The dark, handsome Jock is looking up at me with his big brown eyes and long lashes, and I can't help but fall in love. They say love is blind, but even his quirks I find comical; he nibbles my ears and nose, and he kind of smells a bit like curry. But that doesn't stop me from scratching behind his ears in glee while his long tongue tries, in vain, to reach my face.
I'm really struggling to tear myself away while being called to my three-course dinner. Jock cannot join us, for he is a six-month-old Kangaroo Island joey who's not allowed inside, even though he tries his damndest. He actually belongs to our hosts Tam and Tamsin Wendt of Oceanview Eco Villas, who "adopted" him after he was found in the pouch of his mother who was hit by a car.
Jock is just one of the many perks attached to this exquisite accommodation at Kangaroo Island's north-facing Redbanks, which gives more than just a nod to the island's iconic Southern Ocean Lodge (vale). While the two all-inclusive villas operate on a smaller scale and can't offer the experiences the award-winning accommodation did (such as access to a wine cellar and chauffeured tours), it does have the advantage of seclusion in a relatively underrated part of the island.
Here in late March, we're informed this is the best time to visit; long still days, blue skies and warm sun scream endless summer. By way of introduction to the island, we head to Seal Bay and watch the roly-poly- "sausages of the sea" slumber on the sand, while pups play in the water and jump clear out of it. It's the only place on Earth where you can join 800-odd sea lions on the beach. Escorted by a ranger, we're told they used to be all over the island until they were hunted for oil and skins, and the population never recovered. We watch in awe as one emerges from the dunes and rolls comically towards the beach, stopping once for a yawn.
We spot more seals at Vivonne Bay, where the scrubby landscape randomly breaks into spiny sand dunes. Formed during the last ice age 17,000 years ago, the best way to experience the Little Sahara Desert is tearing around the hills in a dune buggy, offering glimpses of the beach and beyond. Tour operators Little Sahara Adventure Centre own some of the land, including a viewpoint which takes in the island's dramatic southern coastline. Touring through the scrub, we see promising signs of land recovering from bushfire. The fires came uncomfortably close, but it steered clear of Eleanor River, which now is the island's most densely populated area for koalas. We spy several sharing a tree, who stop snoozing to glare unblinkingly at us while our guide Tahlia explains that before the bushfires, they were used to seeing half a dozen in one tree. Good for tourism, but bad news for the trees.
Satiated from wildlife, it is time to satiate hunger pangs at Vivonne Bay's charming general store, home to the island's famous line-caught King George Whiting burger, which is served in a ciabatta roll, piled high with fresh salad, topped with tartare and served with a slice of lemon and a bucket chips that could feed a small army.
You could spend a day on its pristine beaches here at Vivonne or further east on Pennington, but it's worth investigating some of its culinary pursuits, too. There's a brewery, cidery, and produce from the island's ligurian bee population. Over on the island's Dudley Peninsula, two destination wineries are drawing visitors off the beaten track. Dudley Wines perched on a hill looking directly down the Fleurieu Peninsula, has some of the best views on the island (and you can tee off into boats instead of actual holes from the deck); while James Halliday has given a nod to off-grid False Cape Wines. They opened just before the bushfires and COVID hit, but now are "busier than they ever dreamed". Just outside of Kingscote, Kangaroo Island Spirits have experienced the most successful three months in the business. The oldest distillery in South Australia and part of Tasmania's Lark family, their distillery has major plans for expansion. From their "gin garden" you can do tasting paddles and sip on vivid gin-based cocktails.
"Kangaroo Island had incredible support from South Australians," says KIS manager Kylie Bamfield. "At first we thought we couldn't compete - we're hard to get to. Tourists would go to Coonawarra instead. But good natured South Aussies jumped on board and spent money, so we've been really fortunate."
Dudley Wines and its view over the Investigator Strait to Fleurieu Peninsula. Photo: SATC
With all these unexpectedly cool things to while away time on the island, one could hardly blame visitors for not venturing south-west to Flinders Chase National Park to witness the island's iconic Remarkable Rocks and Admiral's Arch. The tell-tale signs of empty parks allocated to buses say more about the hit the island has taken from COVID than the bushfires, which makes it more important than ever to visit now before they return in droves. But more remarkable than those famous rocks is how quickly the vast scrubland is regenerating. Black spears arise but they're emerging from a promising sea of green, and it's a relief to behold.
It's tempting to stay on this part of the island for its dramatic sunset behind the rocks, but it's important to keep off the roads after dusk for the sake of its ever-present wildlife. Besides, I'm anxious to return to my villa, where a sparkling cocktail made with KI spirits awaits; and i can get my earlobes tenderised by the new love of my life, Jock.
Remarkable Rocks. Photo: Elliot Grafton/SATC
South Australian borders reopened to vaccinated visitors on November 23. All people planning to travel to South Australia from interstate and overseas, including returning South Australians, must apply through EntryCheck SA. Testing may be required - for more information go to covid-19.sa.gov.au
Oceanview Eco Villas offer all-inclusive villa-style accommodation from $1050 per person per night; oceanviewkangarooisland.com.au
The writer was a guest of SATC