Kangaroo Island road trip (day 2): Hanson Bay & Flinders Chase National Park
After a pretty mind-blowing first day filled with beautiful bays and empty beaches, we are eager to discover even more of Kangaroo Island today, driving into the national park to look for wildlife and admire some of the famously dramatic South Australian scenery. Lucky for us, we wake up to perfect weather and quite a few local kangaroos hopping around in front of our little cabin at Western KI Caravan Park, an exciting start to what is sure to be an even more exciting day.
Hanson Bay Wildlife Sanctuary
According to the Australian Koala Foundation, an organisation dedicated to the conservation and preservation of our furry friends, koala numbers in Australia have reached alarming lows and the species should be considered “critically endangered”. Actually, in the last 6 years of living in Australia, I’ve only seen 2 koalas in the wild (one along the Great Ocean Road and one on Straddie in QLD), and I know plenty of Aussies who’ve never even seen one, so it’s not difficult to believe that koala numbers just aren’t what they used to be.
A few months ago, I visited the Koala Hospital in Port Macquarie, which is an amazing not-for-profit rehabilitation centre for injured and displaced koalas, and there I learned that the primary reason for the decline of koala populations on mainland Australia has simply been loss of habitat. As more and more gum trees are cleared to make way for new housing developments or shopping centres, koalas lose both their food source and their home, and are forced to go in search of other trees. This often means that koalas are wandering across the highway and being hit, which is usually how they find themselves at the Koala Hospital in the first place. I could go on and on about the plight of the koala, but needless to say, it’s pretty special to spot a koala outside the zoo these days.
Although you mightn’t guess it from the name, Kangaroo Island is home to the largest community of koalas in Australia— while the national population has sadly dwindled to less than 80,000, there are an estimated 25,000 koalas living on little KI. And somewhat ironically, as everyone on the mainland is frantic to conserve what few koalas we have left, the population on Kangaroo Island is actually believed to be dangerously large and ecologists now fear that over-browsing of the local manna gum trees (basically eating them to death) might have catastrophic implications for the entire ecosystem. Maybe it’s because I was so recently crying over injured koalas at the Hospital, but this feels like a slightly more tolerable outcome than not having any koalas at all.
Not to discount what I’m sure is a very delicate balance between flora and fauna, but the booming koala population is also pretty exciting for visitors to Kangaroo Island. There really aren’t any other places in Australia where you can be guaranteed to see wild koalas, and this is exactly what mum and I have been so looking forward to.
Our first stop of the morning is Hanson Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, a 5,000 acre property surrounded by 100,000 acres of protected wilderness, where koalas are even further concentrated than the already populous island. After a quick and delicious breakfast at the onsite cafe, we pay $10 to access the forested area and search for koalas high in the trees. It doesn’t take more than a few minutes to spot our first koala, sleeping in a tightly rolled ball at the top of a eucalyptus tree, swaying in the morning breeze.
As we continue along the row of trees, craning our necks and squinting into the sun, we spot koala after koala enjoying a morning snooze, and even begin to find some koalas relaxing on lower branches. When all is said and done, we’ve spent an hour walking through the gums and managed to see 29 koalas. We are beaming.
Totally energised by our morning koala-spotting (and possibly also the white chocolate muffin I ate for breakfast), we hop into the car and cruise a quick 10 minutes down the road to the Flinders Chase Visitor Centre. Here, we pay an entrance fee for the National Park ($11 per adult), refill our water bottles, and then continue towards our second stop of the day, Admirals Arch.
From the carpark, a well-maintained boardwalk switch-backs down to the coast, offering plenty of viewpoints along the way (many of which look out onto entire families of fur seal). The walkway is completely uncrowded, so mum and I get to enjoy the rugged cliffs and adorable seals all to ourselves as we make our way towards Admirals Arch, oo-ing and ah-ing the whole way down.
The walk to Admirals Arch, including photo stops every two seconds, only takes about 15 minutes, but I’m trying desperately to stretch it out further. This scenery is dramatically different to the calm bays and white sand beaches we saw yesterday, much more rugged and wild, but all of it has been inarguably amazing.
Finally at the arch, it looks like a hollowed-out cave with its ceiling covered in little stalactites, opening onto the turbulent ocean and providing shade to half a dozen seal pups who splash around in the shallows. Apparently the arch was formed by millions of years of pumping waves, and geologists anticipate that it will soon collapse and form a small island, becoming the third Casuarina Islet. That being said, geologists’ definition of “soon” may be 10,000 years, so it’s impossible to say whether you need to hurry there to see Admirals Arch now or whether your great, great, great grandchildren will still be waiting for the eventual collapse several millennia from now..
