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Kangaroo Island night life wilder than you know

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Christopher Klein
Globe Correspondent / April 13, 2008

KANGAROO ISLAND, Australia - Few places on earth are farther from Boston than this isle a short hop off the coast of South Australia. Even the South Pole is closer to the Hub. But it's the spectacular scenery and unique wildlife, more than the nearly 11,000-mile distance, that make you realize you're on the other side of the world.

Located 70 miles south of Adelaide, Kangaroo Island is free of sprawling resorts, traffic, and tourists. The only hordes you'll find here are koalas, wallabies, platypuses, fairy penguins, sea lions, echidnas, and, of course, kangaroos. Since the island remains free from introduced predators, such as foxes and dingoes, species thrive, providing visitors the opportunity to be immersed in an Australian wild kingdom.

Despite being nearly 100 miles across, the island has only a handful of small towns and a population of 4,200. In many areas there is no sign of humanity. You can drive for miles down long, straight stretches of road without passing another vehicle. But what else would you expect in a place where sheep outnumber people 300 to 1?

After a 45-minute ferry ride from the mainland, we arrived just after dark on the eastern end of the island in the tiny village of Penneshaw and set out to enjoy the night life. Unlike many island destinations, night life here doesn't revolve around bars and clubs. Here it's all about the animals.

Many of the island's species are most active at night. In fact, so many animals are out and about that driving after dark can be extremely dangerous and is not recommended.

One of the top nocturnal attractions is the Penneshaw Penguin Centre, which includes interpretive displays and a viewing platform that allows visitors to observe a colony of the smallest penguin species in the world in their natural environment.

While peering at the cute, foot-tall birds with the help of a specially filtered flashlight, it was hard not to feel like we were spying on the neighborhood happenings. After a long day at sea, they waddled out of the water and trekked up the embankment along the "penguin highway" to their homes.

The penguins live as couples in their burrows and spend a lot of time outside squawking and squabbling with neighbors. The males are responsible for "decorating" the burrows, and many of them painstakingly search for just the right twig or rock to bring home.

Walking back to our hotel, we came across penguins waddling around the empty streets of Penneshaw. A group of them was even congregating on the town's mini-golf course.

We spent so much time keeping our heads down looking for penguins that we almost missed the amazing sight above. The clouds had cleared to reveal the heavens of the Southern Hemisphere in their full glory. There was a blanket of stars everywhere we looked, and the Milky Way stretched across the night sky. There is so little air and light pollution here that you can see the bright glow of Adelaide glimmering above the horizon.

The dozens of motionless Australian sea lions we saw the next morning sprawled out on the white, sandy dunes of Seal Bay looked as though they were recovering from a hard night. Since they can be out at sea for three days at a time searching for food, they need the rest and relaxation.

Seal Bay, along the island's south coast, provides an extraordinary opportunity to get within yards of the sea lions, one of the rarest seal species in the world, under the close supervision of park rangers. If you visit at the end of the breeding season, you can watch young pups bodysurf and explore their new world.

West of Seal Bay, the Hanson Bay Wildlife Sanctuary provides a sure bet to see some koalas, a species that is not native to the island. Eighteen koalas were introduced here in the 1920s as a conservation measure, and the transplantation was a success. In fact, it was too much of a success. The koala population has swelled to an estimated 30,000 and is now decimating the island's eucalyptus trees.

Koalas are not easy for the untrained eye to spot, wedged in the forks of the gum trees lining the sanctuary's Koala Walk. We managed to spy about 10 of the cuddly creatures high above and one echidna - a strange-looking cross between an anteater and a porcupine - scurrying along the ground, periodically poking its snout into the soil in search of food. With its prickly body full of coarse hair and spines, the echidna looks like a walking pincushion.

The one animal we didn't see in abundance during the day was the kangaroo, a bit of a disappointment to us considering the island's name. Perhaps our kangaroo fixation had inspired unrealistic visions of mobs of the marsupials hopping across the unspoiled landscape.

But the daytime dearth of kangaroos had a simple explanation: They are nocturnal. The dead kangaroos we saw every few miles along the road were unfortunate reminders of that, reinforcing the perils of driving at night on the island.

Just as we were about to give up hope, our quest was fulfilled as we drove through Flinders Chase National Park, which occupies the entire western end of the island. Brown kangaroos began to emerge in the waning daylight to graze in the open grasslands. Some crouched as they foraged, using their powerful tails to slowly propel them forward. Others stood on their hind legs, ears sticking up at rapt attention.

Unfortunately, we couldn't linger at this quintessentially Australian scene. The sun was beginning to set, and Kangaroo Island night life was about to crank up again. It was time to get off the road.

Christopher Klein, a freelance writer in Waltham, can be reached at christopherjklein@gmail.com.

If You Go

How to get there

The nearest big city to Kangaroo Island is Adelaide. Regional Express has daily flights from Adelaide. Kangaroo Island SeaLink (sealink.com.au) operates passenger ferries between Penneshaw and the mainland town of Cape Jervis, approximately 90 minutes south of Adelaide. Rental cars are available on the island through Hertz and Budget, but only the major roads are paved. There are numerous organized tour companies, such as Exceptional Kangaroo Island (exceptionalkangarooisland.com) and Kangaroo Island Wilderness Tours (wildernesstours.com.au). SeaLink also provides island tours and vacation packages.

When to go

The seasons are reversed in Australia, with December and January the peak holiday time. The weather is warmest December to February. The winter months of June, July, and August tend to be rainier than the rest of the year, but daytime high temperatures average nearly 60 degrees.

Where to stay

Kangaroo Island Seafront Resort
49 North Terrace, Penneshaw

011-61-8-8553-1028

seafront.com.au

Near the SeaLink ferry terminal. Penguins wander the grounds at night. Rooms $130-$220.

Ozone Seafront Hotel
The Foreshore, Kingscote

011-61-8-8553-2011

ozonehotel.com

Centrally located, this hotel provides magnificent views of Nepean Bay. Rooms from $120.

Kangaroo Island Wilderness Retreat
Lot 1, South Coast Road, Karatta

011-61-8-8559-7275

kiwr.com

This eco-friendly accommodation is adjacent to the entrance to Flinders Chase National Park. Rooms from $140.

Where to eat

Sorrento's
49 North Terrace, Penneshaw

011-61-8-8553-1028

seafront.com.au/about/sorrentos.aspx

Informal dining inside the Kangaroo Island Seafront Resort. Entrees about $25.

Restaurant Bella
54 Dauncey St., Kingscote

011-61-8-8553-0400

Cozy restaurant offers pizzas, salads, and contemporary Mediterranean and Asian cuisine.

What to do

Penneshaw Penguin Centre
P.O. Box 635, Penneshaw

011-61-8-8553-1103

In winter, the center opens at 6 p.m. with tours at 7:30 and 8:30; in summer, 8, 8:30, and 9:30. Admission $8.50.

Seal Bay Conservation Park
011-61-8-8559-4207

parks.sa.gov.au

Guided tours from park rangers run 9 a.m.-4:15 p.m. Extended hours during the summer holiday period. Admission $13.50.

Flinders Chase National Park
011-61-8-8559-7220

parks.sa.gov.au

Day entry fee $7.50; closes at sunset.

Koala Walk
Hanson Bay Wildlife Sanctuary

South Coast Road, Karatta

011-61-8-8559-7344

hansonbay.com.au

A sure place to see koalas. Open 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Admission $1.75.

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