Let’s kick things off by repeating the often heard comment about Kangaroo Island, just off the coast of South Australia, from those who’ve been there. “It’s actually really big.” With so much land to play in (more than you expect), finding the best day hikes on Kangaroo Island can be a challenge. To help you out I’ve compiled my top choices, all enjoyed over 3-4 days with some great accommodation in lighthouse keepers and historic cottages.
Once you get your head around KI’s size and the fact that it will take you around 2.5hrs to drive across the island from the east (where the ferry connects) to the west (where all the best day hikes are), you’ll realise that there really isn’t another option for a visit other than to take a car across and embarking on a great Aussie road trip.
The other big surprise came when yours truly completely stuffed up by not pre-booking the ferry earlier than from Sydney airport on our departure for Adelaide. I heard several times down there, that this ferry is the most expensive in the world per km and although a bit of Googling seems to contradict that, the cost of $556AUD for 4 pax and 1 car return is certainly something you need to factor into your travel budget.
But you know what they say, everything happens for a reason. Turns out the 6 hr gap between landing in Adelaide and grabbing our fab 5th member of our party (“Ruby” the Rav4 from Europcar at the airport), driving 1hr45mins SE to Cape Jervis where the SeaLink ferry departs, was the perfect time allotted to lose ourselves inside the biggest Woolworths we’ve ever seen to buy our self-catering supplies, stop by at McLaren Vale for our supply of wine (4x Shiraz, 2 x Riesling) and then have a nail biting drive to the ferry terminal as we realised that the 6hrs had suddenly disappeared. I guess that’s what holidays are all about, time disappearing and vanishing to nowhere.
DAY 1 – Sydney – Adelaide – Kangaroo Island
The 45 minute ferry trip, with Ruby snug beneath us in the vehicle hold, was calm and was a nice slow paced way of approaching our 4 day mini-break.
“Us”, was myself and 3 good buddies from the Sydney Bush Walkers club, happy and able to escape our Sydney lives and the usual commitments to jobs, pets and family to spend a few days discovering a few of the highlights of Kangaroo Island (K.I.).
The common tourism images you’ll see for KI are the dramatic, alien-like structures of the Remarkable Rocks, lighthouses, wildlife, fresh produce and wild coastline. Like the islands’ own Big 5, with a few days up your sleeve and a car, it’s not difficult to tick all these off your travel agenda.
Remarkable Rocks / Admirals Arch & Cape de Ceordic
With our late arrival, I had the winning combo of sunset, the Remarkable Rocks and Shiraz in my sights, but with Summer’s day light saving on our side, we had time to visit Admirals Arch and the Cape de Ceordic (pronounced: Kur-Dik) Lighthouse before settling in for that treat. In fact, our later arrival meant that the Carpark was nearly empty when we arrived and we had the timber boardwalks and steps down to the impressive Arch all to ourselves, along with our audience of playful (or was that fighting?) New Zealand fur seals and their interesting aroma!
The distance between the lighthouse/Arch and Remarkable Rocks is only about an 8 minute drive and again, we had this whole incredible landmark to ourselves. To our delight, the carpark was empty, so we gathered our wine, local Island Pure Sheep’s cheese (purchased from the Penneshaw IGA after we got off the ferry) and head torches and ventured out to the rocks to find the best vantage point out of the wind.
All around us the colours of a moody, cloud supported sunset moved across the sky, whilst we toasted with McLaren Shiraz indulging in our sheltered position, looking across the water to the west. For that moment, they were ‘our’ remarkable rocks.
With a large part of the western end of the island taken up by National Park and only a small handful of accommodation options, I can only imagine that the day visitors were long gone, back to their lodges or holiday houses on the eastern end of the island. Taking advantage of our blissful isolation, I had booked us into the first of our heritage lodgings, Mays Homestead just near the entrance and visitors centre for Flinders Chase National Park. Talk about quaint! White washed stone walls and traditional layout of 4 rooms (2 bedrooms, kitchen and lounge) with a newly renovated bathroom in a lean-to out the back door, it was delightfully cosy with the giant kitchen table the scene of our feasting to come!
Without realising it, after watching sunset and returning to the cottage, we were falling into a holiday habit that would stay with us for the duration of the trip and leave us in sleep deficit. As the unmissable KI sunset was not until 8pm, we were eating dinner at 10pm and falling into bed in delightful wine slumber around 11.30pm.
DAY 2 – Hiking Kangaroo Island (west)
With bushwalking and hiking on the itinerary for the next two days, (our goal was to walk all the tourist hiking trails in the western part of KI, touching the now popular Kangaroo Island Wilderness Trail – 5 days 61kms, only a couple of times) we predictably struggled to emerge from the cottage before 9.30am. This is classed as super late compared to our usual club starts of 7.30-8am. Luxury!
