A large clump of grass is running away from me. “Did you see it?” my guide, Mary, asks. “An echidna!” Its bleached-yellow tuft shambles across the ground, rocking from side to side as it goes. We’re on the Kangaroo Island wilderness trail and it doesn’t disappoint on the wildness front: we’ve only been trekking a couple of hours and I’m almost tripping over the local fauna.
Wallabies watch us warily from the undergrowth, and a rustle turns out to be a goanna, its body patterned with stripes and its legs with polka dots, as if it’s wearing mix-and-match pyjamas. At one point, Mary pulls up so sharply I nearly walk into her: ahead of us a large, red kangaroo is blocking our path. It chews slowly as it stares us down, then hops away.
The 61km KI Wilderness trail, which opened last November on Kangaroo Island, eight miles off the coast of South Australia, runs through dense bush from the rugged coast of the Flinders Chase national park, on the south-west of the island, to the Kelly Hill conservation park. Some of the paths have been in use for 30 years, but others are brand new, and a string of excellent camping amenities have been added along the way, so the trek can be completed in five days. Hikers can do as many or as few days as they choose, though – the starting/finishing points are easy to drive to – and either carry tents or get a company to move bags and equipment each day.
The island, discovered by British explorer Matthew Flinders in his 1802 circumnavigation of Australia, is a half-hour flight from Adelaide, and a haven for more than kangaroos.Flinders Chase national park has been a sanctuary for endangered animals since the early 20th century.
“It was Noah’s Ark on an island,” says Tim, a guide with Exceptional KI Tours. “It didn’t have the problems that were decimating wildlife populations on the mainland, like people, foxes and rabbits. So a host of species were introduced to the island to save them from extinction.”
Tim picks me up from Kingscote’s tiny airport and within five minutes we find our first koala. There are many kinds of gum tree on the island, and Tim knows which one koalas like to eat, and sleep in. The island is now rather overrun with what he calls “tree rabbits”. The male we’re looking at is one of many that has been desexed as part of a population control programme. He gives us a sleepy stare, decides we are no threat and returns to his nap.
Other animals love the eucalypts too: wallabies shelter among the shorter shrubs, and the island’s Ligurian bees, introduced from Italy in the 19th century, make the most of them for their honey. Our first leg of the trail, a six-hour stretch overlooking Maupertuis Bay, begins beside the dry bed of the Rocky river. It doesn’t run until autumn, but a little crayfish has found its way to one of its puddles. In the hill opposite we can see the mouths of caves where the island’s Aboriginal population may once have sheltered. They last occupied the land 5,000 years ago and why they disappeared remains a mystery – a devastating bushfire, perhaps, or drought?
After a gentle half-hour climb we emerge on to limestone cliffs, the Indian Ocean crashing below. There’s an extra-terrestrial feel about the vegetation up here: gnarled trees whose branches reach out of the ground like claws, and red and green shrubs, some like Star Trek tribbles. At one point the trail takes us down to the beach, where a pair of endangered plovers skip and swoop across the sand. There’s no human life to disturb them on this beach, or anywhere on this part of the island: we won’t encounter another person all day.
Our walk ends at the Cape du Couedic lighthouse, where I’m staying in one of the old keepers’ cottages. It’s simple living – no TV, no wifi, and decor that’s resolutely vintage – but for entertainment there’s a colony of fur seals a five-minute walk away.
At Admirals Arch – a rock formation just below the lighthouse – seal pups play in the freezing water while their mothers rest on the rocks. The fur seal population is recovering since being hunted to dangerously low levels in the 19th century.
I happen on two bull seals having a fight, necks intertwined and chests straining, while a couple of adolescents flop in excited circles around them. It already feels like I’m in my own David Attenborough documentary.
Mary, who joins me next day for the four-hour walk north to Snake Lagoon, is the daughter of a settler who established the town of Parndana in the middle of the island in the 1940s. She introduces me to many varieties of lapwing, identifies native wattles, and tells me about megafauna fossils found in the Black Swamp. But she’s also full of insights into the human population. Settlers like her father had to work hard to make a living on land whose soil was once designated “wilderness” because nothing would grow there.
The 4,500 people who live on Kangaroo Island are a resourceful lot. “It’s the sort of place where people pull through for each other,” says Mary. It has also seen a dramatic shift in attitudes over the past 30 years as farmers who used to mock “greenies” became conservationists themselves. Not long ago, bodies of wedge-tailed eagles would be nailed up outside barns as hunting trophies, because they were believed to steal sheep. Today, they are readily spotted soaring above the bush.
The only animal we don’t spot on our walk is a platypus: we pass the pools where they live, but they’re nocturnal and famously elusive. Kangaroo Island retains some secrets, but it’s a good place to go bushwalking if you want to feel like a true pioneer.
Way to go
Flights were provided by Etihad Airways which flies from Heathrow, Manchester and Edinburgh to Melbourne via Abu Dhabi, from £595 return. The 61km KI Wilderness trail (kangarooisl-andwildernesstrail. sa.gov.au) costs £96pp for independent walkers, including park entry fee, camping, parking and map. Accommodation was provided by Troubridge Lodge (£136 a night for two self-catering, +61 8 8553 4410, environment.sa.gov.au). Tours with Exceptional KI (exceptionalkang-arooisland.com) cost from £150pp, including transfers from Adelaide.