If you long to see the rugged side of South Australia and experience impromptu animal encounters, Kangaroo Island awaits. Australia’s third largest island, Kangaroo Island is home to seals and sea lions, echidnas and koalas, kangaroos and wallabies. Animals in their natural habitat. Depending on the season, you might even spot penguins, dolphins, and whales in the wild. More than one third of Kangaroo Island is protected in natural preserves, so there is wildlife at every turn, and very few humans to share it with. Contributor Heidi Gollub took her family for a visit this summer and shares the highlights of their trip to the island.
Best Things to do on Kangaroo Island
At 12 years old, I took a memorable school trip to Kangaroo Island. For a week, my fellow seventh graders and I stayed in cabins on the quiet island, visiting natural wonders and meeting new animals each day. I held an echidna and climbed through unusual rock formations. I saw more koalas and kangaroos than I had ever laid eyes on in three years of living in Adelaide, the nearby capital of South Australia. At night, millions of stars lit up the sky. Kangaroo Island is so remote that although we were a mere 70 miles southwest of Adelaide, it felt like we were worlds away. The trip made an impression on me. So much so that I was drawn back to visit with my own children, 30 years later.
How to Get to Kangaroo Island, South Australia
Kangaroo Island is tricky to visit if you are pressed for time. From Adelaide, the trip by car is nearly four hours, which includes a 45 minute ferry ride. The drive from one end of the island to the other is another two hours. So, with no stops at all, you’re already looking at a 12 hour roundtrip adventure.
Driving in Australia
If you choose to drive and are using a rental car, be careful with the fine print in your contract. Many car rental companies do not allow you to take their cars on the ferry. If you have rented a car that you are planning to drive to Kangaroo Island, be sure to ask. For the ferry, the roundtrip fare is about $200 per car, plus $80 per adult and $58 per child. In other words, not cheap. Depending on the number in your party, taking a tour might be a comparable option.
Tours of Kangaroo Island
There are a number of tour companies that will pick you up early in the morning at your hotel in Adelaide and have you back there later that same day. Day trip options include taking a coach/ferry roundtrip, a coach/ferry trip to the island with a flight back, or a tour with roundtrip flights. The most affordable is the first option: taking the bus all the way. These start at about $215 per person for a 16 hour day. Tours with flights are more expensive, but shorter, getting you back to your hotel at a more reasonable time. Some tours also include meals, which is a nice perk.
Flying to Kangaroo Island
Flights from Adelaide to Kangaroo Island are only half an hour long. While not the cheapest, this seemed like the most painless option to me. We paid $280 per roundtrip ticket. My family of seven flew from Adelaide on Rex Regional Express, I rented a minivan from the Hertz counter at the tiny Kingscote airport, and we were off. We explored the island on our own for two days before flying back. We were able to see absolutely everything on my list without a tour guide and I found it to be a very relaxing two days of tooling around the desolate island.
How to Travel Around Kangaroo Island
There is no public transportation on Kangaroo Island. There are also no taxis, no Uber, no Lyft, and as far as I could tell, no bicycle or scooter rentals. If you fly into Kingscote, your only option is to rent a car. If that thought makes you nervous, let me reassure you. When visiting in August, we had the roads to ourselves. I only had to brake twice in two days: once for a koala crossing the road and once for an echidna. Just remember to stay to the left and get to your destination before the sun sets. Rental cars are not allowed on the road after dark. You will also want to download Google maps before you go because wi-fi is hard to come by and cell service is non-existent in some parts of the island.
What to Do on Kangaroo Island
You could stay a full week in Kangaroo Island and not run out of unique areas to explore. But, if you’re just looking to hit the highlights, these were our favorite destinations.
Seal Bay Conservation Preserve
A quick 45-minute drive from Kingscote and you can be on the Seal Bay boardwalk, a stone’s throw away from sea lions, seals, and their pups. Stay awhile and walk around. The longer you linger, the more animals you’ll discover. Seals like to hide under brush to rest so you may not notice them at first.
