Nature's Party Kangaroo Island
There is a last frontier. A place where sharks swim the ocean waters and nocturnal driving lines the roads with animal carcasses like scrub brush. Termites build five feet high homes here. If nature ever deserved to be celebrated yet left alone her party should be held on Kangaroo Island. Alas, one of the most beautiful places in the world is about to join the rest of the planet. On the cusp of a great big tourist boom, these nights the natives go to sleep dreaming of big fat dollar signs. They want you but on their own terms. They may be in for a big surprise.
There is a saying that goes, "The happiest dogs in the world live on Kangaroo Island." It's true. It's a land without ulcers. Officially colonized in 1836 but named for its bounty in 1802 (an early tree carving exclaimed "This is the place for fat meat 1800") the numbers break down like this: Australia's third largest island: three thousand humans; eight thousand kangaroos; three hundred thousand wallabies; one million sheep. Thirty-five minutes away by car from the nearest major city, Adelaide. Quantas may get you to Australia; around these parts, however, the airlines go by the names Emu, Albatross, and Air K.I.
It's Australia's Empire State Building, an easily accessible tourist attraction but the natives never go there. More Aussies go to Tasmania. One pot-smoking teenager in Adelaide called it boring; two others eating pie floaters (a meat pie dropped in pea soup) on a street corner admitted it's a place they had never been.
Better for the island. It is a providence of bays and coves where seals fight for turf and emu flocks run stupid like geese/ K.I. hit the lotto as early as 1888 when conservationists petitioned the government to protect its west end, and these days Flinders Chase National Park is one of the largest in South Australia. Close to thirty-five percent of the land is protected as a national or conservation park. From the koalas living in the gum trees of Cygnet River to the beaches that dance its perimeter, there's a magical ecological system here rarely influenced by humans, let alone introduced animals.
Before you pack your things to move there, be aware they'd love to have you, but they don't want you to stay. For such a liberal country, Australia's conservative immigration laws have an overwhelmingly popular mandate. There's just not much work on K.I. Besides the local sheep farmers who make up the largest industry on the island, for the most part tourism is THE cash cow, and depending on who you talk to, hope is it will either double or triple in the next ten years. There are enough bed and breakfast joints to sustain the 100,000 visitors that do come to the island yearly and most visit during the summer months of December and January. Come August, the island's dead. The inhabitants that remain are an odd mix of natives and transplants whose bread mostly gets buttered by your money.
Ken Grinter is an Amish-looking forty-seven year old ex-analytical chemist now working as a tour guide. He's the guy you want to be with at the new frontier. When he says, "Go have a look around that bend" -- go. Sadly, his talent for surprise is matched by an Australian lack of contempt shared with other islanders, that might disappear when the tourists start coming for real. At Flinders, Ken gently reminded some visiting Italian tourists eating lunch and seeking a photo-op about the natural diet of kangaroos; it couldn't include bits of leftover cheese, now could it? Slowly and passionately he recommended not feeding them, and as a last resort suggested using the eucalyptus leaves that make up their diet. Ken's too nice. He lacks the authority. As soon as his back is turned, cameras pop and the kangaroos get their Brie. It's a familiar scenario played out at tourist spots around the world, but these folks are incredulous when it happens here. They have a childlike faith in courtesy. They're just too nice and can't believe people can suck so bad.
Seal Bay is a lovely stretch of sand that approximately 600 sea lions call their home, surfing the waves and lolling in the sun. Visitors are allowed onto the beach as long as they are accompanied by a park guide and stay more than ten feet away from the animals. That doesn't deter the groups of fifty from crashing onto the beach, less concerned with the homes of the beasts than where to go to the bathroom afterwards.
"Scenic areas like Remarkable Rocks already have too many vehicles visiting them," sighed Ken bravely, as he watched a Greyhound-sized busload of visiting Japanese pass on a gravel road only a four wheel drive should try. He'd love the place to limit its visitors, but that means a limit on the same numbers responsible for paying his rent.
