Over wine and canapes, Phil Wright mimics the calls of a koala in my search to identify the sounds from a recent encounter with the two marsupials.
Uninhibited guttural snorts and grunts resonate through the guide’s mouth and nose and break the silence over the paddock where a mob of Tammar wallabies and Kangaroo Island roos, a sub-species of the western grey, have come to graze at sunset. “If it sounded like that it could have been two koalas mating,” Wright says.
“Or it could be a mother with her baby warning off an aggressive male,” he says before scrolling through his phone to find the videos he’s recorded over the years as a guide to help novices like me.
The property Grassdale in the Kelly Hill Conservation Park, where we stand around a table of premium South Australian drinks and snacks was not always a place of such conviviality.
Lucy Edwards arrived here in 1949 as a new bride to Klemm Edwards and to a property of 2428 hectares. When her son Robert was three Klemm died leaving Lucy to somehow forge a living. Without running water, electricity or phone Lucy cleared most of the land herself by horse and chain for sheep grazing (at the peak of the wool industry boom sheep outnumbered people 275 to one).
To do it tough is to be “doing a Lucy”, according to local folklore.
It would be safe to say a stay at Southern Ocean Lodge – a property that could be the edge of the world but in fact is on the south-west of Kangaroo Island, where a spa might involve being painted in the rare Ligurian bee honey – is at the other end of the Lucy scale.
I first meet Wright on the 50-minute drive from the Kingscote Airport to the lodge passing paddocks with the odd derelict homestead and avenues of the uniquely South Australian eucalypt forests of sugar gums, and Tate’s Grass on the roadside.
“Wildlife is my first passion,” he simply says before presenting a compelling case as to why KI, as the island that is 30 minutes’ flight from Adelaide is also known, is the place to experience extraordinary flora and fauna.
More than half of the island, which is about seven times the size of Singapore, is dedicated national park and home to the short-beaked echidna, platypus, Australian sea lion and the endangered glossy black cockatoo. Thanks to the isolation, the only remaining population of pure Ligurian bees is here.
It’s never been for the faint-hearted as European settlement documents.
It was a vicious place for “sealers, whalers and outcasts” in the early 1800s and from official settlement in 1836 more than 80 shipwrecks were recorded.
In the early 1900s at Weirs Cove, lighthouse keeper families had supplies delivered by steamship that were then winched up by pulley from the base of the cliff 90 metres below.
Like so many South Australian kids of the ’70s my first real adventure was to KI. Travelling in a VW Kombi with not enough seat belts for the passengers in the back we bush camped, ate in a compound at Flinders Chase National Park to deter hungry roos and didn’t wash for days.
My mother held my hand tight at the Remarkable Rocks, a stunning yet slippery and dangerous attraction in what I recall as a sometimes hostile place.
Which makes a stay at the premium Southern Ocean Lodge, opened 10 years ago this month, all the more intriguing.
Sitting on the cliff’s edge the lodge is an airy sanctuary of comfort juxtaposed with the surrounding mallee scrub, treacherous limestone cliffs and an aspect that allows for viewing of the sunrise and sunset.
Set between two national parks, Kelly Hill Caves and Flinders, the lodge blends within one hectare of the total 102 hectares of the private land owned by Baillie Lodges and guests are encourage to roam on boardwalks and tracks around the property.
Such remoteness is not without challenge; the lodge relies heavily on rainwater, which is harvested from all roof surfaces and stored in tanks with a capacity of 1.5 million litres.
In the decade just gone, the enduring design by the KI-born architect Max Pritchard has hosted more than 37,000 guests from 40 countries with domestic visitors almost as many as international guests.
Lounging in the Great Room one morning, a communal space of floor to ceiling glass and overseen by Sunshine, the Boomer Roo – an imposing sculpture made from farm machinery – the temptation to wag the nature tours to stop in this soothing space, watching the pounding Southern Ocean, is great.
