Kangaroo Island lies some 10 miles off the Fleurieu Peninsula south of Adelaide in South Australia. It’s one of those wonders that is pretty much unknown to overseas visitors and is off the beaten track even for Australians. The island is a haven for wildlife and nature, and provides visitors with a mini version of Australia, offering everything from bushland to beaches and cliffs along the coastline. It is home to kangaroos, koalas, penguins, seals, and more. There are few settlements on the island and a lot of peace and quiet.
The extreme bushfires that raged across Australia in early 2020 took their toll on the island. Still, in true Australian style, the bush has sprung back fast and vigorously, with plant life adapted to thrive after the fires. Most tourism sites and small businesses have since reopened and are welcoming visitors.
The island is one of the first places I visited when I moved to Australia, and it still has a very special place in my heart because of its wild and unspoiled nature, amazing animals, and sheer beauty.
But there are a few things you ought to know before you set off to ensure that you get the most out of your visit. Here are my top tips to help you plan ahead.
1. How Best To Get There
From the southernmost point of the Fleurieu Peninsula, Cape Jervis, you can take the ferry across to Penneshaw on Kangaroo Island. It is a 45-minute sail, and the ferry accommodates foot passengers as well as cars and campervans. There are several daily crossings to and from the island. Prices can be quite steep, at around $100 roundtrip per person, plus a car charge of roughly $200, depending on size. On the ferry, you have all the amenities, and, if you are quick, you can find comfortable seats at the front with fabulous views.
Pro Tip: If boat trips are not your thing, you can take a 30-minute flight from Adelaide to Kingscote. The airport is serviced by a local carrier or Qantas.
2. The Size Of The Island
Just because Kangaroo Island barely registers when you look at a map of Australia does not mean that it is an island dealt with on a day trip — far from it. In fact, Kangaroo Island is Australia’s third-largest island after Tasmania and Melville Island, approximately 1,700 square miles in area. Roughly 93 miles long and 35 miles wide, the island has around 1,000 miles of sealed, and often unsealed, roads and tracks.
With its numerous attractions spread out all across the island, make sure you choose your location carefully and allow for a few days on the island rather than a mere look. If you only stay briefly, you will most likely miss the best bits, and you will also miss the tranquillity of the surroundings.
3. Driving On The Island
With size taken into consideration and the fact that there is no public transport on the island, you will either go on an organized tour with transport or, much better, rent a car to explore all the nooks and crannies of this island. The most scenic approach is renting a car in Adelaide and driving down through the gorgeous Fleurieu Peninsula, taking the ferry, keeping your car for the drive around, and then heading back. If you are flying or taking the ferry on foot, you can have a car waiting for you. Just make sure you book early enough, as there are limited numbers of cars available on the island.
Pro Tip: When driving, please look out for the animals. They tend to be out in force at dawn, dusk, and at night, and often have no intention of moving out of your way. Like in the case of an echidna crossing the road right in front of my car, they move sedately. So, please drive slowly and keep your eyes peeled for animals.
4. Explore Kingscote Before You Head Off
Kingscote is the largest town on Kangaroo Island, with just under 2,000 inhabitants. Settled back in July 1836, Kingscote was South Australia’s first colonial settlement, and it was even suggested to be South Australia’s capital at one time. But the island’s resources, or lack thereof, eventually made Adelaide the favorite. Kingscote is considered the big city of the island and the place to stock up on supplies before you head off into nature. There are several art galleries, a selection of restaurants and pubs, plenty of shops, a Sunday market, and some sights not to be missed.
Pro Tip: Kingscote has everything but the island’s Tourism Information Hub, which you will find in Penneshaw, just by the ferry landing.
5. Schedule In Time With The Animals
Kangaroo Island has so many animals that depending on how long you are staying, you have to prioritize what you are most keen to see. Many you will see as you go, such as kangaroos by the side of the road, but others you will have to search out. There is a colony of seals at Seal Bay, and various wildlife parks dot the island.
With many of Australia’s animals being strictly nocturnal, you should plan to book a nighttime guided walk to spot some of the shier critters. Book ahead for tours as only limited spots are available.
During the 2020 bushfires, the animals suffered a lot from injury and loss of habitat. Much help was received, but more is needed to help the various nature and wildlife reserves on the island, which worked flat out to save as many affected animals as possible. Any donations are appreciated to help rebuild stations and hospitals.
Pro Tip: For an easy animal to tick off your critter-list, go to the ferry terminal. Walk down to Hog Bay, and along the wooden boardwalk, you will be able to spot a colony of little penguins.
6. Where To Stay
Kangaroo Island offers a variety of options from super luxury and Airbnbs to hostels and camping, but there are distances to be considered.
You will have the most choices around Kingscote, where you also have pubs and restaurants, but Kingscote is a long way away from the other end of the island. That said, further away from town, you will be pretty much on your own and reliant either on what you have packed or what is available at your accommodation. So choose wisely.
Before booking a stay, take long drives from one destination to another into consideration. If you don’t mind staying in a few locations during your visit, you can experience more of the island that way.
Pro Tip: To make your approach super easy, you could always rent a campervan in Adelaide and take your bed with you on the trip.
7. Stock Up If You Aren’t Eating Out
Kangaroo Island has some fantastic lodging options, from camping to a lighthouse cottage, but stocking up on food is best done in Kingscote. You will find smaller supermarkets for basics, but if you really want to stock up, get fresh greens, go to the butcher, and get less pricey basics, the supermarket at Kingscote is your best bet. Then, you can just stop off for small items as you go.
Pro Tip: Make sure you also fill up with gas in Kingscote or Penneshaw before you head off, as gas stations are far and few between.
8. Enjoy A Trip To The Sahara Desert
Something you would not normally expect on a South Australian island is a sandy desert, but Kangaroo Island is home to a large sand dune called Little Sahara. It’s just under a square mile large, and if you are traveling with an adrenaline junky, you might want to plan ahead and rent a sandboard or toboggan to enjoy sliding down the sandy hills. The expanse of sand is a heritage-listed site of natural beauty, just off Vivonne Bay, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have some fun.
Pro Tip: You can also rent a fat bike — a bicycle with really big tires — and go on a guided bike tour in the area.
9. Sample The Local Produce
With its unique location and habitats, it is no surprise that the local produce on the island is outstanding. There is a thriving small business industry that includes brewers and distillers of beer, cider, wine, and gin to producers of eucalyptus oil. Kangaroo Island makes honey that is valued across Australia, too. You can book food tours, shop, and even ship goods back home. If anything really takes your fancy, you might want to check your baggage allowance and the export and import regulations for your home country before you go crazy shopping.
Pro Tip: You can also buy souvenir scarves made from sheep and possum wool. Now that is something you don’t get just anywhere.