Man In A Suitcase

Kangaroo Island, South Australia

Kangaroo Island, a hundred miles long and thirty-six wide, sits a few miles off the South Australian coast. It's a half hour from Adelaide on Regional Express. Their motto: "We fly to places you've never heard of." (Okay, I made that up. But they're welcome to use it.) I was there to see wildlife. Which they got. People? Not so much.

I was met on arrival by my tour guides, who whisked my fellow adventurers and me off to the west side of the island. Most of KI has been taken over by agriculture; Flinders Chase National Park on the west side is how the whole island looked when Europeans first arrived. And how pleased they must have been by the vista at left! Beautiful green fields as far as the eye could see, just perfect for crops! What they couldn't tell until they got closer is that those fields aren't fields at all; they're the tops of trees! With native forests of such uniform height and coloring, theirs was a natural mistake. One that would lead South Australia's first settlement to be abandoned after four years.

We stopped for a few pictures of the coast, which is nice if you like that sort of thing. And to get our first glimpse of the Remarkable Rocks, which were to be our next stop. The rock at right stands about twenty feet high; I stood under the overhang at the left with plenty of clearance. (Yes, I know I'm short. Let's move on.) The rocks were shaped by wind and rain over millions of years. And they're perched precariously on just a few points each, the rain having eroded much of their bases. I'd call them remarkable, but that would be redundant.

Our next stop was Admiralty Arch, a passage water had eroded from the limestone. It's a prime location to see some Australian sea lions. And they were out in force, sunning themselves on the rocks and conserving energy in that special pedipod way. There was also the corpse of a whale that had wedged itself into the cliffs; attempts to get it loose having failed, the authorities were debating their next step. I guess they weren't anxious to repeat the experience of the Oregon Highway Division.

After that it was time for lunch. We found a quiet spot in the bush and, while our guides got everything ready, wandered down the road looking for koalas. Since they mostly sleep during the day, we were all craning our necks and hoping to spot one high in the branches of a gum tree. Needless to say, we were thrilled to spot the fellow at right, who chose a perch within range of my camera's lens.

It's funny about koalas. To tourists like me they're a big part of Australia's appeal. Heck, Qantas used one as a mascot for years! But to the locals they're kind of a pain. They're incredibly fussy eaters, living on the leaves of just a few kinds of eucalypts. And with loss of habitat and their own increasing numbers, they're eating those trees to death. There's an effort to reduce the number of koalas on the island through a catch/sterilize/release program. That'll mean less damage, but of course fewer koalas for the tourists. Like a lot of ecological issues in Australia, it's a delicate balancing act. Good thing we don't have ecological problems like that in America.

We stopped at the visitor center on our way out of the park to check out the exhibits, the shop and the facilities. Waiting at the coach for the rest of the crew to gather, I got my first close encounter of the trip with a couple of kangaroos. These guys were experienced at begging for handouts. Fortunately, I know better. And our guides were pretty explicit as to why giving handouts to the roos is a bad idea, that it interferes with their proper diet and with their survival skills.

A few minutes later, were were off to see some kangaroos in the wild. Our destination was Lucy's farm, or rather what used to be Lucy's farm, before she died and her son decided there just had to be more to life than a little farmhouse without electricity or running water. Now it's a big open field, one that's very popular with kangaroos if the amount of roo poo we saw is any indication. And yes, we saw a couple of dozen roos in our walk around the fields. Always at a distance; these guys haven't made the transition to a service-based economy.

After that it was time to be dropped off at our lodging for the night. I was at a little hotel in the town of American River, which isn't actually a river. After dinner I borrowed a flashlight from my hosts and went looking for wildlife. I'd been told KI is teeming with wallabies. Unfortunately, I'd seen only one that day; due to avian predators, wallabies prefer to stay out of sight during the day. But night's their time to party; I must have encountered fifty during my short walk to the post office and back. No photographs, alas; it wouldn't have been right to use flash on such night-adapted creatures.

Oh, and there was another bonus to my nighttime walk. Thanks to a lack of light pollution, I was able to see more stars than I imagined possible. And not just individual stars. For the first time in a long time I could see the smear of the Milky Way, the way it appears in astronomy books but never in real life.

Next morning I was up bright and early to take pictures of American River's not-river. (It's really an inlet from the ocean, like the rio in Rio de Janeiro.) I'm not used to so much peace, being able to walk down a town's one and only street and not have to worry about traffic. And having no company but the birds. The water was calm this morning. Everything was calm and so very quiet. Suddenly it was easy to imagine the island as it was before settlement.

Day two's touring began with a run to the south coast of the island and the appropriately named Seal Bay. The beach was well populated with sea lions, which ranged widely in size, coloring and level of activity. We were able to get pretty close as long as we stayed together; I was told that they don't see people in groups as a threat. It was easy to assign roles: the playful youngsters, the pup whining for its mom, the alpha male pushing younger males around just to prove who's boss. And of course all the middle agers sleeping it off after a hard couple of days at work.

Wandering back to the north central part of the island, we went into the bush in hope of spotting the rare glossy black cockatoo. No luck there, I'm afraid. We saw quite a few of the sheoak trees whose seeds provide the cockatoo's food supply. Including some that had been broken into, evidence that they'd been in the neighborhood. Still, we did get to see quite a few wallabies during our wander. Never in the open; these guys weren't about to become dinner for some eagle. But if we could avoid making too much noise stomping around, we could get close enough for pictures. I'm sure they heard us coming. A bunch of middle-aged city folk; how could they not?

Our next destination was the north coast. Getting there was quite a hairy ride, pushing our 4WD up and down hills in a way that would give most SUV owners pause. They certainly had us all wondering if our guide wasn't the least bit mad, especially when he parked within spitting distance of the cliff edge. Once I got past the challenge of opening the van door against a 15° incline, I had to agree that the views were worth what it took to get there. We even spotted a couple of kangaroos foraging in a ravine down the sloping hill, another reminder that there's wildlife in some pretty unlikely places.

Our last stop of the day was a drive down a mostly unoccupied beach for afternoon tea, which we enjoyed on the tailgate of our van. I guess that's one advantage of an island with plenty of coastline and not so many people. We also had the spectacle of watching one driver help another get his car unstuck from the beach. Yep, if I lived in a place like Kangaroo Island I'd definitely want an SUV.

Pretty soon it was time to leave. We dropped off the rest of our group at their B&B; they had another day on the island. Me, I was off back to Adelaide. And in the morning I'd leave on the last leg of my trip: the opal mining town of Coober Pedy.

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 Comments to: Hank Shiffman, Mountain View, California