by Nigel Tisdall, The Telegraph, March 25, 2019
“You should anticipate being out of contact with the outside world,” say the guidelines to the Kangaroo Island Wilderness Trail. It’s a prospect that fills me with glee, although this challenging 38-mile (61km) coastal hike, which takes five days to complete, is no country stroll. Good fitness is required and potential hazards include strong winds, cliff edges and venomous snakes.
Opened in 2016 by National Parks South Australia, this ambitious project took more than five years and AUS$5 million (£3 million) to complete and had a mission to create “a great Australian walk” that makes the most of the sensational scenery in the south-west corner of Kangaroo Island.
A little larger than Mallorca, this tranquil island lies 12.4 miles (20km) off the South Australia coast and is often billed as the “Galapágos of Australia” on account of its distinctly evolved and abundant wildlife that includes kangaroos, koalas, wallabies, penguins and sea lions. The most scenic way to get here is by driving south from Adelaide to Cape Jervis then taking a short ferry ride across the Backstairs Passage. A car is certainly useful – there is no public transport – although you can also fly into Kingscote Airport from where local hoteliers and tour operators will arrange transfers.
Once here, it becomes apparent that this an isolated island that lives to its own rhythms. Settlements are small and rural with shops poorly stocked, yet if you hunt around, Kangaroo Island’s foodie side soon comes to light. The island is renowned for its honey, produced by Ligurian bees that were brought here in the 1880s, while artisan producers such as the Island Pure Sheep Dairy create high-quality handmade yogurt and cheeses. There are good local oysters and superb fish and chips at Fish in Penneshaw. Kangaroo Island also has 15 wine growers with reds a strong point, while walkers who like an evening tipple should seek out KI Spirits, a tiny, tin-shed gin distillery where the highlight is the £70-a-bottle “Old Tom” matured in oak barrels.
While the island’s human population is around 4,400, there are some 60,000 resident kangaroos, which are sadly often first encountered as road kill. Many locals sport protective “roo bars” on the front of their vehicles and visitors hiring cars are not insured to drive at night in case of accident. This grim tussle between man and nature has to be faced, but the island is very much a wildlife haven with more than a third of it under conservation.
Koalas snooze in the gum trees and Rosenberg’s goannas (lizards that can grow to 3ft) patrol the footpaths, while down on the south coast a thousand-strong colony of Australian sea lions – one of the rarest species in the world – has been protected since the Fifties.
It takes around 90 minutes to drive from the ferry terminal to Flinders Chase National Park, the starting point for the Kangaroo Island Wilderness Trail. Its route is split into five one-day sections with distances ranging from 4.6 miles (7.5km) to 8.6 miles (14km). The number of daily walkers is limited and you can only go in one direction, west to east, the idea being that this gives a greater sense of being alone in the wilds. There are four campsites along the way but, as you need to bring your supplies, most overseas visitors join an organised group tour or work with operators who can arrange guides, transfers and accommodation. Many walkers do the full five days, but it is also satisfying to do a few individual sections with Day Two, a seven-hour cliff-top yomp that skirts around Maupertuis Bay, arguably the highlight.
The most atmospheric place to stay is Cape du Couedic cottages, a trio of three-bedroom lighthouse-keepers’ cottages set beside a lighthouse dating from 1909. These sit at the heart of the trail and have been restored as heritage self-catering properties with period furnishings and original fittings. The background reading provided makes it clear that what might seem a lonely posting was also one that could suddenly fill with drama, from a toddler lost in the bush (found by a dog, thankfully) to an encounter with a deadly tiger snake in the linen cupboard.
Walking along the cliffs, crossing deserted beaches, beholding the mighty waves of the Southern Ocean, it soon becomes obvious why such lighthouses were necessary. More than 80 shipwrecks were recorded on the coast of Kangaroo Island between 1847 and 1996, including the tragedy of Loch Sloy, a Scottish sailing barque that struck the reef at Maupertuis Bay in 1899. The ordeals of its four survivors feature in a free booklet and audio tours app (available from the App Store and Google Play) that accompanies the trail, sections of which coincide with the tortuous route taken by Duncan McMillan, a 22-year-old seaman who struggled through the dense mallee shrub for 15 days in order to raise the alarm.
Local wrecks also provide names for the 21 suites at the luxurious Southern Ocean Lodge, which found itself enjoying a prime position beside Day Four of the trail. While it is baffling how the management think referencing a maritime disaster might aid a good night’s sleep, this resort is well worth a stop on account of its landmark architecture and uplifting location. Best suited to travellers who like to walk independently, the lodge offers four self-guided hikes of up to eight miles (13km) that use the trail, including one that crosses the South West river by boat and another that starts at Remarkable Rocks, a highly photogenic clifftop cluster of granite boulders covered in orange lichen that Dalí might have dreamed up.
Apart from the rewarding physical challenge, the deepest pleasure of walking the Kangaroo Island Wilderness Trail is discovering how beautiful and timeless this far-flung corner feels. Hundreds of millions of years in the making, this exhilarating coastline presents a stirring cavalcade of majestic cliffs, unblemished white sands, enchanting woodland and a deep blue sea stretching to Antarctica. Once remote and inhospitable, it has been unlocked by this slim, determined and well-signed path.
As you tramp across its breezy headlands, admiring the wheeling seabirds, gulping down lungfuls of fresh sea air, pausing to photograph the portly fur seals, time-sculpted rocks and brilliantly coloured flowers, it is like having a whole chunk of the world to yourself. Unless, of course, you are joined by a kangaroo merrily bouncing along.
Emirates (emirates.com) and Qatar Airways (www.qatarairways.com) fly from Heathrow to Adelaide via Dubai and Doha, respectively. Regional Express Airlines (rex.com.au) has flights from Adelaide to Kingscote Airport.
Kangaroo Island is a two-hour drive from Adelaide to Cape Jervis followed by a 45-minute ferry crossing (sealink.com.au). Not all car hire firms allow vehicles to be driven on the island – two that do are Hertz (hertz.com.au) and Budget (budget.com.au).
Where to stay
Cape du Couedic cottages (environment.sa.gov.au/parks) has lodges from around £100 per night for two guests.
Southern Ocean Lodge has double rooms from around £645 per person per night including all meals and airport transfers.
Walking the walk
Flinders Chase National Park visitors must pay entry fees.
Exceptional Kangaroo Island (exceptionalkangarooisland.com) arranges private tours.
Small group tours are available from Auswalk (auswalk.com.au), Kangaroo Island Odysseys (kangarooislandodysseys.com.au) and Trek Tours Australia (trektoursaustralia.com.au). The Western Kangaroo Island Caravan Park (westernki.com.au) offers transfers, cabins and camping for walkers.