The flight from Adelaide to Kangaroo Island is with Emu Airways. That’s enough to make a girl think. Who would name an airline after a bird that does not fly?

Because the planes are small they weigh your baggage and then they weigh you. This is a bit discomforting for the fully ballooned traveller. I confess to weighing in heavier than the baggage limit of 10 kilos. And then you notice that among the baggage are 10 cartonloads of chickens. I figured they weren’t emu chicks.

Flying is one of two ways to get to the island from the state capital, Adelaide. The other is by land to Cape Jervis, and then catch a Sealink ferry across the tantalisingly named Backstairs Passage, the 15km strait between the island and the mainland. Or perhaps I should just say from Australia, because the locals have an intriguing habit of calling the mainland Australia, as if they are not in it.

KI (pron. kay eye) has features that mark it as different. Separated from the mainland for some 9,000 years, it has some animal, bird and plant species endemic and others that developed special features or survived while counterparts on the mainland died out. Aboriginal Australians had not lived there for some 2,500 years by the time Europeans arrived. Perhaps they decamped to the mainland because there was more water. That’s what the English did when they founded the South Australia colony. They settled at what is now Kingscote, but then moved across Backstairs Passage to what is now greater Adelaide.

If you are into looking at Aussie animals in the wild, and leaving a small footprint, this is the place. KI’s got the Aussie icons -“ kangaroos, wallabies, koalas, goannas, platypuses and echidnas.

And not emus, really: there are a few, kept, mainland emus on the grounds at Emu Ridge Eucalyptus Distillery, but the native dwarf emus died out in the 1830s. There is no plan to encourage the emus because of what happened with the koalas. Introduced in the 1920s, they had no enemies and have ended up nearly eating themselves out of gum leaves: leading to deportation programs to the mainland and a wee bit of desexing of the wee fuckers.

But the dwarf emus left their mark. When the French explored the island, circumnavigating it before the English, they gave it place names which still mark the south and west coasts. One of those was Ravine Des Casoars, because the French mistook the dwarf emus for cassowaries.

The French-named bays of the south coast are the best place to see the island’s star attractions, the seals. Seals with ears. The Australian sea-lion (a seal, not a lion) lolls around on the beach at Seal Bay, poking whiskers at nosy tourists. (Entry to the beach is with an accredited ranger; this is a conservation park.) These seals have an irregular pupping cycle of about one and a half years.

Further west, at the Cape du Couedic (which sounds a bit like quidditch but not quite), New Zealand fur seals hang around the rocks. Do they pong! And their piss turns the rockpool water pink. This is a wild spot with winds blowing up from the cold Southern Ocean. Humans can walk around the cliff on wooden walkways.

After you’ve spent the day walking along a wilderness trail or checking out the tweely-named, Dali-esque Remarkable Rocks, there is always the nightlife to look forward to. The English weren’t the only ones to pick the protected bays of the north coast, with wonderful names like Hog Bay and Antechamber Bay, to have a colony. Before them were the fairy penguins, and they’re still there. Little penguins, if your prefer. These penguins have well-established colonies called Penneshaw and Kingscote, coincidentally the names of the humans’ settlements. At night, after a hard day’s fishing, the penguins waddle ashore to their nests. They have provided wooden boardwalks for the humans, so that the newcomers don’t get in way of the daily (and nightly) life.

I can’t duck down the Backstairs Passage without quickly mentioning the local produce that is special to the island. They produce wine (little of which gets to other Australian states), olive oil (including some from feral olive trees), cheese (from the sheep), and honey (from an Italian bee, which is now protected). Also crayfish. Also eucalypt products (not for eating, apart from eucalypt drops).

And rainwater. Whoever would have thought of that? It tastes a bit like what comes out of an Adelaide tap, which is uncanny. Makes you wonder why those early English settlers bothered to move to the mainland.

The writer travelled with assistance from the South Australian Tourism Commission. Story courtesy of the Gay Australia Guide.

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