Is this what animals get up to when we’re not looking? I’m sitting on the soft sand of Seal Bay, down on the south coast of Kangaroo Island, South Australia, and I can’t believe my eyes. Right in front of me, velvety brown Australian sea lions are body surfing through the waves, while just a few metres away, countless others bask in the sun. Add a couple of tinnies and a few teenage tantrums and it’s like watching an episode of Home and Away.
I’m here on Kangaroo Island for a few days in search of the Big Five. The Australian Big Five, that is: koala, kangaroo, echidna, sea lion and pelican, missing off the legendary croc, kookaburra and platypus because they’re not common round here. Kangaroo Island, or KI as it’s known, is seven times the size of Singapore and home to more animals than you can shake a didgeridoo at; often called ‘Australia’s Galapagos’, it’s one of the few places where you can spot the country’s iconic marsupials in the wild.
My two-day tour around the island is a well-named Brilliant Break, organised through the tourist information centre, which takes in the island’s highlights. Seal Bay is definitely one of those – as well as getting to share a patch of sand with a sea lion, we’re also given a guided tour by a warden. The seals are a real joy to watch, especially the young ones, who look like children wearing jumpers a couple of sizes too big for them as they flop around in the skin that they’ll have to grow into.
Talking of jumpers, did you hear the one about the man who crossed a sheep with a kangaroo? He got a woolly jumper. Groan. It came to mind when we visited Emu Ridge Eucalyptus Distillery in the east of KI. It’s a tea tree oil and eucalyptus oil plant, and a bit of a tourist trap with one redeeming feature: it rescues orphan kangaroos. Snug in a wicker basket in the corner of the shop, I met one smelly individual, all curled up and sleepy in a yellow jumper to keep warm. It wasn’t in the wild, but it’s certainly the closest I’ve ever come to a kangaroo, and a baby one at that.
Back on the track, we head for Little Sahara, and on the way nearly run over a tiger snake crossing the road. This venomous orange and black striped fella is found all across South Australia – I’m glad we were in the car, as they are among the most deadly snakes in the world. And in the bushes something that looks like a hairbrush is moving about – oh, it’s an echidna. These strange creatures are hard to spot, as they’re really shy, and like foraging for ants in the undergrowth.
Little Sahara, in the middle of the island, is a beautiful spot, with rippling white sand dunes stretching as far as the eye can see, and our destination for a spot of sand surfing. But while it looks like a landing would be soft, it’s not. It’s certainly not as forgiving as snow. Remarkable Rocks in the Flinders Chase National Park on the southwest point of the island is another place that has been shaped by the wind. The sandstone rocks have been blown into peculiar shapes, leaving strange caves and unusual hiding places right underneath the rocks. Trust the Aussies to give it such a prosaic name. Just nearby at Admiral’s Arch, the surf’s up again, this time for the fur seals, smaller and a bit more athletic, by the looks of it.
There are plentiful koalas in the eucalyptus trees, so that’s an easy one to cross off. Checking the list, though, by day two we still have to pick up a pelican. I pull up a chair at the pelican’s tea party at the Pelican Lagoon wharf on the east side of the island, which isn’t as twee as it sounds, and the fun begins.
Ranger John Ayliffe brings out his bucket and starts flinging fish into the air, which is the signal for a squadron of pelicans to arrive. They are huge – standing as tall as a five-year-old, with great gaping mouths which they use like nets in the water. They come so close that they nearly tread on my toes, which is all part of the fun. There seems to be some disagreement about what the collective noun for a pelican is – I’ve found pod, pouch and raft among them – but my favourite by far is the ‘scoop’. Watching them fish for their dinner with their great wobbly beaks, it feels like the most appropriate word.
If you’re visiting Australia expecting to see kookaburra on every telephone wire, kangaroos in the fields and koalas in the back yard, you’ll be disappointed, but add in a trip to KI, and you’ll go home happy.
- Fly to Adelaide with Austravel
- South Australia tourist board & visitor centre: 18 King William Street, Adelaide