Platypus Waterholes / Rocky River & Black Swamp Hike
At the Visitors Centre we headed out the back to follow the well marked and managed walking track for the Platypus Waterholes. This is a very easy, flat track with interpretative signage designed for those with little time, fitness or mobility. This wasn’t our main aim for the morning, but the access onto the main event being the Rocky River Hike and Black Swamp Hike. Check out this handy guide from Walking SA for track notes and guides.
In South Australia, it appears as though national parks have adopted a 3 tiered walk grading system.
With walk grading systems being a can of worms, this seems to fit the bill for the bulk of tourists. All the walks we did on this trip would have been classed as very easy within our bushwalking club and certainly nothing caused us a challenge. Being used to 600m+ ascents and descents in walks around Sydney, the biggest one we faced on KI was 75m. In fact, we got a bit excited whenever we felt that we were going up or down. Woo hoo!
The on-track signage is very clear with colour coded signs and arrows, so we were easily able to link the Platypus Waterholes track to the Rocky River Hike, which lead us west towards the coastline and a remote campsite. A nice overnight walk would take you to this campsite and then give you time to do Snake Gully hike which takes you all the way to the beach/cliff.
So although the on-track signage was clear, us 4 experienced off-track map and compass navigators embarrassingly had difficulty with the big information sign at the track head and mis-read one very minor detail… one way vs. return! We had to laugh and thankfully we did as the day stretched on to 24kms by the time we made it back to the cars. I’ve often laughed whilst telling people that I’m fine with a map, compass and thick scrub, but put me on a track with a sign and I’m stuffed. Kinda ironic that 3 of us are in SAR! 🙂
A very exciting event happened as we walked back to our car. It’s only been 15 yrs of bushwalking, but I finally saw my first koala in the bush that day. Crazy, I know, huh? Hundreds of kangaroos, wallabies, wombats and possums, but nada on arguably the cutest of them all… Until now. It was only later that I learnt that Koalas are an introduced species to KI and somewhat of a pest on the island, with their numbers getting out of control in past decades to over 30,000. As a result, they needed a control culling program and have reduced them to 13,000, which some would say is still too many. My advice would be, that if you’re an overseas visitor and want a good chance of seeing a Koala in the bush… go to KI!
It was now 5pm and we needed to head north on the bitumen and then west on the corrogated dirt road (we reckon that 80km/hr was the sweet spot that Mythbusters tested to remove the worst of the bumps) to get our second lighthouse for the trip at Cape Borda and it’s wonderful Lighthouse Lodge accommodation.
There was an amazing moment, after the 25kms of this dirt, when we came over the top of a small rise and there was the ocean stretching before us, with the delightfully compact lighthouse to our left. It’s seconds later, that we realised that the heritage house, next to the lighthouse, was our home for the next few days. Again, fully self-catered, we were glad of our haul of Woollies treasure that we’d brought from the mainland as we unpacked into the kitchen.
A moment later, there was a friendly holler from the verandah as Trevor the part-time resident ranger greeted us and pointed out a few things, before promising to take us on a private tour of the museum and lighthouse before sunset. This was to be our only opportunity to look inside as the next day was to be spent back on the walking tracks, seeing more of the local hikes in this north-west region.
It didn’t take long into the tour before we realised that this lighthouse was particularly special and it wasn’t just to do with its squat and squared design. And for the same reasons, it didn’t take long for me to feel a certain level of guilt at my early disappointment when booking the accommodation and planning the itinerary, that I realised we couldn’t stay at what I considered (at the time) a “proper” lighthouse. You know, the tall, round ones that are reproduced adnauseum in beachy style homewares shops? Well Cape Borda isn’t one of those, it doesn’t need to be. But what it is, is one of the last true lighthouses with a rotating light, as opposed to the modern style flashing beacons that have replaced the internal mechanisms of the old lighthouses over the years.
Our guide was a veritable Trevor Trove (sorry, had to go there) of information and good humour and because of his stories, I changed our planned hiking routes for the next day, to take in some of the places that were key in the early days of this lighthouse, such as Harvey’s Return.
Our look inside the lighthouse was a lovely private affair and with the only people for miles about being my 3 friends and Trev, we relished the privacy and space this type of access allowed us. We only truly appreciated how special this was when we saw the group of 12 people on the paid tour the next day!
The thing that really struck me out here was the quiet and although traditionally a time when you get a sense of the earth’s spinning and speed of each minute, out here the sunset seemed to make time standstill. The giant orange orb suspended above the horizon, illuminating the whitewash walls of the lighthouse and buildings in its warm embrace.
