Kangaroo Island is a great way to start a bike tour around Australia!
Have you been there? Definitely put it on your Australian itinerary.
This was my third and best visit. For 12 days I toured the island and still didn’t have time to do and see everything which means there will need to be a fourth visit.
Kangaroo Island is located south of the Fleurieu Peninsula in South Australia and is accessible by vehicle ferry between Cape Jervis and Penneshaw, plane from Adelaide to Kingscote and, if you’re keen, kayak across the 14km Backstairs Passage. A bike costs $11 + walk on passenger fare by ferry.
Karta, occupation estimated at 16,000 years ago, is an aboriginal name for Kangaroo Island which means “Island of the Dead”;
“…probably because a creation being from the Dreamtime, Ngurunderi, crossed to the island, from where he travelled to the Milky Way. The spirits of the dead of a number of tribes were believed to follow his track to the afterlife in the sky.” Sourced from M. H. Monroe – Australia: The Land Where Time Began. https://www.austhrutime.com/karta_island_of_the_dead.htm
When you wander around Penneshaw the first thing to strike you will be the colours. Have you heard of Bay of Fires in Tasmania? Penneshaw has the same bright fire orange lichen on the pale granite boulders, the beaches are white and clear water is every shade of aqua to indigo. Seals and dolphins are regular visitors to the beach and cove.
Frenchman’s Rock is a fascinating and beautifully built historical monument to French explorer and naturalist Nicholas Baudin who was the first European recorded to chart and set foot on the island. It is a little known fact that while explorer Matthew Flinders was charting the east and north coastlines of Australia, Baudin and his crew were charting the west and south coastlines and archipelagos. During Flinders’ circumnavigation he discovered a stone which Baudin’s expedition marked on landing at the site we now know as Penneshaw. If you have travelled a bit in Australia you will have noticed many places around the western and southern coast with French names. They were not the only European explorers to visit but both Baudin and Flinders share recognition for mapping significant parts of the Australian coast.
From Penneshaw I went to Island Beach for lunch. This is mostly holiday rentals but on a long sweeping beach which calls you in for a swim. I waded in but the cold Southern Ocean was still shockingly numbing, it warms up by summer. I sat on the beach for two hours, enjoying the heat of the sun and saw only a few other people.
That evening I stayed with Warmshowers hosts, Liz and Scott, at Pelican Lagoon on their bush property. The light in the trees here is magical and wildlife everywhere. The next morning Liz and Scott took fellow host Federico and I dragon boating with the Kangaroo Island team on American River.
Kingscote is the “capital” of Kangaroo Island. It has developed a great shared pedestrian and bike track which extends all the way from Brownlow to Reeves Point along the water front with beaches and lookouts. At Reeves Point the park has been developed into something like an open museum. I was most interested in the bird hide. A bird hide is a non-descript structure to sit inside or behind with narrow slit windows and shelf for birdwatching and twitching. Twitching is serious bird photography. The bird hide allows a bird watcher to sit quietly out of sight, it increases the chances of spotting shy and cautious birds as well as birds having the confidence to come closer.
Bird watching at Reeves Point is fun with many species of coastal birds, all the local shrub species and the usual suspects like magpies and masked lapwing plovers. If you want to get into it and have the room to carry extra gear there is a Birds of Kangaroo Island book by Chris Baxter. WARNING Spotting each species and identify them can become addictive but in a mindful educational way.
In Kingscote I enjoyed a rest day and stayed with Warmshowers hosts Martine and Manfred. Their home was a delightfully surprising tri-hexagon design run on solar power and rain water surrounded by edible gardens, an orchard and regenerated bushland with a guest camping area on the creek.
Duck Lagoon, at Cygnet River near the airport, is a beaut picnic area with a bird hide. While on Kangaroo Island I participated in the annual 1 week Australian Backyard Bird Count. Anywhere I am is my backyard so each day I stopped in a nice location, like Duck Lagoon and Reeves Point for my bird count. There were a whole different variety of birds to be found there. It is a very picturesque location. On the way to Cape Borda Robin from the local constabulary helped, with his assistance, to the start of the dirt road, I made it just as the sun was setting and was able to keep my booking.
