Kangaroo Island has come back from disaster and is thriving again, writes Jessica Wynne Lockhart
Tim and Tamsin Wendt spent five years meticulously planning and building the Oceanview Eco Villas, environmentally friendly luxury accommodation perched on the edge of their 500-acre property.
Every element of the two-bedroom villas — from the handcrafted wooden furniture to the carpets made of recycled fishnets — was painstakingly sourced for sustainability. When the villas finally opened at the end of 2019, it was their dream brought to life.
"We want people to walk away feeling a connection to the place," says Tamsin.
Unfortunately, 2020 had other plans in store.
It's a story heard from countless tour operators and accommodation providers over the past 16 months. But for the Wendts, Covid-19 was actually their second hit.
Oceanview Eco Villas is located on South Australia's Kangaroo Island. Known as the "Galapagos of Australia" — both for its unique species and the ease with which visitors can spot wildlife, including wallabies, kangaroos, sea lions, echidnas and koalas — it was swept by catastrophic bushfires in early 2020. Nearly half of the island was destroyed, including the habitats of rare and endemic species, such as the glossy black cockatoo.
Today though, Kangaroo Island is no longer a scene of devastation — it's a place of new life. When my tour guide from Exceptional Kangaroo Island pulls over at Bunker Hill, a lookout with sweeping views of Flinders Chase National Park, all I can see is brilliant green for miles.
Kangaroo Island's native bush is regenerating at a rapid pace, providing an important lesson in bushfire ecology. A critical component of the Australian landscape, fire can devastate, but it's also needed to stimulate new growth and improve biodiversity. In the past year, botanists have found plant species that haven't been seen on the island for half a century, such as the endangered showy copper-wire daisy. That's not the only surprising finding. Though ecologists feared the Kangaroo Island dunnart — one of the country's most threatened species — had been wiped out by the fires, with 95 per cent habitat loss, it's since been seen in the national park.
"It's almost a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see Kangaroo Island in this state; where you can see how life can come out of total devastation," says Yale Norris, general manager of the Islander Estate Vineyards. "Nature is super-resilient. It finds a way."
He should know. During the bushfires, the Islander Estate lost 55,000 of its vines, along with its offices, lab buildings and irrigation systems. Only its off-site tasting room — nicknamed "the departure lounge" by locals for its proximity to the airport — was spared. Yet, based on the amount of regrowth they've already seen, Norris anticipates that within three years, 90 per cent of the vines will be producing fruit again.
On my final night on Kangaroo Island, Tim takes me for a night-time tour of the Oceanview Eco Villas' property. Shining a torch from the window of his ute, we spot dozens of tammar wallabies and kangaroos in the dark, feeding and even boxing.
In the immediate aftermath of Kangaroo Island's bushfires, social media and news reports made it seem like the island was entirely gone. Well, I'm pleased to tell you that reports of Kangaroo Island's demise were greatly exaggerated. The island is alive and well worth visiting.
Do: Exceptional Kangaroo Island's citizen science programmes
For over 30 years, the family-owned Exceptional Kangaroo Island has been showcasing the island's best food and wildlife experiences with its immersive itineraries. Now, it's offering guests a chance to learn more about bushfire ecology and to give back with private citizen science experiences. Visitors can monitor bird populations with ornithologist Dr David Paton, visit the field with echidna expert Dr Peggy Rismiller, or learn more about glossy black cockatoo habitat restoration on a new e-bike tour.
Drink: Kangaroo Island Spirits & The Islander
The Islander Estate Vineyards lost nearly everything in the 2020 bushfires. But a visit to its tasting room shouldn't be made out of compassion; it should be made because it's a good drop. A producer of cool climate wines, it's worth paying the $30 tasting fee to try its premium flagship label. Afterwards, if you're in the spirit to get some spirits, head down the road to Kangaroo Island Spirits. The distillery has won more than 100 global awards, including best contemporary gin in the world in 2019.
Stay: Oceanview Eco Villas
In the incredibly unlikely event that you don't spot kangaroos in the wild, you'll be sure to see them on Tim and Tamsin Wendt's 500-acre property, home to the new Oceanview Eco Villas. It's marketed as fully hosted, environmentally friendly luxury accommodation, all of which is true. What you won't see advertised is that the couple are also carers for rescue kangaroos, which guests may have the opportunity to bottle-feed during their stay. The highlight though is the inclusive food, which focuses heavily on local ingredients, such as Ligurian bee honey and Kangaroo Island sea salt.
How to get to Kangaroo Island
Air New Zealand flies non-stop from Auckland to Adelaide three to four times per week. From there, Kangaroo Island's airport in Kingscote is a 30-minute Qantas or Rex flight. The island can also be accessed via the SeaLink ferry, which takes about 90 minutes, leaving from Cape Jervis and landing at Penneshaw.