Australia’s Answer to the Galapagos 

By Chris McBeath

Why the indigenous people called this island Karta, or Land of the Dead, remains a mystery because Kangaroo Island, located south west of Adelaide, is one of Australia’s hottest destinations for scenic and wildlife encounters.  

Measuring only 155km (96mi) by 55km (34mi), more than one third of the island is dedicated to conservation. You’ll see kangaroos and Tammer wallabies, koala bears and possoms, fur seals lolling about on amazing beaches, and prickly, long-snouted echidas scurrying beneath gi-normous rock formations …… not to mention more congregations of magpies than there were blackbirds in Tom Thumb’s pie. Even bees get top billing, since this is home to the last remaining pure strain of liguera bee in the world. My favorites, however, are the fairy penguins whose cliffside ‘condos’ are built into rocky nooks and crannies. Every night, when parents return from a full day of foraging in the sea, the colony pulsates with excited youngsters squawking their relief to be found again, let alone fed. The family reunions, revealed with a special non-instrusive flashlight, are intimate and noisy. 

It’s with a pinch of Ozzie sass, though, that Kangaroo Island is billed as Australia’s Galapagos because nestled beside the “bushland authentica” lie picturesque townships, farms, vineyards and homesteads that serve the island’s 4500 permanent residents as well as some 190,000 visitors a year.   

Traveling here takes a little planning since the island has no public transit or official taxi system, and few car agencies allow their vehicles to leave the mainland. Your best bet is to book a tour with Sealink Travel – the same folks who run the ferry service, or fly here and hook up with an on-island guide. See-it-yourself cyclists, campers and hikers are welcome, but a local guide really makes the difference between a good experience and a terrific one.   

For all the stellar landscapes, three star attractions are the island’s raison d’etre:

Roo’s Rule

True to its namesake, mobs of western gray kangaroos abound — through tall grasses, across plains of meadow, and in between yaccas the size of small cottages.  Unlike much of Australia where farmers regard them as a nuisance to crops, here kangaroos are welcome to thrive.

Their survival as a species, however, is more attributable to a kangaroo’s unique ability to control their procreation through times of severe climatic conditions such as drought.

When resources are plentiful, a female usually mothers three offspring at any given time:

one in the pouch, a joey by her side and a developing embryo which may, as the environment dictates, be either ‘held’ for up to 12 months or aborted all together. Even the males have been biologically wired for survival because until there has been enough rain to produce a large quantity of green vegetation, they will not even produce sperm.

Charismatic Koalas

For many wildlife spotters, the elusive koalas are king.  Once hunted to near extinction, and still a vulnerable population on the mainland, Kangaroo Island is a protected koala Eden.  Indeed, the progeny that has descended from the 18 bears that were introduced to the island in the 1920s, have swelled so dramatically that the bears were literally eating their way out of home and haven.  With every adult koala eating up to 1.5 kg of leaves a day (multiplied by 27,000 koalas), that’s a resource of 30 tons of leaves a day that must be replenished. Then in 2007 lightning struck, literally, sparking several bush fires that swept across the island, killing thousands of koalas and much of their food resources.  The results were so brutal that island guardians feared the extinction of koalas by 2050.  Restoration work of both habitat and bears has been massive and numbers, although still at risk, are on a fragile rebound.


Seal Bay is the only place in Australia where you can walk on the beach that is usually strewn with hundreds of endangered Australian sea lions. Most are exhausted after three to five days at sea; others are raising young pups; and still more are posturing their maleness over their harems of disinterested mates.  There’s something magical about sharing the sand with these resting creatures that are unafraid to pose for your camera.  Still more seals haul themselves up the slippery granite slopes near Admiral’s Arch where the pull-back of crashing waves make every flippered step a struggle. Often it’s only by luck that a seal gets tossed onto an inhospitable craggy ledge, out of reach of the water’s treacherous drag.

For these sights alone, Kangaroo Island really is one for the bucket list.


How to get there:

Kangaroo Island SeaLink operates two passenger ferries between Cape Jervis and Penneshaw. There are four departures daily, with additional services during peak times.

Regional Express (REX) operates the 30-minute flight from Adelaide to Kingscote Airport (KGC), which is located 13 kilometers from the Island’s capital, Kingscote.

PHOTOS (in the order they appear)

Remarkable Rock, Header

Aerial view of Stokes Bay, Kangaroo Island

Island Road, Chris McBeath

Pelican Trio, Chris McBeath

Kangaroo grazing

Koala close up

Seal Bay Seal Visitors – South Australia Tourism Commission

Australian Seal family – Chris McBeath