The lighter side

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Bruce Holmes discovers a holiday of splendid isolation on Kangaroo Island.

"Whoa! Don't look down."

My first thought as I step onto the balcony of the lighthouse at Cape Willoughby on Kangaroo Island is a sane one. But I can't help but survey the light-keepers' cottages below, the dangerously rocky shore and the waters of the Backstairs Passage - its shoals responsible for many shipwrecks in bygone days.

It took 18 men two years using star chisels and gunpowder to cut the granite by hand and construct the lighthouse - the first built in South Australia - that began operating in 1852.

Life for early keepers and their families was harsh and isolated. The original cottages were nearer to the landing where supplies came ashore. But by 1881 light-keepers were complaining that the half-mile uphill walk to the lighthouse was too far at night in wind and rain. After all, the winds blow at 50km/hr or more here on 136 days of the year.

New cottages were built in 1927 and these are now heritage accommodation. We stay in Seymour Cottage, which sleeps up to eight people. It's in the old Australian style with rooms coming off a central hallway and a big airy kitchen.

On a short walk we meet a big old kangaroo and realise how far we've come from the bustle of city life.

Next day, driving across the Dudley Peninsula, we see more kangaroos hopping through fields - not surprising on the island that Matthew Flinders named after them in 1802, relieved at having found a supply of fresh meat.

We break our journey for a guided tour at Seal Bay, its beach being home to a colony of sea-lions. Young pups frolic at the water's edge, mothers rest after fishing trips at sea and big bulls keep a watchful eye on everyone.

In the early afternoon we stop again at Kelly Hill Caves, where the guide leads us down into a world of stalagmites, stalactites and delicate, hook-shaped helictites.

Then after pausing at the Flinders Chase Visitors Centre for supplies, we reach our second lighthouse at Cape du Couedic, on the island's south-west tip, a promontory discovered by the French explorer Nicolas Baudin. Made from local sandstone, the beautiful tower with the red-painted top was completed in 1909.

This place is so isolated, it was originally inaccessible by land, with supplies arriving by ship at Weirs Cove. But for us the far-away feeling is great. Staying in Karatta Lodge, one of three comfortable stone cottages with slate roofs built for the head-keeper, assistants and their families, we are able to unwind. There's no TV and no mobile phone reception. It's time for the lost art of conversation, reading and playing cards.

In an old book written by the son of an assistant-keeper, there's an account of life there in 1933, from encounters with snakes, doctor's instructions relayed by phone from Rocky River and stuffing newspaper into gaps in the skirting board to keep the wind out.

Nearby, boardwalks provide access to viewing points on the coast where we watch waves crash thunderously onto the Casuarina Islets, driven by westerly winds from the Great Australian Bight, and see seals in raging seas where we would surely perish.

At Admirals Arch, a natural rock formation eroded by the sea, a colony of New Zealand fur seals relaxes on the rocks, one seal tries to make its way up the hillside towards us. Depending which way the wind's blowing the stench can be a shocker.

Leaving the cottage at Cape du Couedic it's only a short drive to the Remarkable Rocks.

Soon we're rolling again, heading north-west via the West End and Playford Highways. The latter seems an ironic title when it becomes yet another unsealed road. We pass a sign in French advertising a cabin - Bout du Monde translates as "end of the world."

We push on to the last of our lighthouses, Cape Borda, which is short and square instead of a tall round tower. Being on a cliff, there was no need for height so the government built it more cheaply in 1858. It's one of only four square lighthouses in Australia. Rivalry is evident when our guide explains that this is the only lighthouse on the island with a beam shining out to sea. The others, he says, are just beacons flashing on and off.

We stay in Flinders Light Lodge, an assistant-keeper's cottage built in 1937. Near dusk a mother and young grey kangaroo come looking for feed and then a Tammar wallaby appears.

On our last morning we stop a few kilometres down the road at the Harvey's Return cemetery where 16 members of light-keepers' families lie buried, including the first keeper Captain Woodward. It's a harsh reminder of the isolation experienced by those who worked to keep others safe.

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South Australia Experiences is published by Fairfax Media in conjunction with South Australia Tourism Commission. Details are correct at the time of publication and may be subject to change. All writers travelled courtesy of SATC.