Kangaroo Island puts a spring in your step
KI's amazing wildlife combines with sedate, friendly Adelaide to give Liam Collins a taste of the real Australia
IT'S a 20-minute hop from Adelaide airport on board the wonderfully titled City of Waga Waga aeroplane to Kingscote airport on the aptly titled Kangaroo Island.
Although it looks like a dot on the map beside the vast bulk of Australia, the island, home to about 4,000 people, is about 150 miles long and 60 miles wide, with long empty roads, amazing wildlife and great food and wine.
I slipped casually through a side gate to where dreadlocked guide Bill, from Kangaroo Island Wilderness Tours, was standing by his Land Rover ready to roll.
What strikes you almost immediately is the absence of people. Seal Bay, which appeared to be just down the road, was a good 60 miles away, and if you drive at 60mph then you get there in an hour -- there's virtually nothing else on the road.
Bill was an easy-going, engaging guy, with a great knowledge and respect for the wildlife that people come here to see. "It's not one of the big-ticket attractions of Australia, like Sydney, the Great Barrier Reef or the Gold Coast, but Kangaroo Island is getting there," was his introduction to what locals call "KI".
Seal Bay is where you get up close and personal with one of the few colonies of Australian sea lions. They head out into the ocean for three or four days, gorge themselves silly on squid and come back to the colony to lie around on the white sand, or, if they're male, engage in half-hearted battles with rivals, which only turn vicious in the mating season.
Further down the coast is a series of huge natural boulders called "Remarkable Rocks", which look like a Salvador Dali creation.
Later, Bill takes me into a eucalyptus wood to search for koala bears. They're not easy to spot because they spend most of their time sleeping in the tree canopy. But eventually we come across a pair having an argument about a right of way through one of the trees. They're wonderfully cuddly looking, as you would expect and seem oblivious to the human onlookers on the ground.
The following morning we have coffee with Ronnie, a self-sufficient farmer who came here from Israel 30 years ago. He built his own wonderful house from mud, and treats us to golden honey from his own hives -- Kangaroo Island has the last pure strain of Ligurian bees, brought here by Italian emigrants in the last century.
On an old disused farm, now owned by the State, herds of kangaroo move across the landscape, hopping, boxing and grazing.
Later we pull in to what appears to be a small coffee shop called KIS, where the owners are doing a bit of homework with their children. But sitting beside the percolating coffee is a (legal!) potstill where they are distilling their own gin, vodka and liquors using local berries and fruits. And it tastes damn good. KI is full of surprises like that.
After a trip to a wildlife sanctuary, where I'm handed a baby kangaroo that has been rescued, it's off to the other side of the island.
This time we take to a dirt road. Wide and red, it follows the undulating contours of the island as we pass through the one-kangaroo town of Pandana.
From the boat in Emu Bay we observe sea eagles perched on the cliff looking out for dinner, a swooping osprey and pods of dolphins cavorting and buzzing underneath the boat.
I spent the night in Seascapes, a B&B overlooking Emu Bay where we enjoy a nice bottle of wine and good company as the sun sets through the big picture window overlooking the bay.
Back at Adelaide airport, my new guide Bob is ready to take me on a tour of the Adelaide Hills which look a smoky blue in the distance. It's 30 minutes from the city centre to the wonderful German town of Hahndorf, where the streets are bustling with tourists and city-dwellers enjoying the restaurants, and browsing in the galleries, boutiques and craft shops.
We take a left turn down a small winding road to The Lane Vineyard and Bistro, which is set in rolling hills. The glass walls have been pushed back to allow the sunshine through, and the food and wine are stunning. If you had to describe an ideal Sunday lunch this would certainly be it. Over dessert at the nearby Hahndorf Hill Winery I ask Bob if he knew of a town called Willunga. The name is chiselled into the granite pier of my Dublin home, possibly the work of a previous owner who sailed the oceans in the 1860s. It's about 40 miles outside Adelaide on the edge of the wine-growing Barossa valley, and so I made a pilgrimage to bring it all back home.
That night in the Crown & Sceptre pub in Adelaide one of the locals enquired why I was visiting. "It's a 20 minute city," he said, dismissively. I suppose that's why I liked Adelaide. It's small and compact, almost English in appearance, except for the flocks of "Rosallas", the colourful parrots which inhabit the many city parks and fly along the leafy North Terrace where you can visit the galleries and museums.
If you want the authentic Adelaide experience, head for the city's 140-year-old Central Market. Mark Gleeson, a fourth-generation Aussie of Irish descent who has a stall in the bustling market, also runs Chef's Media Tour. He guides visitors around the teeming market on the edge of Adelaide's thriving Chinatown, where locals come to shop and gossip, and if you can't get what you want there you'll surely find it across the road at the Antique & Second Hand store where you could spend days looking through the stalls.
Adelaide is probably the most sedate city in Australia, it's pleasant, open and friendly, and between the city and Kangaroo Island you feel you've seen the authentic Australia -- it may not yet be "big-ticket" as they say themselves, but it's certainly the real thing.
FOR more than 90 years Qantas has been the Spirit of Australia, connecting the world to the country. A return economy fare from London Heathrow to Adelaide starts at £982 and is valid for travel from October 18 to November 30, 2011. Book at qantas.com You can also visit www.australia.com
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