Kangaroo Island: Bush tucker beauty

By Kate Shuttleworth

Farm industry and wildlife co-exist on South Australia's Kangaroo Island, finds Kate Shuttleworth.

An aerial view of Southern Ocean Lodge on Kangaroo Island, South Australia. Photo / Supplied
An aerial view of Southern Ocean Lodge on Kangaroo Island, South Australia. Photo / Supplied

Nothing stands between the Southern Ocean Lodge's great room and Antarctica. The view of the sea draws me out and today it's calm - the sun is beating down on the bush-lined cliff and out across the blue expanse. I could stare at this scenery all day from the comfort of the lodge and its grounds.

Kangaroo Island, or KI as it's called by the locals, isn't your typical island. For a start, like the continent of Australia, it's large - 150km long and up to 57km wide, it covers more than 4400sq km. More than half has never been cleared for human habitation and, today, a quarter of the island is conservation land.

After a 30-minute flight southwest from Adelaide, I step on to an island that feels like a microcosm of Australia's mainland. Its long, confusing, straight roads are bordered by red earth and wildlife springs out of nowhere.

I have a sense that the places offers a truly Australian experience but everywhere I go I encounter the cross-cultural mishmash that has shaped the island.

The sweeping wineries are a slice of the Mediterranean, the golden sand of the island's northern beaches are just like Thailand and some of the bush reminds me of New Zealand.

The locals I meet are equally passionate about the place, regardless of whether they've been here a lifetime or less.

My tour guide Craig Wickham is one of the more enthusiastic. His knowledge of the island, plus his specialist training with wildlife, means he's an expert at spotting echidna, koala and wedge tail eagles well before anyone else.

He's also a former mayor of the island, so offers a level of understanding that you wouldn't find in many other tour guides.

His family-run business, Exceptional Kangaroo Island, offers tours with a distinctly local twist. One day we are dining on the golden sand at Emu Bay sampling the local wine and food, the next we are in the middle of the bush under a canopy of trees eating King George whiting cooked on the barbecue with fresh salad and sheep haloumi. Our only companions are a few wallabies in the distance.

The island is alive with a diverse range of gourmet food producers but this hasn't always been the case. The population boomed in the 1950s when returned servicemen were given land and farming became the main way of life. By the 1980s wool, mainly merino, was the main commodity on the island until the price crashed. The Australian Wool Board bought around 13 million bales, creating an oversupply and the price crashed through the floor.

Craig told me this was a blessing in disguise for people on KI, who were forced to diversify and secure a more sustainable income.

"It wasn't practical to rely on one commodity. Farmers were at risk of losing their small farms so, with a lick of paint, they set up farm guest houses and tourism became a major part of life," says Craig.

What has developed is the ultimate cellar door experience. The farm gate industry on the island is booming.

John Melbourne stands behind some wine barrels and opens a range of tins and jars that he calls his "bush tucker products". Two get my taste buds going: a lemon myrtle tartare sauce and a bush tomato and mountain pepper relish. The lemon myrtle is grown out the back in a shade shed.

John's businesses, Andermel Marron (a type of crayfish) and Two Wheeler Creek Wines, epitomise the cellar door experience on offer on KI.

John, who has a doctorate in hydrology from Oxford University, returned to KI to successfully combine marron farming with wine production, making the bush tucker sauces and running a cafe. He's living proof of the possibilities of diversification.

Island Pure is a sheep milk dairy producing an impressive range of cheeses and yoghurts. While I'm on the island it's the only cheese I eat and it's the nicest I've tasted. I'm a big fan of sheep's cheese as it's easier to digest and has an amazing flavour. The haloumi is to die for.

My evening meals boast an array of the foods I've had on the road during the day - steamed marron tail, marron cream, a fish called mulloway, trevally, goose meat and Island Pure cheese. All of the wines I taste have some relevance to South Australia.

I am overwhelmed by the produce on the island. The farm gate industry and artisan producers are interconnected and the cuisine as a result is top quality.

The island's producers co-exist next to the KI's other big attraction, its landscape and wildlife. Craig takes me to the Flinders Chase National Park, which contains two geological wonders - Admirals Arch and the Remarkable Rocks.

As we drive into the park, Craig points out an area that was burned out in bush fires in 2007. We pause on the crest of a hill and look at how rapidly the fire spread. Scarred skeletons of trees can been seen in spots but a carpet of green regrowth now hugs the coast and darts down to the sea. It is overcoming not only the devastating fire but also the harsh southerly wind.

Cape du Couedic Lighthouse stands golden on the south coast. One of the early lighthouse keepers bought his new wife to KI but she lasted three months. The romance of starting life in this remote place soon wore off.

It is spectacular but it's not for the faint hearted. An elaborate boardwalk takes us down past the lighthouse and Craig leads me to some rocks where a New Zealand fur seal is stretched out asleep below my feet.

Admirals Arch, at the bottom of the cliff, is majestic. A natural rock arch that has been sculpted by weathering and erosion from the sea over thousands of years, it is still being shaped by the waves that lash it.

The Remarkable Rocks are on the same coast - radically-shaped granite boulders balanced above the sea. Shaped by wind, sea spray and rain over about 500 million years, the orange-red lichen that covers some of them makes them look like miniature versions of Ayers Rock (Uluru).

After a day exploring it is wonderful to retreat to the luxury of the Southern Ocean Lodge. Its 21 rooms are each named after shipwrecks, adding a sense of drama and history, and the lodge is architecturally designed to mimic the landscape.

When I look back at the lodge from a facing clifftop it rests unobtrusively along the bush line, as though it, too, has been carved from the rock by wind and time.

Kate Shuttleworth travelled to Kangaroo Island courtesy of Tourism Australia.

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