On the Island

On the Island

13 November 2016, Jason Tyndall

Each month Nature Play SA in partnership with the Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources (DEWNR) honours one of South Australia’s National Parks, with November seeing us celebrate two of South Australia’s world-renowned Conservation Parks: Seal Bay CP and Kelly Hills CP, both located on Kangaroo Island.

Kangaroo Island is a fantastic holiday option, especially for South Australian families seeking time out in a nature-based location. The Island is remote, often without mobile phone service and has the feeling of a quaint, sleepy town, as if you’ve travelled back in time a decade or two. Shops close earlier (or open later) than expected and most drivers will offer a wave as they speed past. But it all adds to the charm. It’s one of the most beautiful places to slowdown, unplug and enjoy quality family time immersed in the rugged, natural beauty of a relatively untouched landscape.

I’ve recently spent quite a bit of time on The Island and was fortunate enough to walk part of the KI Wilderness Trail. This time, I decided to bring my wife and daughter – who’s almost two – along for the journey. I’ve travelled by both plane and ferry, and have to admit a preference for the ferry. I think travelling to Kangaroo Island on the ocean adds an element of authenticity. We spoke to our daughter all week about travelling on the ferry, and it was a treasured moment to see her get a feel for her sea legs.

There are numerous accommodation options, but we decided to rent a house in Penneshaw. There’s a supermarket, the beach is a short stroll away and the local pub offers a family friendly dining option with great views to the mainland. When travelling with young children, the benefit of staying in Penneshaw is the proximity to the ferry, with tired little ones able to get settled without needing to travel another hour or two in the car. The downside is the travel time to major attractions and experiences. It really depends on what will work for you as there are a range of accommodation options.

While not an official Park of the Month stop on this trip, we spent our first day exploring Flinders Chase NP. Having recently spent a lot of time on The Island developing a resource for the KI Wilderness Trail, I had a good understanding of the Parks qualities and must sees: the Information Centre, Admirals Arch; Cape de Coudeic Lighthouse and Remarkable Rocks are just a handful.

The Information Centre has a unique interactive section with paintings, interpretive panels, touch and feel elements and lots of information on the Park. It’s also equipped with a gift shop and café. From the Centre there’s a beautiful loop walk up to the Platypus Waterhole with exceptional interpretive signage all the way through – and an opportunity to see the elusive platypus.

It was here my daughter had her fist encounter with a Tammar Wallaby, casually grazing in the car park. We crouched down together on the pathway and watched on as I explained to her the importance of staying at a safe distance – and that Wallabies aren’t for cuddling! Other animals regularly encountered in the Park are Cape Baren Geese, Koalas, Kangaroo Island Kangaroo, Short-Beaked Echidnas and abundant birdlife.

From the Information Centre, the Rocks, Arch and Lighthouse are around a 30-minute drive and situated quite close to each other. Both the Rocks and the Arch are unique geological landscapes. For children, these sites can lead to all sorts of exploration and questioning. Both of these places transform at sunset, but I’d recommend only experiencing this time of day if you are staying close by, as driving during or after sunset can be quite dangerous, with wildlife most active from dusk.

Our next day was a big one, as we covered our two Parks of the Month: Seal Bay CP and Kelly Hill CP. I was really excited to see both as they offered experiences unique to Kangaroo Island.

Our first stop was Seal Bay CP, which is just over an hour from Penneshaw or 40 minutes from Kingscote. At the Visitor Centre we met Ranger Mel, Ranger Alana and 12-month-old Asher, Barbara – Asher’s Babcia (polish for Grandma), Asher’s Auntie Nardine and Renee (DEWNR). The Visitor Centre is environmentally friendly, running entirely on solar panels, rainwater and dry compost toilets. It’s best to pack lunch as food options are quite limited.

There are several tour options at Seal Bay CP at different price points. While all come at a fee, when you realise the significance of what the Park is working so hard to protect, it’s well worth the cost. Scientific research conducted into the Australian Sea-lion population is incredibly important to ensure the continued survival of the colony, and helps to inform the management of the Park as a sustainable tourism destination.

As soon as we stepped out of the Visitor Centre we immediately heard the call of Sea-lions. “What you can hear is mothers calling their pups,” said Ranger Mel, as she led us to our first stop – the Lookout, which is wheelchair and stroller friendly. The views were impressive, with Nobby Island a key feature to the west. As we approached the guardrail my anticipation grew for a first look at the Endangered Australian Sea-lions in their natural habitat. The Seal Bay colony is the third largest colony and a stronghold for the species continued survival. They’re the rarest Seal in the world, and at Seal Bay, you can see them year round.

