Travelling Australia: Kangaroo Island for Seafood, Street Food and Wildlife Spotting
This article is written in partnership with Travelbag who I travelled to Australia with, from the bottom (Kangaroo Island) to the top (Darwin) by plane, train and automobile. This view of Australia is very much through my lens, supported by the Travelbag range of tours and products. First post in this series: Travelling Australia from South to North: Adelaide Dispatches
Kangaroo Island has a magical quality to it, even just the name. It sounds straight out of a story book, like somewhere you would want to go without hearing anything further, and maybe immediately. It took several years to get there but I finally did. And it is gorgeous.
Kangaroo Island feels very remote but it is very close to the mainland, just a few hours from Adelaide, including a short ferry ride (or even shorter plane journey). On landing at the small airport I was greeted by my pre booked transfer driver, and found myself joining the end of a wildlife tour as they made their way back to my hotel. This is how it works there. The population is small and there is no taxi service. And what a fun start to my few days there. They shared lots of tips and stories and I bounced off the bus eager to begin.
Kangaroo Island has always been all about the wildlife, and it still is, but recently also about the wine, the gin and restaurants. It is remote in character, the population is only 4,500 people (and there are only 4 police), making it perfect for long road trips on expansive roads lined with tall trees. There are eight national parks and many beaches bustling with pelicans and native sea lions.
Exploring the Diverse Wildlife of Kangaroo Island
The world is so much bigger than we think and we share it with many. I am a little obsessed with wildlife, a former biologist with a rural Irish upbringing, I was always surrounded by animals and pets. When I travel I love to seek out wildlife, whether that is orangutans in Borneo, monkeys in Malaysia or polar bears in Manitoba, Canada. On Kangaroo Island, I spent a day with Kangaroo Island Odysseys (a tour that is available with Travelbag) on a small group wildlife tour. My guide Nikki, a nature photographer herself (her instagram account (@nikkiki73) is joyful) was extremely knowledgable and great company.
Nikki is a proud local and knows every tiny crevice of her island. It was a dull grey day, not the best day for sunbathing, but ideal for seeing wildlife who generally will hide in the shade in the sun, but frolic happily when the sun stays away. We started in a meadow packed with kangaroos and flush with purple flowers. It was magical. Then we headed to the beach for a mid morning snack and coffee, impressively Nikki had brought an Italian moka, knowing that two of her customers that morning were a young Italian couple on honeymoon.
Lunch was out in the open under a canopy in a wildlife reserve packed with koalas. Literally packed, we started slow but then hit a patch where there were multiple koalas in almost all the trees, and all low down. Kangaroo Island is an ideal place to see them as they have a large population (over 40,000, ten times more koalas than people). A male koala growled in a nearby tree watching us as we ate our lovely home cooked lunch (and can they growl), accompanied with some lovely Australian wine.
After lunch we went to Seal Bay Conservation Park, a beach and surrounding hinterland packed with Australian sea lions. Big and small, swift and slow, it was quite something. Their population They bellowed and they growled, and dragged themselves with speed in hot pursuit of young females or a splash in the water. On the way back to the hotel we spotted a spiky echidna at the side of the road. It was a special day, and I highly recommend it. Next time I would like to do their 2 day wildlife tour (of which the tour I did was day 1), or try their new Food & Wine Tours. They are ideal, Kangaroo Island is all the bettr for seeing it through local eyes and their local connection.
The Oyster Farm Shop in American River and some Pelican Spotting
The Kangaroo Island Farm Shop at American River is a lovely spot to try local seafood. Looking out over the water, although not quite on it, grab a seat by the window and chow down on abalini (small abalone) and Kangaroo Island Oysters, as I did. The abalini were new to me, they looked like an oyster that had met a clam, and they were gorgeous to eat. Seafood lovers will love it here but everyone will be happy as across the road there are often many pelicans. Although be warned, don’t gallop on to the beach to see them closer, as you may get stuck in the mud as I did.
