Sunday, October 25, 2009

We woke up early, but not early enough to grab breakfast before heading downstairs for our transfer to the airport. In the lobby, we met Jim and Deb Thompson, who were going on the same tour as us. We also saw another couple who also seemed a good candidate for our tour, but their car came before we could figure out whether they'd be with us as well. Our car came, for whatever reason, 10 minutes after the other two cars, even though it was all through the same company. It didn't end up mattering, as we got to the airport in plenty of time, and we were even able to grab some food.

The flight was extremely short, basically just up and down. Kangaroo Island lies just off of South Australia, near Adelaide. At its closest, it is only 13km offshore from the mainland. It used to be connected, until melting ice from the last ice age caused a rise in sea level about 9,000 years ago. When this happened, there were Aboriginal people living on Kangaroo Island, but sometime after the sea rise and before "modern times" they all left the island or died out. 

The island was named by British explorer Matthew Flinders in 1802. Interestingly, most of the island was mapped by French explorer Nicolas Baudin right after Flinders named the island, so many of the areas on the island have French names as opposed to English. Like Lord Howe Island, Kangaroo Island served as a base for sealers in the early 1800s. Nowadays, there are less than 5000 people living on the island.

One quarter of the island is conserved, in National Parks, Conservation Parks, and Wilderness Protection Areas. Being separated from the mainland has led Kangaroo Island to have a different plant and animal makeup from the mainland.  For example, there are no foxes or rabbits, and they are not allowed in. Similarly, and interestingly, Kangaroo Island is famous for its honey and for being the oldest bee sanctuary in the world. Ligurian bees were imported from the Italian province of Liguria in 1881, and Kangaroo Island now has the only pure strain in the world. As a consequence, the importation to Kangaroo Island of bees or any honey products is prohibited.

The Kangaroo Island Kangaroo, Rosenberg's Sand Goanna, Southern Brown Bandicoot, Tammar Wallaby, Common Brushtail Possum, Short-beaked Echidna and New Zealand Fur Seal are native to the island, as well as six bat and frog species. The sole endemic vertebrate species is a small marsupial carnivore called the Kangaroo Island Dunnart. The Koala, Common Ringtail Possum and Platypus have been introduced and still survive there.

The Koalas have actually survived a little too well. They have eaten most of the Manna Gum trees on the island, to the point the trees are currently at risk of local extinction.  To curb the Koala population, Koalas have been surgically sterilized or transferred to suitable empty mainland sites. Even this hasn't curbed the population, however, so there is discussion of culling the Koalas, which would probably have already been done if not for being a public relations nightmare.

We got picked up by our tour operator, Exceptional Kangroo Island, who we had read good things about when looking for a tour. Getting out of the airport was a piece of cake. There were just the six of us, who coincidentally had all had been staying at the same hotel in Adelaide, and a single lady from the UK. Just outside the airport we went through a wooded areas that was supposedly good for spotting koalas. Sure enough, we did see a couple of koalas. Compared to other wildlife, photographing koalas is easy, a they are very lazy, especially during the day, meaning that they are going nowhere.

We stopped at an old school house near the airport for a morning snack and tea/coffee, which the guides referred to as a "cuppa." It was interesting to read the requirements for the teachers back in the day (female teachers couldn't get married), as well as looking at the old maps from when the country was so much less inhabited. After our cuppa, we drove up to the north shore for a minute, then went into the bush for a nature walk. On the way to the nature walk, we saw a couple of kangaroos, but they ran (hopped) off in a hurry. Right at the beginning of the nature walk, our guide Brian spotted an echidna and told us "okay, I'm done." Echidnas are very rare, and they are very shy as well. They are related to platypuses, one of only two mammals that lay eggs. They look a bit like a porcupine, with quills that they use for defense. They go around eating ants and other insects, and generally just keep to themselves. We were very lucky to find one. On the same walk, we saw some wallabies, a bunch of brightly colored birds (lorikeets and rosellas), and some giant ants.

We had lunch in a field out in the middle of nowhere. While Brian and Kate were putting lunch together, we did a little walk and saw some more of the rosellas, with them staying a bit more still this time. Lunch was good, with fried fish (which Crystal liked) and some fried cheese, plus salad, bread, and wine. After lunch, we saw another echidna, making that two for the day.

We started making our way to Seal Bay on the south end of the island. Once there, we saw a decent number of sea lions, including a giant male that we inadvertently walked directly over - he was sleeping under the boardwalk stairs. The Southern Ocean looked nice, but not like anything that we would want to go in. There were whitecaps everywhere, and it was very windy, but the ocean itself was a nice steel blue color and the coastline was attractive as well.

After leaving Seal Bay, we started driving back to the various hotels and chatting with one another. The single lady from the UK, named Lou, worked at a high-end travel agency, and starting talking a bit about the business. Justin was interested in talking to her about this, as his co-workers have told him several times that he should become an agent - hopefully this isn't just something said to get him to leave. On the drive, we saw a couple of kangaroos on the side of the road, but again they ran off shortly after seeing our van.

We got to our hotel, the Kangaroo Island Lodge, a little after 6. We had just a couple minutes before dinner at 6:30, and then just a couple minutes after dinner before our nocturnal tour at 8:00. We, plus the Thompsons and one couple from another hotel, took a van over to the East Coast to check out a Fairy Penguin rookery. Fairy Penguins are the smallest penguin species, with full grown adults being just over a foot tall. We heard all about them from Lexi on our Antarctic cruise, and when we saw them ourselves we kept hearing her voice in our head. The Fairy Penguins are a nice dark blue color, but unfortunately they looked red to us, as no flash photography or flashlights were allowed, only a red-colored light that didn't irritate their eyes. Pictures didn't turn out at all, but some of the video was halfway decent.

The numbers of fairy penguins have really declined recently, as New Zealand Fur Seals have made their way to the waters around KI, and they eat Fairy Penguins (the Sea Lions do not).


On the drive back, we stopped to check out a couple fields, and there were kangaroos and wallabies everywhere. We had never really considered what kangaroos eat, but at least on KI they are grazers, eating on the fields intended for farmers' sheep, and eating crops planted by the farmers. This is why the kangaroos are so skittish during the day - they are often shot by farmers sick of them. We got back to the hotel around 10, and were asleep in no time.