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BROCHURE RACK

South Australia trip report

world/WLT13_southaus_Mike-Unwin_T

South Australia might be one of the country’s least visited states, but it is home to prolific – and peculiar – wildlife just a few hours from the city of Adelaide, writes Mike Unwin

There’s one," says Chris Baxter, pulling over onto the verge. "That spiny little feller. Quick, he’s on the move."

We grab cameras and leap out just in time to glimpse the rear end of what appears to be a large blonde hedgehog vanishing into the undergrowth. It’s a frustratingly brief glimpse but at least I’ve seen one. A shortbeaked echidna – my first monotreme.

I’m about to turn back for the vehicle but Chris raises a hand. "Sit tight mate," he whispers. "He’ll be back." Chris has been guiding for Kangaroo Island Wilderness Tours for 12 years; he knows his echidnas.

We creep into a clearing and crouch as bidden. There’s a rustling of leaflitter and, sure enough, out comes the echidna, rolling up to our feet like a spiny pocket galleon. We absorb the long claws, the cigarillo snout and that battery of spines. Ignoring the click of our cameras, this bizarre beast barrels over a crumbling, termiteridden log like a toy 4x4 and begins to probe its crevices. An egglaying mammal with a porcupine’s spines, a woodpecker’s tongue and the gait of a monitor lizard: surely nature at its weirdest and most wonderful.

I’d have been more astonished, perhaps, had our first morning on Kangaroo Island not already shown us how fearless the local wildlife seemed to be. Within an hour of landing at Kingscote Airport, Chris made his first unscheduled stop – jamming on the brakes to allow a koala to amble across the road, infant on board like mini backpack. Again, we left the vehicle to enjoy wonderful views, as mother and baby clambered up into a low gum and observed us with leafmunching indifference.

At Flinders Chase National Park, on the west coast, we watched western grey kangaroos – a chocolate coloured race unique to the island – browsing at the verge, while a onemetre Rosenberg’s goanna sunned itself at their feet. And on a birding trail we tiptoed past rabbitsized tammar wallabies, which lounged unfazed among the scrub as we sought out fairy wrens and honeyeaters.

Kangaroo Island lies just a 30minute hop from Adelaide, state capital of South Australia. Its isolation has kept KI, as the locals call it, beyond the reach of invasive species such as foxes and rabbits that have proved so disastrous elsewhere in Australia. It explains why native species such as the tammar wallaby, virtually exterminated on the mainland, continue to thrive here – and, perhaps, why they appear so tame.

But there is still plenty of wildlife on South Australia’s mainland. My tour of the state started a week earlier on the Eyre Peninsula – only some 250km west of Adelaide as the kookaburra flies, but a long roundtrip to bypass the Yorke Peninsula and Spencer Gulf. This remote wilderness is known for its rich marine life – notably the great white sharks that cruise its offshore islands.

Despite the temptation of jumping into the sea with the world’s most feared predator, I eschewed shark cagediving in favour of a cruise down the coast with Matt Waller of Adventure Bay Charters. Chugging out of the harbour at Port Lincoln ("a drinking town with a fishing problem," quipped Matt), we soon left civilisation behind, passing wild promontories and whitesand coves. Black oystercatchers and rare Cape Barren geese commuted past in noisy parties, and we slowed to view an osprey atop its stick nest on a rock stack. The southern right whales for which this coast is known had departed a few weeks earlier, but a pod of bottlenosed dolphins kept pace with us for a full 30 minutes of bowriding wizardry.

At the aptly named Seal Cove on Hopkins Island we set anchor, donned our snorkelling gear and hopped overboard into shallow, limpid waters churning with Australian sea lions. Adults watched us from the rocks, unmoved, but the youngsters galloped in to join us, turning underwater somersaults with puppyish glee and pirouetting around our anchor chain with fluid grace.

South Australia’s coastline is not all coves and headlands. My next stop was the Coorong National Park, south east of Adelaide on the Fleurieu Peninsula. This chain of saltwater lagoons stretches south for some 130km from the Murray estuary and is separated from the sea by a line of dunes. We hopped on board with Spirit of Goorong Cruises, binoculars at the ready.

A slow cruise through this sluggish habitat was a far cry from the wild drama of the Eyre Peninsula but equally impressive for wildlife. Western grey kangaroos bounded away into the scrub. An emu dad led his striped chicks away from the water’s edge. And water birds were everywhere: swarms of sandpipers, stints and other migratory waders probing and sifting a meal from the shallows; terns dipping and angling over the water; huge Australian pelicans lined up on a sandbar; and a passing whitebellied sea eagle putting up everything else in a blizzard of outraged wings.

With South Australia’s 5,000km of coastline it’s easy to forget that the state also has almost a million square kilometres of interior, stretching north across vast tracks of Outback. Tackling this immensity was beyond my itinerary, but a few days’ excursion out of Adelaide at least gave us a flavour.