A Vietnamese Food Truck by a Kangaroo Island Beach Run by a Former Vietnamese Nun
I don’t drive, which on Kangaroo Island can be a little tricky. It is important to either hire a car or do your research before you go and source a driver. I had planned to go to the restaurant Sunset Food & Wine for lunch (named for the spectacular views that it is over the water and the sunset) and I was going to get the Rockhopper bus there, a community bus service that you can book to pick you up at your hotel, and then follows a specified route. It got me close enough to explore a beach and enjoy a 45 minute walk to the restaurant after. Things like the Rockhopper can be real gems when you travel. I got to meet some locals going about their business and I also chatted to the bus driver. I am so glad that I did.
As I boarded and announced my stop, the bus driver exclaimed that I was lucky to be going to that particular beach on a Wednesday. Why? That was when the Vietnamese food truck was there. I stored the knowledge and sat down knowing that I would be going elsewhere for lunch instead. An email arrived shortly after. The restaurant was going to be closed because of a power cut, and I was set to be at this remote beach for quite a few hours until the Rockhopper returned to pick me up.
I walked towards the beach, there was no power anywhere, but I heard a distant hum. And like a mirage what appeared before me, only the Vietnamese food truck. They had a generator and so they were open for business. I had low expectations, I was on a remote road on a sparsely populated island after all. I was hungry and curious and I knew that the bus driver loved it, so I thought why not. Except there was nobody there. I could see there was food prepared and so I looked around, and then I waited. Eventually a man appeared and announced that it was his wife’s stall, and that he would fetch her. Ok!
Eventually Kim materialises. A Vietnamese former nun now cooking the food of her homeland on a quiet Kangaroo Island street once a week. I ask for her recommendations. Vietnamese caramel pork and bun rieu, all cooked from the heart and served with a smile. Also her homemade chilli sauce which was gorgeous (and a secret recipe). Finally spring rolls because the driver told me I had to order them, and he was right. Her food is sublime and I consider myself lucky to have found her on this weirdest of days.
Kim sits down to join me for her lunch at a small table on a bright plastic stool with her bun rieu. She speaks a little English but can’t understand much that I say at all. Her husband acts as our translator. They are lovely people. Just as I was finishing the driver turned up with the bus to pick up a takeaway for home before he sets off to deliver the Island post which he has in the back of the bus. I retire to a cheerful blue bench overlooking the beach and listening to the birds squawking while I read my book. Until it was time to board the Rockhopper once more and head to my island home.
Dinner at Sunset Food & Wine
I still wanted to dine at Sunset Food & Wine and so I rebooked for the next night and booked a driver to get me there. Patron chef Jack Ingram is from the UK and cooked in Michelin star restaurants like Le Champignon Sauvage here before relocating to Melbourne in 2010 and Kangaroo Island in 2015. At Sunset Food & Wine, Jack works with local producers to showcase the best of what the island has to offer, both on the plate and in the glass.
I arrived in good time for sundown, as you should when the restaurant is named for it, and took a seat where I would have a good view. A lovely meal followed in the charming low lit room watching the sun go down. The restaurant has a hat (Australian equivalent to a michelin star) but the food here is quite simple, local and good. There are cocktails made with the Kangaroo Island spirits and there are local wines available too.
I would recommend the local seafood, and be sure to try the lovely local gin while you are there. While on the island it is essential you try the honey too. Kangaroo Island has the only pure strain of Ligurian Honey bees in the world and the honey is very special, almost funky, eat it at every opportunity you get.
Kangaroo Island Travel Tips
If you are not on a tour, you need to plan how you will travel once you get to Kangaroo Island. Kangaroo Island doesn’t have much in the way of a public transport infrastructure (there is the Rockhopper, a local bus service, but it only runs some days). It is a big island, and there is much you will want to see, it is also great for a road trip. Long wide roads, some dusty, most lined with tall trees. Much of Kangaroo Island is rural and this is easiest done by car or by booking on a tour. If you don’t drive, hiring drivers can be difficult and expensive so plan well in advance to make sure you are covered when you get there. Travelbag have a range of tours and products in Kangaroo Island, including what I experienced here. Check them out.