From Cape Jervis, car ferries chug across the swells of the Backstairs Passage to Kangaroo Island (KI). Uninhabited when Brit explorer Matthew Flinders named the island in 1802 and long devoid of tourist trappings, KI is today a booming destination for wilderness and wildlife fans. It's a veritable zoo of seals, birds, dolphins, echidnas and (of course) kangaroos. Still, the island remains rurally paced and underdeveloped − the kind of place where kids ride bikes to school and farmers advertise for wives on noticeboards. Island wine and produce is a highlight.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Kangaroo Island.
Occupying the western end of Kangaroo Island, Flinders Chase National Park is one of SA’s top national parks. Much of the park is mallee scrub, but there are some beautiful, tall sugar-gum forests, particularly around Rocky River and the Ravine des Casoars, 5km south of Cape Borda. Sadly, around 100,000 acres of bush were burned out by bushfires in 2007, but the park is making a steady recovery. Kooky rock formations and brilliant bushwalks are the highlights.
'Observation, not interaction' is the mentality here. Guided tours stroll along the beach (or boardwalk on self-guided tours; adult/child/family $16/13/42.50) to a colony of (mostly sleeping) Australian sea lions, endemic to SA and WA (there are only about 14,700 of them left in the wild). Book tours in advance; lots of extra tour times during school holidays. Last entry 45 minutes before closing time.
The best swimming beach on the north coast, with a lovely arc of powdery white sand and sheltered shallows. There's not much else at Snelling by way of facilities but that's all part of its charm. A truly lovely beach – exactly what KI is all about.
When intrepid French explorer Nicholas Baudin surveyed the KI coast in 1803, he came ashore at what's now Penneshaw for a look around. He left his mark: under a white concrete dome on the shoreline is a replica of KI's first graffiti – a rock engraved with 'Expedition De Decouverte par le Commendant Baudin sur Le Geographe 1803' ('Expedition of discovery by Commander Baudin on Le Geographe 1803'). The original rock can be seen safely preserved at the Gateway Visitor Information Centre nearby.
It's worth swimming the Backstairs Passage for the honey ice cream (sourced from rare Ligurian bees) at this charming, uncommercial farm, which is a bit off the tourist radar (again, charming). Honey-infused drinks, biscuits, mead, cosmetics and candles are also available. Look for the queen bee in the glass-fronted beehive. There's often a food truck on-site (burgers, fries, arancini balls; items $14 to $16); and Drunken Drone Brewery (www.facebook.com/drunkendronebrewery) is here too, bottling up yeasty Honey Wheat Ale.
Has baked goods, chutneys, seafood, olive oil, honey, eggs, cheese, yoghurt and of course wine and dodgy buskers (including, once, a certain Lonely Planet writer who shall remain unnamed). SeaLink offers dedicated passenger-only return tickets (adult/child $42/32) from the mainland if you'd just like to visit the market for the day. Additional market days happen when cruise-ship passengers are in town.
At Harvey's Return near Cape Borda, a cemetery speaks poignant volumes about the reality of isolation in the early days. From here you can drive to Ravine des Casoars (literally 'Ravine of the Cassowaries', referring to the now-extinct dwarf emus seen here by Baudin's expedition). The challenging Ravine des Casoars Hike (8km return, four hours) tracks through the ravine to the coast.
This series of dry limestone caves was 'discovered' in the 1880s by a horse named Kelly, who fell into them through a hole. Take the standard show cave tour (10.30am, then hourly 11am to 4pm), or add on an adventure caving tour (2.15pm; bookings essential). The Hanson Bay Walk (9km one way) runs from the caves past freshwater wetlands. There are extra show cave tours during school holidays.
Check out some KI wedge-tailed eagles, barn owls and kookaburras (all in optimal condition) at a one-hour birds-of-prey display (11.30am and 2.30pm), or go scaly at a one-hour lizards and snakes show (1pm). The 45-minute 'Venom Pit' show takes the adrenaline levels a peg higher, with spiders, scorpions and poisonous snakes (10.30am). There's a basic cafe here too.