Face to Face with Seals, Koalas and Wallabies on Australia’s Kangaroo Island

The island, off the coast of South Australia, is a treasure trove for wildlife lovers.  
Kangaroos on Kangaroo Island
Kangaroo Island gets its name from—surprise, surprise—its population of kangaroos. They can be seen hopping along the side of the road and feeding on fields of bright yellow grapeseed flowers. Photo: Karen Dias

It is lunchtime and we’ve stumbled into wallaby territory. A few feet from me, a congregation of foot-high, brown tammar wallabies is busy chomping away on grass. But they’ve stopped now, frozen like statues. In fact, we all are. It’s a tense few moments—we don’t want to startle them, and they don’t know what to make of us—until a young joey sticks its head out of its mother’s pouch, wondering what all the fuss is about. Moments later, they’re back to business, and we move on.

I’m on a forested trail in the sprawling Flinders Chase National Park, a protected area on South Australia’s Kangaroo Island named after—surprise, surprise—its kangaroo population. It’s barely a dot on the map but Kangaroo Island is a treasure trove of natural wonders, home to koalas, fairy penguins, possums, sea lions, pelicans, and fur seals. It feels a bit surreal. I haven’t seen my first tiger in India, yet here I am, sizing up a herd of wallabies.

Sea Lions and Pelicans on Kangaroo Island

Sea lions (left) spend days at a time out in the ocean, feeding on squid, octopus, and crustaceans, so it’s no surprise they’re fairly lethargic on land; The Australian pelican feeding (right) at Kingscote, where visitors learn about the bird’s feeding patterns and migration routes. Photos: Karen Dias

For the last two days, my travel companion, Karen and I have been road-tripping across the island to spot wildlife, stopping frequently to soak in picturesque views of the ocean. Over 300sqkm of the island is covered by the sandy beaches, hill caves, forests, and meadows of Flinders Chase National Park but the rest of it has green hills and valleys that are dotted with houses. It’s while driving through these inhabited areas, along fields of yellow flowers, that we saw our first kangaroos.

When we hopped out of the car to get a closer view, I learned from our guide Scott, that the island has its own sub-species of the western grey kangaroo that’s different from their mainland counterparts: smaller because they haven’t had to evolve to fight off predators. Though “small” is not the word I’d use to describe the adult male I saw. If the kangaroo were to stand up tall, he’d reach a whopping six feet.

With Scott by our side, we learn about how living on an island has affected the species here—and why the Australian government is so fussy about what travellers bring to their shores. Cut off from the rest of the planet by miles and miles of ocean, the animals here have evolved differently. Some are fragile, more susceptible to viruses that mainland species have learned to battle. Other species have survived largely because of their remote location.

Kangaroo Island

The landscape changes remarkably across the island—from rocky shore to pine forests and sheep farms. Photo: Karen Dias

Remarkable Rocks on Kangaroo Island

Sculpted by strong winds over centuries, the Remarkable Rocks are tinged orange because of the lichen that grows on them. They are at Flinders Chase National Park. Photo: Karen Dias

 

 

For instance, Kangaroo Island is the only place in the world where purebred Ligurian bees still thrive. The bees were introduced to the island from the Italian region of Liguria by European settlers in the late 1800s. I taste the exquisite honey they make at the Island Beehive store in Kingscote, where I also get the chance to watch the bees at work in a glass-encased hive. The store stocks honey-scented soap, candles, lozenges, and creams, but the best thing there is the thick sugar gum honey, of which I buy a bottle to take back home.

Sugar gum trees are also the favourite of koalas on the island. It’s not the most progressive decision evolution-wise (they aren’t very nutritive), but it makes spotting a koala in the wild that much easier. Every time we pass a group of these grey-barked trees, Scott cranes his neck out of the car to look up.