Weirs Cove Lookout
After making our way back up to the car along the boardwalks (and stopping briefly at the Seal Lookout), we drive to our next stop, Weirs Cove. In the early 1900s, a small jetty and winch were constructed here to transport building materials for the construction of Cape du Couedic Lighthouse from the ships below. Even after the lighthouse was completed, the same transport method was used for nearly 50 years to bring food and other goods onto the island, which were stored in the charming, if somewhat rundown, storehouse just behind the lookout. These goods were meant to last the lightkeeper and his family for 3 months (more, if weather conditions prevented safe landing of the ship), as they were entirely shut off from the mainland (I can’t help but think of The Light Between Oceans, a great read about a lighthouse keeper and his new wife living on an island off Western Australia). I also can’t help but wish I could winch myself down onto that beach below..
Our next stop is probably the most iconic Kangaroo Island landmark, and although it’s basically just a collection of large rocks near the ocean, both mum and I immediately agree that the name “remarkable” is no understatement. This fascinating geological feature began forming 500 million years ago, when magma below the earth’s surface slowly rose through more superficial layers of rock and cooled to form a layer of granite of its own. Fast forward another few hundred million years and the sedimentary rock directly above the granite had begun to erode, eventually leading to fractures that exposed what is now referred to as the “dome”.
This massive granite boulder has been shaped by wind, water, and even human footprints over the last 200 million years to form the peculiarly shaped rocks we see today. Only contributing to the otherworldly nature of Remarkable Rocks is the vibrant Golden Lichen that covers just about every available surface. Not only is lichen the only organism capable of surviving solely off the nutrients of rock, but its acid production helps to further erode the site. Point being: it’s amazing what magma and fungus can accomplish in concert.
From the carpark, it’s a reasonably short stroll along another well-defined boardwalk to reach the Remarkable Rocks, and as we approach, we begin to get a sense for the scale of the rocks themselves. Even from a distance, the granite dome is impressive, dotted with angular boulders and perfectly-carved caves that all overlook a beautiful stretch of coastline.
The site may not seem like much in photos, but it’s an absolute wonder in person. Some rocks remind me so vividly of a human pelvis, some form perfect granite hammocks, others have been chiseled into eagle beaks or perfect circles, and still others have been curiously hollowed out by wind. The appeal for photographers is certainly not lost on us, and we happily spend an hour just exploring the various formations and hunting for the perfect view.
Back now at the Flinders Chase Visitor Centre after exploring Remarkable Rocks, we decide to go on a little walk to hopefully see more wildlife. There are a number of trails all connecting to this central location, some best for koalas, some for wallabies, but we specifically choose a route that offers the chance to see platypus. Notoriously shy, I’ve never seen one of these unusual animals in person (nor has mum), but we are excited to try our luck on the 5km Platypus Waterholes Walk.
Somewhat devastatingly, and through no lack of effort on our part, we don’t end up seeing any platypus, but we do manage to learn a fair bit about them by reading the information plaques scattered along the trail. One of only two mammals in the world that lay eggs (the other is an echidna, strangely also an Australian animal!), the platypus is an incredible jumble of random characteristics seemingly borrowed from other animals: it’s said to have the bill of a duck, the tail of a beaver, and the fur of an otter. Not only that, but platypus swim with their eyes closed and use electroreceptors in their bill to detect food, similar to how sharks hunt; male platypus have spurs behind their hind-legs that release venom like a snake’s fangs; and they can retract the webbing on their front legs, somewhat like a cat retracts its claws. It’s no wonder, then, that scientistic have been timelessly fascinated by these small creatures endemic to eastern Australia. And similarly unsurprising that I have now become determined to see one. Stay tuned.
It’s only a short drive back to the caravan park, where we purchase some cheese and crackers from the little shop at reception, crack open a bottle of the wine mum bought yesterday, and watch the kangaroos from our deck as they nibble at the field in front of us. We even take a quick stroll along the caravan park’s own 500m Koala Walk, where we spot several more furry friends munching in the low-hanging gum trees (bringing our grand total to 32 koalas!!!).
Even though we didn’t get to see the platypus we had been hoping for today, it’s impossible to stay disappointed for any amount of time at all, considering the dozens of koalas, kangaroos, and seals we did see, not to mention view after beautiful view that we got to enjoy. By all accounts, another incredible day on Kangaroo Island.