risk falling or jamming a hip that’s already seen major surgery. No worries; I had a bunch of fun runs without so much as a scratch. Special thanks to our guides for bringing furniture polish so we could grease up the boards!

1. Remarkable Rocks

This geological site, perched on the edge of the sea in Flinders Chase National Park, gets my top grade among all the KI attractions we saw over two days. Sitting high over the brightest, bluest sea imaginable, these unusual granite boulders appear precariously balanced and are great fun to climb and explore. We were lucky to have clear skies, and the sun’s rays struck the rocks at all sorts of angles, creating beautiful beams of light. Some of the rocks look like faces, and they and the spaces between them form geometric shapes against the sea and horizon. It’s a natural work of art, created from sea spray, wind and rain some 500 million years ago, and, as its name attests, truly remarkable. When you are done climbing – carefully, because people have fallen off and died  – you can just sit, look out over that big blue expanse, and let go of every petty care in the world. Because there’s no room for anything but clear thinking and renewed life force in a place like that. Travel well, everybody.