I was curious about staying in heritage lighthouse accommodation. Usually it would be too expensive but Cape Borda lighthouse has a variety of cottages to suit different budgets including $50/night in Woodward Hut. It was the communications hut converted into a twin room. It is “cosy” but has everything you need for a comfortable night including a heater, table, chairs, stove, fridge, kettle and view out the window of the lighthouse. It is cheap because there is no shower, only a toilet 100m away. There is phone range out there but no data so it gives an opportunity to read, wander, rest.
At sunset I walked down below the lighthouse and sat with the kangaroos and wallabies. They are wild, not tame, and don’t tolerate you approaching too close or touching. I sat still and quiet, minding my own business, and after a few minutes they were all around. There are some good stories in the history of this lighthouse and well worth the trip out on a tour day. Make the time to walk to the lookout perched on the top of the tallest sea cliffs in Australia and down to the tiny cove of Harvey’s Return.
The 30km red dirt road out was rough, lots of sand and deep corrugations. Riding and pushing was about 50/50 but going slow gave me lots of opportunity to admire the wildflowers, I took photos of 20 different species of flowers growing beside the road. A taste of what I plan to do through the outback during dry season next year.
A funny thing happened on the way out to Cape Borda. I caught the tail end of the Bike SA KI tour on their way to Western KI Caravan Park near Flinders Chase and they thought I was one of them, going the wrong direction. The “sag wagon” support vehicle and last rider chased me down and we ended up having a great chat and they invited me to join them if I made it there the next night.
The next day I made it back to the sealed road with some help. Julia and Jerry from Texas stopped in their big motorhome with a bike rack on the back. It was a relief as I had nearly hit a wall of exhaustion pushing through the sand and corrugations for 20km and getting covered in dust every time a vehicle passed without slowing. Most drivers are not aware of the dust cloud they are making or the rocks being sprayed out by 4WD tyres. If you are driving on a dirt road and see a walker or rider please slow down. When we are in your dust cloud we are not visible to any following vehicles and grinding dust between my teeth isn’t high on my list of favourite things.
Originally I had planned to camp in Flinders Chase National Park at the Rocky River camping area but as I approached the intersection to turn right I saw some of the Bike SA riders to the left, heading to Western KI Caravan Park. Thinking of the invitation to join them I turned left and it was a marvellous night. I did something completely contrary to my character and camped in the middle of their tent city surrounded by about 70 tents and 120 bikes, after all, it was a new experience so it had to be all or nothing. I found John from the “sag wagon” and he took care of me all night, introducing his friends and fellow volunteer crew, making sure I ate well and invited me to stay with him on my way back to Adelaide in 2 years. As a bonus, that night was the Annual Tour Dinner Revue with sing-a-longs, poetry, jokes and lots of camaraderie. The Bike SA tour organiser, Russell Miatke, puts a lot of thought and time into making each tour a success and this one was no exception. There was a great community atmosphere and everyone was enjoying themselves. Even a blow in like me was welcome.
I had a few rest days in Western KI and loved the relaxed environment and being immersed in Nature. A few luxuries like an amenities block, laundry and campers kitchen but surrounded by kangaroos, wallabies, possums and koalas. There is a koala walk at the caravan park and they are most active at dusk. As soon as I began walking up the track there was a koala walking down the track towards me. We stopped, looked around and after he waddled on past I continued and encountered more. It was almost surreal but it is estimated that KI has up to 20,000 koalas. There is also a peaceful lagoon walk which was quite a surprise. I was expecting a dam with a few ducks but it was beautiful with natural bushland, wetlands and I counted 26 bird species, sat in the sun with a goanna and met a kangaroo and joey also enjoying some quiet time.
Flinders Chase National Park is a big draw card for tourism on Kangaroo Island with some special destinations and interactive experiences but there is also the 4-5 day wilderness trail which attracts hundreds of gaiter wearing, pack hauling, nature loving, adventure walkers. Something left for next time but I know many who have walked it end to end and loved every bit.
The 3 biggies are Remarkable Rocks, Admirals Arch and Cape du Couedic Lightstation.
“Wow! Big rocks!” is probably the most common remark. The landmark was formed millions of years ago as magma pushed up through the crust and since eroded by the elements, wind, ocean, plant matter and ice mostly. What makes it so unique, and remarkable, are the strange shapes and high narrow spaces formed over time. The colours of the lichen, contributing to the slow breakdown of granite, adds to the appeal.