On one such pit stop, I find myself walking up and down the tree-lined path scoping the branches for signs of movement. Just when I resign myself to being the only person in Australia who doesn’t see a koala on safari, I finally spot one: Arms hugging the bark tightly, there’s a koala napping high up in the tree I’m standing under. When Karen hands me her telephoto lens for a closer look, I see that it’s woken up, and is staring straight at me. I feel a pang of guilt—I know exactly what it’s like to be woken up mid-nap. Then Scott tells me that koalas sleep for up to twenty hours a day, and I breathe a sigh of relief. No harm done.

Echidna on Kangaroo Island

Echidnas are incredibly sensitive and really hard to spot. Under threat, they freeze, put their snouts into the ground, and thrust out their spikes in defence. Photo: Karen Dias

Seal Bay, Kangaroo Island

The Seal Bay Conservation Park on the southeastern edge of Kangaroo Island is home to sea lions, and has boardwalks along the shore that afford sightings. Photo: Karen Dias

Another day, we watch sea lions shuffling up the shore at the Seal Bay Conservation Park, home to over a thousand of these endangered animals. I could have watched them for hours—especially the mothers and pups cuddling together but we have to get a move on, or we wouldn’t be able to tick off everything on our itinerary for the day. We see the echidna, a spiky animal that looks like a cross between a porcupine and a yucca plant, and delight at the sight of seals darting in and out of the surf. The first time I see the seals riding on waves crashing into the shore, I gasp. But there is nothing to worry about: They’re agile swimmers, navigating the waters in a way that made me wish I could trade my limbs for flippers.

I’d grown up watching many of the animals I saw on Kangaroo Island on television and in children’s books, so getting the chance to see them in real life—and in such proximity—was a real pleasure. But I also learned about a number of species I knew nothing about. Looking out at the shimmering waters of the Southern Ocean on my last day, I felt incredibly fond of our diverse planet.

The Guide

Orientation Kangaroo Island lies off the southern coast of Australia and is part of the state of South Australia.

Seasons Weather changes frequently and without much warning, so carry a windcheater and dress in layers. Winter (7-15ºC), between June and August, can get cold and windy, but the countryside is lush. Plus, southern right whales may be spotted from the Remarkable Rocks as they migrate along the coast. It’s a good time to spot wildlife as this is when the joeys of koalas, kangaroos, and wallabies emerge from their mothers’ pouches. In spring (10-21ºC), the weather begins to get warmer, but can still be windy. Summer (15-27ºC) is from December to February and autumn (12-22ºC), from March to May, sees higher chances of rainfall.

Getting There To reach Kangaroo Island, Indian travellers must first fly to Adelaide, the capital city of South Australia. From Adelaide, Regional Express (www.rex.com.au) operates daily 30-min-long direct flights to Kingscote on Kangaroo Island. Alternatively, Kangaroo Island SeaLink ferries (www.sealink.com.au) run daily from Cape Jervis on the mainland to Penneshaw on Kangaroo Island. The ferry ride takes 45 minutes. Coach connections are available between Adelaide and Cape Jervis.

Getting Around The best way to get around Kangaroo Island is by car. Various tour operators provide guided tours of the island. The writer’s guide, Scott, is part of Kangaroo Island Wilderness Tours (www.wildernesstours.com.au) which offers a range of tour options. A one-night, two-day nature tour in a four-wheel drive, inclusive of accommodation in a comfortable B&B and lunch, costs AUD2,408/₹1,23,453 for two people.

Visa Indian travellers to Australia require an Australian tourist visa. A 30-, 60-, or 90-day visa costs AUD135/₹7,200, with an additional service charge of ₹984. For application forms and a list of documents required to process the visa, visit http://www.vfsglobal.com/Australia/India/tourist.html. Visas generally take anywhere from 15 days to a month to be processed, so apply well in advance.

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    Fabiola Monteiro was formerly a member of National Geographic Traveller India's web team. She loves beaches, blue skies, and baking, and is most centred while trying a new cake recipe. She tweets as @thefabmonteiro.

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    Karen Dias is a photographer who shuttles between Mumbai and Goa. When she isn’t shooting, she can be found reading, drinking feni, and planning her next big adventure. She instagrams as @diastopia.

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