The boardwalk self-guided tour is $16 per adult and $10 per child. To get down on the beach, closer to the seals and sea lions, you will need to pay for a 45-minute guided tour which costs $35.50 per adult or $20 per child. While it’s a nice idea to go down to the beach, and we enjoyed having a personal guide with a vast knowledge of the local fauna, I’d be hard pressed to say the guided tour was worth so much extra money.
Even while on the beach, tours don’t allow guests near the animals, so you don’t get much closer to them than you can on the boardwalk. But, the kids enjoyed the tour and we did get some fun video of playful sea lions touching noses on the beach.
Following the coastal road, Vivonne Bay is 25 minutes west of Seal Bay, and equally stunning. Sit by the beach, or wander around the rocky seaside terrain and soak up the beauty. This is a magical corner of the island. Fierce waves crash into the rocky shoreline and spray the flora sprouting up through orange lichen-covered rocks (and possibly you, if you get too close). On a day with clear blue sky, #VivonneBay will deliver the Instagram gold you’re looking for. Stay awhile and you might even be lucky enough to spot a southern right whale swimming by. We weren’t that lucky, but according to Instagram, it happens.
Remarkable Rocks are the crown jewels of Flinders Chase National Park, at the western tip of the island. Enormous granite boulders composed of black mica, bluish quartz, and pinkish feldspar loom above the violent waves below. Here too you will discover the orange lichen that makes the rock formations so striking. Follow a long, winding boardwalk down to the rocks and you will be able to wander through them, under them, on top of them, and again, get some pretty incredible photos. There is no cost to visit the rocks themselves, but you will need to pay to enter Flinders Chase. This can be done online in advance, or by stopping in the visitor center. Day entry is $11 per adult and $3 per child.
Also located in Flinders Chase National Park, Admirals Arch is not to be missed. Follow the zigzagging boardwalk down to the water’s edge to see a former cave covered in stalactites, which is home to a New Zealand fur seal colony. The natural landmark is impressive to be sure, but the seals are the real attraction here. Seal pups play nearby and swim in the ocean under the arch. My kids loved seeing the adorable pups, and I had to remind them several times to keep their distance.
Flinders Chase Visitor Center
We stopped by the visitor center for lunch at the café and had a nice surprise. Koalas! There were several of them in the trees in front of the center. Whenever we spotted green droppings on the ground, we could look up and find a happy koala chomping on gym leaves in the branches above. A few times, they even climbed down the trunk to walk to a new tree, so we got a little show.
Things to Consider When Planning Your Trip to Kangaroo Island
Stock up on Supplies
If you are going to spend more than one day on Kangaroo Island, you’ll need to plan ahead. Restaurants are few and far between, and many are only open seasonally. We visited in winter, so eating out was a challenge. The most affordable place to buy food and gas is Penneshaw, on the northeast corner of the island. After renting our car at the airport in Kingscote, we headed there first to stock up on groceries at the IGA. These groceries ended up filling in for several meals, when we couldn’t find dinner before dark, or breakfast the next morning. They weren’t cheap, but we sure were glad to have them.
Plan for Short Days
If you visit in winter months, consider that the sun sets as early as 5 p.m. and you need to be wherever you are staying by then. Rental cars are not allowed on the roads at night, in order to protect the wildlife. We had great difficulty finding our remote cabin with no cell service (and faulty Google maps), so this took us longer than we were expecting. But, I highly recommend staying out in the wilderness for a true Aussie experience. My kids loved playing in the bush surrounding our cabin and we awoke to see wallabies grazing in our front yard!
Pack for Winter, no Matter the Season
Be sure to pack warm clothes and rain gear. There is no land between Kangaroo Island and Antarctica, so the wind has bite. We visited in August, which is winter, but even friends who have visited in the summer months have said the wind on Kangaroo Island can be brutal. Bundle up and have fun!
If you’re looking for other places in Australia to spot wildlife, you’ll want to read this post from Waking Up Wild!
* All photos taken by Heidi Gollub.