Yet again, without television and dodgy mobile reception (Telstra only, 1-2 bars) the hours of evening stretched and before we knew it, it was 9pm and dinner hadn’t been started. As the designated kitchen driver, I loved the easy going nature of my buddies and their willingness to chop veggies for the meal, creating a laid back family feel, highlighted by dinner around the candlelit dining room table (who has a dining room these days?) at 10.30pm.
DAY 3 – Hiking Kangaroo Island (NW)
With the luxury of knowing we had an extra night here and that we didn’t have to checkout in the morning, we (OK, just me) slept in until 9am, when over a breakfast of muesli, organic yoghurt and fresh fruit, we regrouped our plans for the day, based upon the new info from Trev.
One of the key features of Cape Borda Lighthouse is the bright red cannon, that is fired each day at 1pm. Back in the day, this puff of smoke was a sign to any local ships of the accurate local time, which when compared to the ship’s clock that was set to GMT, could allow them to calculate their accurate longitude and position on the globe. We wanted to get back for this, so decided to visit walk Harvey’s Return. We only learnt about this from Trev the night before, but we’re glad for it as it revealed some great hidden treasures.
Harvey’s Return Hike
With early days in the colony meaning that lighthouse keeper staff and their noble occupation was akin to living in the remotest and most isolated of communities, the ability of supplies to get through was essential to not only the life of the staff, but the life of the merchant sea farers who plied these waters, apparently the busiest shipping route of the time.
With the Cape Borda lighthouse and community being located 150 metres up an impenetrable cliff, a route was needed that could bring supplies up from ships, sustaining this small family. The answer was a steep incline rail line, horse driven from the top, to transport the heavy goods. The original route of the tracks is what makes up the Harvey’s Return walk today. It didn’t take much imagination for us to see the men, horses, barrels and crates of gear being hauled up, in all weathe, to bring life to the small group living at the top. Once at the top, it was the several days journey by horse to get to the settlement, but the only choice in the tough geography.
Again, with Trevor’s advice, we turned left at the bottom of the track and started rock hopping/scrambling along the coast towards the old rock platform that held the old crane for the unloading of the supply tenders. Lost long ago in a 1 in 100 year storm, the stone stage is all that remains. Looking back towards the track end, we saw wonderful examples of Zebra Shist, black and white layers of granite that sparkle silver in the sunlight.
It was at this point that I started to grow tired of tracks forged by man and needed to find my own. Looking behind me, up the ridge of a cliff, I could make out a scramble route that would link back to the carpark and campsite. I left my friends to return by the track and set off up the steep slope towards the scrub at the top. The views grew with wonder as I climbed and I couldn’t help but wonder why Harvey didn’t choose this route for his rail line. Perhaps it was due to the massive exposure this point must surely have given in the fierce winds that must lash this point.
After rejoining my friends at the carpark, we headed back to the lighthouse for the cannon firing, but not before visiting the historic lighthouse keepers graveyard (again, another Trevor inspiration). It was here that the irony of life out here came to bear. The number of young children and people lost to disease, such as scarlet fever, was surprising. Parents buried children from an illness brought in by the ships, when these peoples only purpose was the saving of lives of these shipmates. It was also good to visit and pay respects to George, a head lighthouse keeper who died through tragic circumstances, in 1858. This wasn’t his first grave of course, but to learn about why, you’ll have to visit and take a tour!
Ravine Hike (Ravine Des Casoars)
Back at the house, we watched the tour crowd enter and depart the lighthouse, whilst we poised our cameras (and blocked our ears) for the cannon firing. Yes, it was very loud, before we threw back some lunch and headed out on the corregations again for the Ravine Hike (aka Ravine Des Casoars) turn off. 7kms along this side road, we parked and entered the bush once again.
It was on this bushwalk that we really got a sense of the terrain on the island. Feeling as though there wasn’t a lot of up and down, I set my altimeter to test my theory. Sure enough, only 75m expired between the carpark and the turnaround point down on the beach, leading me to believe that if you really want to explore more challenging walks on KI, you really need to do some research with local bushwalking clubs and take a toppo map.
Not that we were complaining, mind you. The destination on the remote and beautiful beach was world class. Again, we felt like the only people around for miles, with only a small fishing boat bobbing around about a mile off shore for company. It was windswept and each end of the beach held secrets of limestone caves and caverns, carved over thousands of years. Thanks to Charlotte at National Parks for giving us the tip to take a head torch. It was needed as the caves drew us deeper and deeper inwards, and displayed a great mix of stalactites and stalagmites, columns and formations to rival any limestone cave. The sound of the waves outside, an ever present reminder not to venture too deep, should the tide trap us inside and we live out my memory of the kids TV program, “The Lost Islands”. Does anyone remember that? Very 70s, Australian, with the mysterious character Q?