An eco-conscious awareness does exist on Kangaroo Island; the place is worth it and the natives know it. More than a quarter of the island's inhabitants have settled there in the last twenty years. But tourists bring garbage in a world where it never existed before. Cigarette butts have begun to line the entrance to the rock passage of the secret beaches of Stoke's Bay.
Kangaroo Island is a place where trees canopy as branches reach out to greet each other over roads, and eagles owning wing spans of five feet wide are known to navigate through them. By day, it's misleadingly quiet. The only proof of wildlife is an abundance of various sizes of dried feces gathering in fields and the roads. The stars of the show come out after dark, however, and night time is the right time on Kangaroo Island.
Any ridge colored by an evening's browns and reds can reveal a family of contented marsupials hopping across the plains, and then reality checks in: this is their world.
Five feet tall and a few hundred pounds each, theirs is a friendly race, but local word is -- don't piss one off. With a tail that can support all its weight and foot-long back claws, a kangaroo ready to strike is a very dangerous animal indeed. Not that they can't be endeared; talk to one in a baby voice ("Hi honey, how are you? You're sooo pretty") and rest assured he will respond by standing on his back feet and wagging his tail. It's a singularly amazing experience.
Some motels are feeding local 'roos because a fed kangaroo sticks around and is a great tourist attraction. Other places offer it on their dinner menu. Ironically, it's cheap and lean, and obviously available everywhere. With a bit of mint jelly, it's known to be delicious.
With so short a season it's amazing the service industry operating on this island even exists. The viability of a fast food joint selling burgers here seems pretty bleak unless one is ready to open only two months out of the year. It's something the guys at the Cygnet Cafe don't worry about. Housed in a former gas station, it offers everything from kangaroo fillet to King George whiting, and as a bonus a poisonous Hunchean spider looks over your shoulder as you dine. Large crowds or not, they're open all year; K.I. is their home.
"You missed Michael's birthday party," laughed Joel O'Conner, one of its two owners. "We wore kilts and played bagpipes!" They've lived on the island for two and a half years and have been together for the last ten. As if paradise wasn't enough, Kangaroo Island is very gay-friendly. They know full well the tourist dollar value and its seasonal limitations, future, and ugly repercussions. Hoping the inherent softness in the air, Joe's partner Michael McClaren says settled them here will infect visitors in a white light, spiritual way.
"K.I. Brings out a curious moment of truth in people's behavior." Like most residents, however, they're certain a proper British-like slap on the hand is all it will take to set annoying tourists in their place. They're not stupid, though. As it is, dinner is not inexpensive and that's not counting the required three bottles of wine. They know that the people who are coming, rude or not, will have plenty of money.
"Once I saw a perfect sunset go down with a kangaroo in its frame. It was remarkable." Not everyone is happy with the influx of visitors. For all intents and purposed David Ball qualifies as a hermit. He's lived alone for twenty in a small house with a 360 degree view atop one of the highest points on the island. He goes to town maybe once a week, saves his own water and lives on two hundred dollars a month. His home is barely reachable, even with a four-wheel drive. When the town council cleared roads in 1983, the one going his way remained filled with boulders by his own choice. He hates tourists.
"There are too many dreamers already on this island for may sake," he complains. If it were up to him, the island can start getting back to basics by reducing its koala population. Introduced in 1920 as part of a wildlife park plan, they are now 5,000 strong and do nothing but eat, sleep and shit in the redgum and sugargum trees they call home. But they're cuddly cute and take a great photo. He shares the 1,000 acres he lives on with over 300 kangaroos. Ironically, he faces an overpopulation dilemma as their growing in numbers mean he will have to destroy some -- or else let them eventually die of thirst. "This place may look wonderful but try and live here," he says heavily. Taking a deep breath he pointed towards the southern sea. "But between here and Antarctica, there's nothing that's for me."