There are hints of homage to this island and state if you look; from the Bickfords Ginger Beer at the help-yourself bar from the solid oak bar table by Malaysian-born, Adelaide-based Khai Liew to comfortably seat 20 and a feature limestone wall made by KI resident Scott Wilson, who used local pieces each hand-carved and placed.
It’s the best of the state.
The 21 suites, cantilevered and connected by a shared and sloping passageway, each have an outdoor terrace and sunken lounge to soak in the unimpeded ocean view.
South Australian-born Alison Heath, who with her husband John Hird managed hotels the world over, is quick to point out that service is relaxed, more like a family home than a formal city hotel.
“We are very much ourselves here,” Heath says.
Friendly staff often come and go within the Great Room, collecting guests for bespoke experiences such a bird watching or snorkel tours.
To a soundtrack of a rumbling ocean overlaid with cicada song diners choose from a rotating menu to suit vegans, vegetarians and carnivores; local garfish, marinated tofu rice paper rolls with nam jim and KI slow-cooked pork shoulder.
Only South Australian wine and beers are served including KI’s Islander Estate Vineyards by the esteemed Bordeaux winemaker Jacques Lurton.
Local producers feature on the kitchen’s monthly orders. On average it includes 14 bottles of KI Spirits Wild Gin, 55 kilograms of live Kangaroo Island marron, 50 dozen South Australian oysters, from American River and Coffin Bay and 85 kilograms of KI Sheep’s milk yoghurt
At breakfast my just-squeezed cucumber kale apple and celery juice is the stuff of health retreats.
“It looks like it tastes very good for you,” a staff member observes with a wry smile.
Back in the Great Room, I decide to not to miss the main reason that visitors journey here on the signature experience, the Wonders of KI and an introduction to its wildlife and coastline.
Four decades on, I head back to the Remarkable Rocks, this time aboard the comfortable Mercedes Sprinter with a handful of others
The result of a geological upheaval 500 million years ago and now a giant granite dome of isolated blocks, the weird shapes of giant waves and fangs are still imposing.
Further along on at Admirals Arch and set within the Cape du Couedic Sanctuary zone we hear the cries and screeches of a herd of at least 30 New Zealand fur seals before seeing them. The seals surf the waves and shimmy over tessellated rocks and lichen-covered boulders.
It’s the tail-end of the breeding season and pups are in the “toddler pool” a shallow rock pool, their mothers close by.
Just as enchanting, however, is the self-guided coastal clifftop walk at dawn from my room, a tubular sea fog stretching from sea to land and a familiar limestone crunch underfoot.
A minimum two-night stay costs from $1200 a person a night and includes Kangaroo Island airport transfers to the lodge, all meals from a daily changing menu and wine, beer and spirits, an itinerary of guided adventures and use of the lodge’s mountain bikes . See southernoceanlodge.com.au
Qantas flies three times weekly between Kingscote and Adelaide on a Dash 8 50-seat aircraft.
From December to January Qantas offers a summer-season flight direct from Melbourne. Regional Express flies daily between Kangaroo Island and Adelaide.
SeaLink operate regular 45-minute ferry transfers between Cape Jervis on the mainland and Penneshaw on Kangaroo Island. Cape Jervis is 107 kilometres or about a two-hour drive from Adelaide.
The KI Food Safari is a seven-night event led by Maggie Beer and includes excursions to farms and wineries and round-table dinners at the lodge. The safari runs from July 28-August 4 and includes accommodation with standard inclusions, return Regional Express flights from Adelaide, epicurean excursions and safari kit. It costs from $8400 a person
Jane Reddy stayed as a guest of Southern Ocean Lodge, Qantas, Regional Express and the South Australian Tourism Commission.
FIVE MORE BESPOKE KI ACTIVITIES
*A taste of KI Including Ligurian honey, wine and spirit makers
*Beach fishing at Hanson Bay. Chef will prepare your catch for dinner.
*Kayak adventure along the South-West River
*Quad-bike safari with in-helmet commentary into Hanson Bay Sanctuary home to kangaroos, koalas, echidnas and birdlife.
*Platypus waterholes. Guided hiking on a trail of diverse plant species to a platypus habitat.