While severe bushfires and COVID-19 put a pause on tourism for over two years, the destination has bounced back – just like its flora and fauna. Curious travelers will currently find more eco-minded offerings than ever.
Located eight miles off the coast of South Australia, the island offers postcard-pretty landscapes of forests and desert dunes, cliffs and ravines, beaches and lagoons.
The stunningly diverse habitat allows icons of Australian wildlife like kangaroos and koalas to flourish, and also supports lesser known species such as echidnas (a quill-coated, egg-laying mammal) and dunnarts (a tiny marsupial with a prodigious ability for jumping).
Off the coast, pristine waters teem with fish, supporting a resident seal population and the whales that pass through here during their annual migration. Strap on a mask and you might even spot endemic sea dragons as you snorkel through the cool waters.
Geography has also benefited Kangaroo Island’s agricultural output, creating sheltered coves for oyster farming, sun-drenched hillsides for vineyards and olive groves, and an abundance of botanicals that gives the island’s award-winning gin its distinctive taste. Kangaroo Island’s isolation has even made possible a sanctuary for hard-working Ligurian honey bees, introduced from Italy in 1881 and now considered the last pure colony in the world.
All this is contained within a landmass of just 4405 sq km (1700 sq miles). This means the island is big enough to be interesting, yet small enough to explore in about a week at a leisurely pace.
How bushfires and COVID-19 affected Kangaroo Island
Kangaroo Island’s allure for visitors is obvious. Yet the last three years have been particularly tough for its visitor-dependent businesses.
First came the fire season of 2019–2020, when a series of lightning strikes in December sparked bushfires in the north and northeastern part of the island, then at Flinders Chase National Park in the southwest.
A dangerous mix of hot weather, highly flammable eucalyptus oils in the air and strong winds meant that flames quickly scorched their way through the vegetation, burning almost half of the land in the process – the worst destruction Kangaroo Island has ever experienced. Such was the fire’s intensity that the island wasn’t declared fire safe until February 6.
Australia’s native flora and fauna regenerates and even thrives after burns; in fact, some seeds will only germinate after a fire. And yet when faced with the devastation after these flames died down, fire ecologists from other parts of the country thought it would take years for Kangaroo Island’s vegetation to recover.
Meanwhile, another threat was looming on the horizon: COVID-19.
On March 20, 2020, Australia closed its borders to the outside world – and wouldn’t reopen them for another two years. Domestically, borders between states sporadically opened and closed depending on local outbreaks, isolating this already far-flung corner of the world even further.
Thus tourism businesses on Kangaroo Island were faced with recovering from two crippling challenges in tandem.
Kangaroo Island’s remarkable recovery
Kangaroo Island has turned out to be astonishingly resilient. Just 48 hours after the flames died down, a rock-like fungus started growing on the ash, according to Mike McKelvey, an American biologist and longtime island resident.
As the fungus digested the ash, it changed the pH levels of the soil, allowing other microorganisms and eventually plants to take root. Some of the plants, says McKelvey, hadn’t been seen for decades. Unlike on the Australian mainland, there were no rabbits to eat the new growth – meaning there was nothing to hold back the regeneration.
The people of Kangaroo Island were equally resilient.
The small community of around 5000 residents pulled together to rehouse those who were displaced, helping their neighbors to rebuild their homes and livelihoods after the fires. Within two years, things were pretty much back to normal.
At the same time, the pause provided by the pandemic gave the island time to restore much of the tourism infrastructure that was lost in the fire, a process that’s still ongoing.
Building a sustainable future on Kangaroo Island
But it’s not just about recovery: there’s a real drive here to build back with conservation in mind, and to ensure that tourism on the island remains sustainable moving forward.
It helped that donations flooded in from all over the world after the fires. This money helped to eliminate some of the feral pigs and cats that had been damaging the local ecosystem and killing endangered wildlife. The funds also helped establish research sites and camera traps, allowing scientists to track wildlife on the island.
Private businesses and individuals are getting involved, too.
The Kangaroo Island Tourism Alliance, which represents many of the visitor-dependent businesses on the island, has developed an “Island Guardians Toolkit,” which helps its members launch ecotourism initiatives and engage visitors in sustainable tourism through activities such as citizen science. Guests are invited, for example, to submit information on rare orchids they spot on Wild Orchid Watch, or photos of echidna tracks on the EchidnaCSI app.
Some residents are also buying land specifically for the purpose of conservation, opening it up to scientists for research and school groups for educational trips. Local operators like Exceptional Kangaroo Island even organize tours with scientists for visitors who want to learn more.
And then there are the eco-minded hotels on the island. Southern Ocean Lodge, which burned to the ground during the fires, is reopening in 2023. It sits on 252 acres of private land, of which just 2.5 acres have been cleared for the hotel – with the rest protected for future generations. As part of the rebuild, native plants have been reintroduced as fire breaks, and a solar farm will generate electricity on site, allowing it to operate on a low-impact, off-grid basis.
What to expect on your visit to Kangaroo Island
Three years on, Flinders Chase National Park is as lush as ever, with thick undergrowth providing shelter for the island’s camera-shy wallabies. Visitors to Remarkable Rocks, a cluster of granite boulders that resemble a nesting eagle, and nearby Admirals Arch can walk along new wheelchair-friendly paths, flanked on both sides by a carpet of wildflowers.
Along the west coast, you’ll be fighting fresh sprigs from bushes along Ravine des Casoars’ hiking trails as you make your way to the beach, serenaded by birdsong. And to the north, the sweeping view down to gorgeous Snelling Beach is once again dotted with foraging kangaroos at sunset.
The only reminder of the fires that ravaged this land? The blackened branches of eucalyptus trees poking out from the greenery below, giving the landscape an eerie, post-apocalyptic air.
Providing a nesting ground for birds and habitat for insects, even these uncomfortable reminders will disappear in a couple of years, as they get swallowed up by the island’s resilient vegetation.