By Cathy Anderson
The double whammy of bushfires followed by COVID-19 has dealt Kangaroo Island a heavy blow.
With around 48 per cent of the island devastated by last summer’s fires, tourists were slowly starting to return when the pandemic hit.
But testament to the South Australian spirit, the community has rallied, local businesses have pivoted and the island is once again open for business.
WILD ABOUT WILDLIFE
As a founding member of Australian Wildlife Journeys, a collective of tourism operators dedicated to educating travellers about the importance of habitat retention and the benefits of spending time in nature, Wickham is focused on conservation.
His Exceptional Kangaroo Island tours offer respectful encounters with the island’s koalas, wallabies, birdlife and fur seals, while showcasing local produce through collaborations with food and wine operators.
Think barbecued King George whiting with False Cape’s new riesling or The Islander Estate Vineyards’ dusty, dry rosé.
Wickham’s tours now offer a glimpse of the island’s regeneration.
“Observing wildlife in the wild has been at the heart of our business for over 30 years,” he says.
“No one comes to the island and travels through the fire-affected areas without commenting on the iconic Tate’s grass trees, most of which are flowering with tall green spikes covered with tiny cream flowers.”
Visitors can become immersed in the Island’s natural wonders via Exceptional Kangaroo Island’s conservation action days.
Meet the Glossy Black cockatoo Recovery team in the bush to learn about their work enhancing the population with food and nest trees.
Join the Dolphin Watch team to snorkel with dolphin pods, or meet Dr Peggy Rismiller who has spent more than 30 years studying the island’s wild echidna population.
“There are so many good stories here and getting a chance to look ‘under the hood’ to see what is driving the place adds a completely different dimension to a visit,” Wickham says.
On a trip to the island’s Seal Bay conservation area, guides take visitors to a protected beach where endangered Australian seal lion pups frolic and adults surf the waves for dinner; it’s an unmissable experience.
As is a three-hour Kangaroo Island Marine Adventures tour swimming with bottlenose dolphins, while spotting local sea eagles and osprey.
RISING LIKE A PHOENIX
One of the most heartbreaking images from the fires was the devastation of luxury clifftop accommodation Southern Ocean Lodge.
James and Hayley Baillie, owners of the lodge, immediately vowed to rebuild their hotel with views over the Southern Ocean, and re-engaged founding architect Max Pritchard to develop what they are affectionately calling SOL 2.0.
“There are many elements of the original lodge that were successful from the beginning, and some other elements could be tweaked slightly to enrich the guest experience of Kangaroo Island’s incredibly wild south west coast,” James says.
The couple, who donated $100,000 to charities, including the Kangaroo Island Mayoral Relief and Recovery Bushfire Fund and the Australian Red Cross for community and wildlife rehabilitation, say they are warmed by the vigour with which South Australians have returned to the island.
“South Australians were among the first to be able to travel to the state’s regional destinations and for many, a hop across to Kangaroo Island was just the ‘overseas’ adventure they were looking for,” James says.
The couple is also full of praise for the island’s food producers; they say a visit to Island Beehive at Kingscote is a must, as is a stop at KI Spirits, where award-winning gin, vodka and limoncello is made.
Several other accommodation businesses were destroyed in the fire, but plenty remain to suit all budgets, from Seafront Holiday Park in Penneshaw to exclusive wilderness villas such as those offered by Lifetime Private Retreats.
James and Hayley say Kangaroo Island is perfect for those yearning for an escape to a natural sanctuary after months of restrictions.
“It has a raw, untamed spirit, and it’s a place where visitors come to experience the quiet still of nature,” Hayley says.
“It’s a place where visitors are reassured and restored by nature’s vitality and in the current climate we see that, as much as hardship and disaster may strike, regeneration is just around the corner. ”