Close Encounters With Wild Critters On Australia's Kangaroo Island

Naturalists' haven draws bush walkers, scuba divers, and birders

JUST a hop and a couple of jumps from South Australia's capital of Adelaide is Kangaroo Island, Australia's own Noah's Ark.

During my previous weeks in this country I had been chased from the waters of the Great Barrier Reef by a shark, dragged along a golf course in the basket of a hot-air balloon outside Sydney, and suffered quietly through a seemingly endless train ride through the outback with a bunch of boisterous, hard-drinking, loud-singing pensioners.

But what I really wanted to see was more of those bizarre Dr. Seussian creatures that populate this vast, sprawling upside-down continent.

From Adelaide, Kangaroo Island is 6-1/2 hours by ferry, or just a half hour by plane. As time was my nemesis, I opted for the latter.

Although dwarfed by the main continent, Kangaroo Island is not all that small (about 40 miles by 90 miles) and ''offers all of what people expect to see in Australia,'' I was told by a chap in Adelaide.

A laundry list of inexpensive lodgings, including campgrounds, motels, trailer parks, hostels, and farm stays, adds to its appeal. Accommodations will suit all but the most sophisticated tourist. No hoity-toity high-rise hotels here.

Kangaroo Island beckons bush walkers, bird watchers, scuba divers, and all nature-loving, binocular-toting blokes. The population of 4,200 Homo sapiens (mostly farmers, sheep ranchers, and some fishers) runs a far second to the 1.2 million sheep here.

The rest of the inhabitants are indigenous critters consisting of some 243 species of birds, along with wallabies, platypuses, spiny anteaters (also know as echidnas), brush-tail possums, sea lions, snakes, koalas, and a host of others, including a flock of Cape Barren geese, a species recovering from near-extinction.

And, oh yes, kangaroos. Countless 'roos.

In fact, the island got its name in a gesture of gratitude after a full-bellied English explorer, Capt. Matthew Flinders, and his crew dined on 31 of the unsuspecting marsupials after landing here in 1802. (The kangaroos, as noted above, have recovered remarkably since this first 'roo-becue.)

As a home base I chose Wanderers Rest, a modest, comfortable accommodation for adult guests and children over 12 tucked among the trees overlooking the American River (actually not a river at all, but an inland arm of the sea). Aside from its prime location and wonderful view, the owners' son, Craig Wickham, is a certified naturalist and guide.

Finding a guide isn't much of a problem with a little advance notice. Many locals moonlight as guides. And as Mr. Wickham was booked when I arrived, I hired Bill Addington (part-time guide, full-time liquid-waste disposer) for a few hours my first afternoon. Mr. Addington knew every pothole and pelican on the island.

We covered the shore routes in Addington's car, stopping at Pelican Lagoon to photograph the indigenous black swans and in Christmas Cove to watch pelicans dive for their lunch. The pristine beaches here lure swimmers, sun worshippers, and sport fishers, but the rough coastline has taken less kindly to ships. Records tell the sad tales of more than 40 ships that have gone down in these turbulent waters.

One beach where bathers give way to blubber is Seal Bay. Here a colony of about 500 Australian sea lions have the sand and surf to themselves. They don't mind posing for pictures, but for people, no swimming is allowed.

The island's surrounding waters have protected most indigenous animals here from the continent's voracious dingoes as well as species introduced to the mainland such as red foxes and rabbits. Rabbits actually did manage to get a toehold on the island once, but were soon eliminated by the local goannas - a smaller cousin of the infamous Komodo dragon.

Wherever you are, you're never far from the local wildlife. Echidnas - pint-sized spiny anteaters - pop out of the bush and scurry along the washboard dirt roads just about anywhere. (On my train trip across Australia, I'd met a Texan who had come up with a scheme to import and breed the prickly echidnas to eliminate the fire ants in his home state.)

Three-foot-long goannas are often seen snoozing in the sun dreaming of those rabbits of long ago. And ''Koala Crossing'' signs are placed along streets in populated areas alerting motorists to be on the lookout for Australia's most cuddly looking creatures.

At lunch time we caught up with Larry Turner, a local character who makes his living doing odd jobs in the bush.

''Don't mind sharing me tucker with any of Bill's mates, if you like yabbies,'' he said with a welcoming grin.

''He's happy to share his meal - if you like crayfish - with any friend of mine,'' Bill translated. Mr. Turner threw some crayfish in a large can and boiled up a batch of the crustaceans. They were consumed with gusto.

Later in the evening, back at Wanderers Rest, Craig Wickham was rounding up some visitors for a tour of the local night life. No, not discos - penguins.

Armed with a flashlight, light jacket, and sneakers, we headed for a nearby beach where a formally attired party of fairy penguins was returning home. We crouched silently as the little flightless birds, each no bigger than a Quaker Oats box, returned from the sea with their bellies full of fish to feed their peeping chicks.

The other nighttime activity here is strapping yourself into a four-wheel-drive vehicle and chasing bouncing kangaroos through a local farmer's pasture - with his permission, of course.

Next day it was off to Flinders Chase National Park - largest of 18 parks on the island - where you can get up close and personal with any wildlife you happened to miss. Even before you've unpacked your lunch, emus, wallabies, and 'roos are lining up for dribs of your sandwich.

And if you missed a koala, you're sure to see them here. At midday they're snoozing quietly high in the elbow of their favorite gum tree, often with a little one clinging to a mother's neck.

''Come on, show us your baby,'' coaxed one elderly lady. ''Come on, dear; come on now.'' The woman was holding her granddaughter in one hand and an Instamatic in the other Finally, the little mother cooperated and the tiniest little baby peeked from under its mother's arm. ''I've seen them in zoos, but never in the wild,'' said the excited grandmother, dropping her granddaughter and snapping away. We saw more than a dozen koalas in the park.

ALTHOUGH the wildlife is certainly the drawing card on the island, the magnificent beaches, quiet coves, clear bays, steep cliffs (some topped with a lighthouse), and great patches of brilliant flora were a pleasant surprise bonus.

Along with the abundant flora and fauna on the island, two magnificent geological formations must be seen. The first, Admiral's Arch at Flinders Chase, is a natural bridge that sweeps over the churning waves and granite boulders, forming a magnificent stony frame.

Perhaps even more spectacular are the aptly named Remarkable Rocks. These land-locked chunks of stone look like gigantic wedges of old Swiss cheese.

Kangaroo Island is not a pat-the-bunny kind of place. The animals here are, for the most part, cooperative and unafraid, but wild nonetheless. You're seeing them on their territory and on their terms. You're not going to get to cuddle a koala or pat a platypus. No boxing kangaroos here, or performing parrots and cockatoos. If you're looking for a zoo, Sydney has one of the best.

With its endless outback and coastline, Australia is a land tailored for the adventure traveler and nature lover rather than the pampered tourist. Any guidebook or travel agent can give you a choice of trips catered to your interests.

It can, however, be a long time between emus in the outback. Kangaroo Island solves that problem. It sifts through a lot of sand to give you some of the best of Australia's wondrous wildlife.

* For more information, contact: South Australia Tourism Commission, 1600 Dove Street, Suite 215, Newport Beach, Calif. 92660. Telephone: 800-546-6543.

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