We could have stayed here longer, but we were keen to return to the lighthouse for yet another sunset and perhaps witness the mysterious green flash which is sometimes seen from this point.
This track, listed as a hard hike was 7kms return from the carpark. In all honesty, it wasn’t hard at all, a well marked and maintained track with a gentle gradient of 75m over 3.5kms, just a few fallen trees across the track to step over. But hey, I don’t think they should be removed, as it adds to the bush experience. Apart from the caves, another highlight of this trip was the large adult echidna we came across, feeding on a nice juicy ant hill. Initially startled by our presence, he performed well on cue and showed us his spines as well as his cute nose… Get that mammal an agent!
You know what they say, all the best intentions, etc… We headed back for yet another astounding sunset at Cape Borda lighthouse to be greeted by Mick, the permanent ranger. With Aussie laconic nature and a dry wit, you need to remember that this bloke has two degrees and worked his whole life to take up this position – an amazing office and home. If you ever want to meet an Aussie character… Mick is it… Ready or not.
The wind was whipping across the cliff top when we arrived back at the Lighthouse and set up our happy hour of more Island Pure cheese, olives, dips and yet another McLaren Vale Shiraz. If you think there’s a pattern there… You’re right!
The veggie chopping housemates did their job diligently and our lovely third “family dinner” around the table, was serenaded by the windows rattling to the winds symphony.
DAY 4 – Kangaroo Island – Adelaide – Sydney
With the bulk of the bushwalking behind us, day 4 was all about getting back across to the east side of the island, where the ferry leaves from, whilst seeing as much as we could on the way.
If we ever needed confirmation of the necessity of a car on Kangaroo Island, it was proved today.
Our first stop was the Marron Cafe for a late coffee and early taste of Marron. The crustacean that I’ve only ever seen before on Masterchef, that looks like a cross between a yabbie and a scampi, but tastes like a very subtle prawn (not really fishy at all, I’m guessing due to living in fresh water). The scampi cocktail $18 with a nod to a 1976 prawn cocktail, was fresh and clean. Just a bit odd to digest at 10.30am! Then it was onwards to the Island Pure Dairy, whose cheese we had been indulging on for the past 3 days.
Both locations felt like a testament to how difficult it is to etch out a tourism business in such a remote location as Kangaroo Island. The Marron Cafe, with seating for over 80, looks like it is set up to receive tour buses that may never come and the Sheeps Dairy, with renovations underway and charging $4.50 per person for cheese tasting, feels like hard work when we bought a whole block of their delicious fetta cheese for $9.50 and Kafalotiri for $10.75 in the local IGA. Even said, I’m glad we visited as it’s in the centre of the island, yet again… Car essential.
We headed to Kingscote, the largest of the towns on the island looking for lunch. In fact, the first settlement for South Australia before Adelaide was established. Feeling sleepy and in need of a coat of paint, we left Kingscote, heading for the famous Fish cafe in Penneshaw instead. Alas, the mysterious owner and head chef is as illusive as the mainland koala, so yet again her, “Closed, sold out… Gone fishin,” sign was hanging in the window.
It led, however, to a delightful, healthy and fresh lunch at a cafe opposite the pub. It was an unexpected setting of good local art, comfy lounges and sun-drenched verandah with views across the water, over to the mainland. They’re licensed, so I just had to try some local Kangaroo Island wine, a Sunset Winery Sauvignon Blanc and it was great!
Before we knew it, we were driving Ruby back onto the ferry and realising that the 3 big days and late nights had taken their toll. The slightly choppy crossing to Cape Jervis rocked us into a drowsy slumber.
Whoop! Before we knew it, we were mainland again and the delicate manoeuvre of getting Ruby the Rav out of the ferry hold and up the ramp fell to my friend (I wouldn’t trust myself after the savvy!) and we started to head for home, not before being bombarded by the heatwave Adelaide had kept as a gift for us.
Again, plagued by my miscalculation of ferry bookings, we were unable to get direct flights back to Sydney after the 4.30pm ferry, so we holed up in the standard bushwalker accommodation of the YHA Adelaide, sharing a family room with own bathroom $135, which was clean and thankfully had air conditioning due to the intense 34C temps.
After one of those sleeps you have when you know you’ve got an early start, and with sparrows fart (Pfft) flights for all of us, we left the hostel in the dark and drove to the airport.
We said goodbye to Ruby the Rav at an easy drop off and headed for our flights, sleeping all the way and dreaming of our next big adventure!
Thanks Ruby and thanks to Europcar for their assistance and great opportunity.
This trip was taken as a prize as part of a Europcar competition.