Rare wallabies hop across the washboard road. From my window, I count koalas munching leaves in the eucalyptus trees, happily unaware how hard they are to spot in the Outback over on the mainland. I'm riding in a four-wheel-drive vehicle with brand-new shock absorbers, yet I'm bouncing like a ball. I barely notice. For the first time on my journey, I feel like I'm in Australia -- only I had to leave the continent to find it.
Now my driver, Craig Wickham, owner of Exceptional Kangaroo Island Charters, jerks the wheel and jumps out to chase something down. "There, there it goes!" He points furiously at the brush lining the dirt road. I make out a spiny lump -- the elusive short-beaked echidna, one of only three egg-laying mammals in the world. Craig whispers the facts -- quills like a porcupine's but muscle deep, closest cousin to the platypus -- until, as calmly as it came, the echidna waddles away. And instead of trying to take in the breadth of an entire continent, I'm focused on details: the animal's clawed feet scraping the dusty earth, the muted green of shrubs close to the ground. I feel like I'm traveling through Australia in miniature.
This, Craig explains, is what's special about Kangaroo Island. At any given moment, driving down the road, hiking along the coast or trekking through the bush, you can spot the wildlife that Australia is famous for. And you can do it in solitude, with only the calls of yellow-tailed black cockatoos, Australian magpies and white-bellied sea eagles for a soundtrack.
In 1919, the South Australia government established Flinders Chase National Park on the western side of the island, preserving these animals away from the mainland in a Noah's Ark-style approach. The 1,730-square-mile scratch of land teems with native and introduced wildlife. The island has faced some problems: Endangered koalas brought to the island in the 1920s have since run rampant, decimating one species of eucalyptus and threatening three more. But as a whole, Kangaroo Island serves as a case study of the seclusion that makes island environments uniquely appealing.
This fact is on my mind the next day when I wake at Southern Ocean Lodge, an eco-luxe resort that blends high-end indulgence with Kangaroo Island's tradition of conservation. As I climb over a dune above adjacent Hanson Bay, the rising sun blinds me. At the end of the sand path through the sea grass, a half-moon beach spreads out before me, all white sand and shimmering turquoise waves. Steam rises from the water into the brisk air. It's another quint- essentially Australian vision, but startlingly different from yesterday's ruddy brush. The isolation that preserves this habitat -- two lonely ocean cottages and no other beachcombers -- seems to showcase all its mother country has to offer. Here even the birds are still.
As the sun rises higher, I climb the limestone cliffs along the island's southern coast, rocks and prickly, low-lying Mallee shrubs lining the path. I look up toward the ceaseless cerulean sky, then down at the inky sea lapping against jagged limestone formations. I'm alone again, save for the call of an animal I don't recognize and the song of ocean birds I can't see.
Later, on another bumpy road, I ride from the luxurious lodge surrounded by wilderness into a clearing called Grassdale Conservation Park. The real rock stars of Australia, I'm told, wait beyond the ash trees. So far, Kangaroo Island kangaroos, a subspecies of the mainland-variety western grays, have only appeared hopping in distant fields and crossing the road in polite pairs. As we head deeper into Grassdale, the road disappears into even more rugged, grassy terrain, and the brown masses -- one, two, three -- move from the horizon to the nearer plain -- four, five, six, seven -- and from there to my immediate field of vision. Seven, eight, nine ... I lose count as we get out of the truck.
"They come here at dusk to graze," my guide explains in a hushed voice. "Don't move too quickly, or you'll see 200 'roos go stampeding off in that direction." I follow his finger toward the setting sun and multitudes of marsupials dressed in chocolate brown fur coats with blacktipped ears and tails -- nibbling, hopping in one direction then another, standing up straight then hunching forward. The sun burns orange behind the knotted trunks of gum trees. I'm transfixed, sensing the whole of a continent concentrated into this private space. I can't see them, but I know the wallabies hide in the bush nearby. The koalas chew eucalyptus above our heads, and Australian salmon dance beneath turquoise waves. The island may be Australia in miniature, but at this moment, it feels epic.
Plan Your Trip: Kangaroo Island
Feel like you're traveling through the best of Australia, but in miniature