For a great wildlife experience visit Admirals Arch on Cape du Couedic where you can watch long nosed fur seals (formerly known as New Zealand fur seals) all day, all year around. The area is renown as a breeding colony and it is a treat watching the pups play in the water and suckle their mothers. Usually they are sunning themselves on the rock platforms. There are several places where you can watch but the most spectacular is inside the arch. Here is another geological highlight where the ocean has hammered away the rock strata between limestone and granite leaving a wide cave like arch over a rocky cove and platforms. Sometimes you can see scores of seals in here.
Cape du Couedic Lighthouse is, in my opinion, one of the prettiest in Australia. One of 3 lighthouses on the island which was is also a lightstation and housed the families of lightkeepers for over 100 years until it was electrified. The lightkeeper cottages are heritage listed and restored for holiday accommodation. All the lighthouses on Kangaroo Island are still in operation, electrified and automated but without lightkeepers.
There are many other activities in Flinders Chase including heritage/nature/megafauna walks, platypus spotting and birdwatching, plus a café and information centre. I saw both of our wonderfully weird monotremes, a platypus and echidna but not without a lot of patience standing still and quiet. The bubbles gave away the platypus, they are a mammal and as they forage along the bottom of the waterhole a little line of bubbles rises to the surface. There were two foraging in the waterhole but I glimpsed only one as it came to the surface and dived back down quickly.
Not far from Flinders Chase is one of my favourite places on Kangaroo Island, Kelly Hill Caves! This was my second visit but I think I could go 100 times and never tire of it. Caves fascinate me and these are surprisingly full of gorgeous formations, some are rare and found nowhere else. These caves formed through erosion of limestone and collapsing levels of caverns, evident in both the broken and shifted columns and, in this cave system, you can see the stacking of levels. In a side cavern where part of the cavern collapsed you can see above and below. There are also lots of bizarre heliotites which form like stalactites but grow sideways at strange angles. During school holidays they have adventure caving tours as well as the usual daily tours.
On previous visits to KI I have visited the pristine Vivonne Bay where its white beaches and turquoise waters mesmerise and Seal Bay Conservation Area where guides take you down to the beach and talk about the sea lion colony who call Seal Bay home.
Here is where I will broach the subject of sustainable adventure tourism. Prompted by a host working in conservation I explored the question of “Just how ethical is conservation tourism if it is taking hundreds of people into a wild habitat daily, causing undue stress to the species several times a day, as a tourist attraction?”. My personal thoughts were challenged and changed. I imagine and hope this will happen often. What are your thoughts and why?
Up until this point in my ride I had been struggling with a badly fitting bike saddle and was forced, for health reasons, to stop until it was replaced. My sitting bones are too wide for the original saddle, they were not even on the saddle, this was torture. On the side of the road, even down hill, I walked the bike and put out my thumb hoping for a lift. A lovely young family from Adelaide, on a working holiday with the Elan skate van stopped and helped. We put the bike in the back and I rocked up at Liz and Scott’s a day early. The next day a new ex-demo Brooks B17s was on its way down with the overnight mail from Treadly in Adelaide and after two rest days I continued the tour in comfort I didn’t believe was possible. Newbie bike touring!
Last stop for my tour was Cape Willoughby Lightstation. The roads out were smooth, firm and quiet white limestone, very enjoyable. The weather was amazing and my mood soared. At the lighthouse I was the only human and wandered around for a few hours watching ships go by and the sunset. I stayed out there overnight so I could join a guided tour the next morning and that night there was an enormous storm, very exciting. Waiting for the tour was a good decision. It turned out to be a private tour with lighthouse guide Meagan and went for an hour. Cape Willoughby lighthouse was the first built in South Australia to guide ships through the reefs in Backstairs Passage, the main channel to Port Adelaide. The tour goes up into the light tower and out on the observation deck. There is even a Class 1 dioptric revolving lens on site which floated in a bath of mercury in the top of the tower, you can also climb into it (without the mercury bath), it is huge.
The final day was a short 34km afternoon ride back to Penneshaw around Antechamber Bay. As I rode the well graded dirt road past farms, lagoons and vineyards I reflected on the diverse Natural beauty of the Island and the fantastic people I met on the way. It was with great satisfaction I boarded the ferry, it was a very good visit and the best way to start my tour around Australia.