Splendour and Solitude on the Kangaroo Island Wilderness Trail

The newly opened Kangaroo Island Wilderness Trail is a five-day trek showcasing the remarkable beauty and untouched natural splendour of the island’s south west.

Standing on a deck that overlooks mallee scrub spread out along rising dunes, the low rumble of the ocean is still audible under a chorus of birdsong. Spiky yaccas are silhouetted against the dusk while roos and tammar wallabies sporadically thump through the bush.

Just a few minutes’ walk away is Sanderson Beach, a secluded cove only accessible to hikers. Though the water is bracing, a paddle through rock pools protected from the ocean’s surges reveals bright crabs and starfish.

We’ve just finished the third day of Kangaroo Island’s newly opened Wilderness trail, and already we’ve passed through stands of tall gums, along windswept coastal cliffs, up towering dunes and through open woodland thick with wildflowers. It’s hard to think of another hike that passes through a comparable array of environments in such a short distance. Though it’s spread over five leisurely days, this meandering arc through Flinders Chase National Park is just 61 kilometres long.

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The sun orchid is one of 85 species found on KI

South Australia’s second National Park was devastated by bushfires in 2007, and the scars are still visible on the first day of the walk. Interpretive signs explain how vital fire is to this ecosystem. As the trail winds its way through the eucalypt woodland, it’s rarely possible to see more than fifty metres of path ahead of us, creating the sense that we’re far from civilisation already.

The track then becomes considerably more exposed as it passes along coastal bluffs, with the Southern Ocean stretching off into the distance. It’s easy to feel as if we’re alone at the edge of the world until we reach Maupertuis Bay and see other hikers’ footprints in the sand. A lone sea eagle circles overhead and oystercatchers wheel off at our approach. Leaving the beach, we ascend to the highest point of the walk and take in breathtaking views of the Cape de Couedic lighthouse and the Casuarina islets beyond.

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Visitors since Matthew Flinders have observed KI’s  abundance of wildlife

At 14km, the second day is the longest section of the hike – without the distractions of modern life that leaves plenty of hours in the day. It’s easy to fill them with optional side trails to iconic sites like Admiral’s Arch and Remarkable Rocks, as well as to almost unknown beaches that are just as spectacular. Tour coaches regularly stop by the more popular sites, but when those visitors climb back aboard it once again feels as if we have the island to ourselves.

The Wilderness Trail is a bushwalk, which means sleeping in tents and cooking over a camp stove unless you fork out for a private tour, but it’s one that has been carefully designed to be as accessible as possible even for novice hikers. It’s billed as “one of Australia’s great walks” and is a wonderful introduction to the world of multi-day hiking.

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Night descends on the well-designed Tea Tree Campground

The campsites are well-designed and the tent platforms are spread out at all but the first campground, where thick underbrush separates them into small groups, maximising privacy. Cooking shelters with taps and food preparation benches mean that even when the weather turns we can enjoy a meal in relative comfort. Lights blink on in the long drops when it starts to get dark, making midnight toilet trips infinitely more pleasant.

By the time we spend our final night at the gorgeous Tea Tree Campground, it’s easy to wish that we had a few more days of walking ahead of us. A meandering creek separates the facilities from the tent sites and we’re fortunate enough to spot an echidna snuffling through the dense woodland behind us. A fire pit encourages us to savour the night, while banjo frogs strike their twangy notes over the soft calls of boobook owls and the stone curlews’ unsettling cry. Other unidentified grunts, whistles and shrieks populate the night air, reminding us of what we’re soon to leave behind.

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A Rosenberg’s goanna basks on the track

The final day is a short one, skirting large lagoons as we pass under beautiful old gums harbouring koalas while goannas sun themselves on the path below. We reach the trail’s conclusion at Kelly Hill Caves in plenty of time for lunch and an adventure caving tour.

Our dirty hiking gear proves perfect for clambering over rock formations and slithering on our bellies through tight passages. It’s an exciting geology lesson but once we’re back in the daylight, the necessity of a warm shower is immediately apparent.

The drive back to the charming Cape du Coedic lighthouse keeper’s cottage is short, but a strikingly different experience from our previous mode of transport. It’s nice to have the packs off our backs, but from the car, the birdsong that soundtracked our entire hike is suddenly absent, the native orchids unnoticeable and animals that used to watch us curiously now bound away at our approach.

Kangaroo Island is a haven for native wildlife, and there is no better way to experience that than on foot.

kangarooislandwildernesstrail.sa.gov.au

Photos: Jen St Jack

The Adelaide Review was a guest of Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources.

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