The Lookout is the highest point and descends down onto the Boardwalk that leads to a viewing platform. Along the way you are bound to see Sea-lions lazing nearby. In fact, you can see the many pathways they’ve created throughout the dune vegetation, contrasted between the silver Coast Saltbush and green Bower Spinach. From the Boardwalk you can also view the skeleton of a juvenile Humpback Whale that washed ashore during a storm in the 1980s, and was relocated to its current resting place in 1996 to ensure its preservation.

Once at the base of the boardwalk the proximity to the Sea-lions is incredible. We could see large bulls – that can weigh up to 350kgs – strutting their stuff, mothers suckling their young, and pups playing together and learning to swim. We noticed an older pup suckling from its mother. Ranger Mel explained that if a Sea-lion doesn’t have a pup during the current breeding season, or her pup passes away, her older pup will continue to suckle into its second or even third year, which can have a very positive impact on their health (and therefore the population).

It’s hard to describe the feeling of being so close to endangered animals in their truly wild state. That’s what makes Seal Bay unique. It’s a privilege to be able to observe the Sea-lions so closely without interfering and negatively impacting their behaviour. And beyond that, we were especially fortunate to be taken down to the beach, where the experienced, knowledgeable and passionate guides take groups onto the sand for close encounters in a tour that is carefully supervised to ensure the safety of the Sea-lions and those on the tour.

The experience was incredible. My daughter was excited to be down on the sand, and at her young age, struggled a little with the boundaries required for the tour. Ranger Mel explained that it can be difficult for toddlers if they’re used to running around freely at the beach, not to mention the added challenge that they’re often drawn to animals. But by no means should this hold you back from taking young children on the tour – it’s just good to be prepared (we had a baby carrier on hand). My wife took the opportunity to engage with her and explain why she needed to stay with us on this particular beach. It’s never too early to introduce children to authentic experiences in nature, even in this case where there are limitations for the safety of both visitors and the Sea-lions. It’s these experiences that build a solid foundation and appreciation for our environment. We have created a 20 things to do in Seal Bay Conservation Park poster to help families make the most of their visit.

Our second Park of the day, while an entirely different experience, was no less unique. Kelly Hill CP is characterised by old-growth forests, nature walks, freshwater lagoons and an underground limestone cave system with visually stunning geological formations. We had the opportunity to see the caves firsthand with Ranger Nick.

The Show Caves entrance is quite steep as it descends 12 metres under ground. A slight challenge with our daughter, but one that was overcome for us with a baby carrier – it’s best to chat to the rangers and make the right decision for you. For the more daring, there are also adventure tours on offer, where you can crawl through an underground maze of smaller caverns.

In addition to exploring the caves, there are a number of walking tracks available of varying difficulty. We decided to end our day with the Burgess Hike, tracking beneath the canopy of Sugar Gum Forest and enjoying the sight of some of the oldest Yaccas I’ve ever seen. There were stunning wildflowers and a constant chattering of Crimson Rosellas. Skinks scurried in the leaf litter and we were lucky to spy a Rosenberg Goanna. For those wanting a day-long walk, the Hanson Bay Hike (also part of the KI Wilderness Trail) will take you through some pristine wilderness where you’ll traverse alongside freshwater lagoons, sand dunes and through the Cape Bouguer Wilderness Protection Area. As with all nature hikes it’s important to keep to the designated trails as it preservers the ecosystems. There are also two species of snake in the Park to be aware of – Tiger and Pygmy Copperhead. We have created a 20 things to discover in Kelly Hill Conservation Park poster to help families make the most of their visit.

As the day came to end I felt like I had experienced some of the amazing places that characterise Kangaroo Island. Over the two days we’d spent on The Island so far, we’d enjoyed quality family time immersed in nature – unplugged and uninterrupted – exploring the sights that make this destination so special. But as anyone who has travelled with a toddler knows, while immensely valuable and enjoyable, big day trips can be energy intensive. So day three, we decided to take it a little slower with a visit to a local winery for some family friendly adult time; a glass of wine, local produce and stunning views to recharge our batteries. All-in-all, it was an experience we won’t forget.

I’d like to thank the passionate rangers who provided us with their knowledge and enthusiasm: Mel Stonnill; Alana Binns; and Nick Heath. And our other adventurers little Asher, Barbara, Nadine, and Renee.