Heading east over the Adelaide Hills we found ourselves in the Murray Lands, the scrubby terrain that flanks the winding course of the Murray river. Eastern shingleback lizards laboured across the road, stumpy head indistinguishable from stumpy tail, and an eastern brown snake – the planet’s secondmost venomous terrestrial serpent – slithered off the verge. Wedgetailed eagles hung angular silhouettes in the blue sky, scanning the horizon for road kill.

At an old sheep shearing station near Swan Reach, on the east bank of the Murray, we joined a team of scientists from the Zoological Society of South Australia who were studying the southern hairynosed wombat – a localised species that resembles a small common wombat with Dr Spock ears. The team raises extra funds by inviting paying members of the public to join in. Thus we found ourselves later that night on a ‘wombat muster’, rattling around the bush on a flatbed truck and leaping down with nets and hessian sacks to grab any individuals we could dazzle with the spotlight. These chunky marsupials were surprisingly fast and powerful, and it took numerous comedy plunges into hidden holes before we had fulfilled the night’s quota.

The following morning we hauled ourselves from our swag bags to watch the team complete the biometrics on their sedated subjects, before reviving and releasing them. The project aims to establish how this declining species is coping with the threats to its habitat from advancing agriculture and invasive nonnative plants. For us nonscientists, it was extraordinary just to peek into one female wombat’s pouch and find a naked joey, smaller than my pinkie, clamped blindly to her teat.

From the Murray Lands we headed deeper into the mallee – the featureless, multistemmed eucalyptus scrub that swathes much of this region. Western grey kangaroos became more numerous, and the occasional red kangaroo – bounding along in perfect Qantasstyle silhouette – reminded us that the wild Flinders Ranges lay just over the horizon.

To the first-timer, mallee may look an unpromising habitat, but birders know better. In Gluepot Reserve, expert bird guide Peter Waanders led us on an exhaustive hunt for the park’s rarities. Tramping through dense scrub, over sandy tracks crisscrossed by roo and emu prints, we tracked down – among other specials – a redlored whistler calling sweetly from the scrub; scarletchested parrots rocketing overhead
with strident shrieks; and a striated grass wren scuttling rodentlike between clumps of spiky spinifex.

And so it was with an already impressive list of South Australia’s wildlife that I arrived on Kangaroo Island, the jewel in the state’s wildlife crown. And now, leaving our echidna to fossick in peace, we were still not done. The next day, Chris took us to Western river, where we watched endangered glossy black cockatoos gathering at their roost in a casuarina grove. Then to Seal Bay, where we wandered a boardwalk among the whiskered mounds of another Australian sea lion colony. Finally he pulled up at Remarkable Rocks, on the south coast, where we stepped out into a battering wind. "There’s something here you bird blokes might like," he told us.

The rocks certainly earn their name, their windsculpted granite forms arrayed on a wild headland like some massive Henry Moore exhibition. But equally impressive is what we observed from our shelter beneath them. Shorttailed shearwaters – locally known as muttonbirds – streamed past in an unbroken line, all heading west. We counted 350 birds passing in a minute – and this rate didn’t falter for the hour we were there. So how many in a day? How many in a week? And for how many weeks does this continue? We’re surely talking millions of birds here. Binoculars revealed each angular little body driving on into the teeth of the gale with relentless purpose, and the larger, whiter forms of shy albatrosses cutting in and out of the stream.

Remarkable indeed. And a reminder that South Australia, both on land and at sea, still has many secrets to disclose.

 

Trip adviser

Cost rating: 3/5

Mike travelled as a guest of the South Australian Tourism Commission (www.southaustralia.com). He toured with: Southern Birding Services (www.sabirding.com) – Gluepot Reserve; Monarto (www.zoossa.com.au) – Wombat Muster; Kangaroo Island Wilderness Tours (www.wildernesstours.com.au) – Kangaroo Island; Adventure Bay Charters (www.adventurebaycharters.com.au) – Eyre Peninsula.

Sample package tour: Wildlife and Wilderness offers a 10-day self-drive package commencing in Adelaide and including Gluepot Reserve, the Coorong and Kangaroo Island, from £1,950 per person based on two people travelling. For an additional airfare to Port Lincoln, swimming with sea lions on the Eyre Peninsula could also be included. The following is included: accommodation as a mix of B&B, half board and self-catering, hire car, KI ferry tickets and nocturnal penguin tour on KI. International flights are not included. See www.wildlifewilderness.com

Getting there: Several international airlines, including Qantas, Malaysia Airlines, Singapore Airlines and Emirates, fly direct to Adelaide. Regular internal flights connect to Port Lincoln, Kingscote and other destinations within the state.

Visa requirements from the UK: None.

Tips & warnings: South Australia is very large and in summer can be very hot, especially inland. Allow plenty of driving time and take a good supply of sunscreen and water, as well as a hat. Dehydration is a danger. Drive slowly to avoid collisions with wild animals, especially after dark. Don’t miss the excellent local wine!

When to go: South Australia has a reasonably temperate climate, except in the northern interior. The hottest months are late January to February and the coldest late July to August, when it can also be windy on the coast. Some wildlife attractions are seasonal: bird migration through the Coorong is at its height in September and October and March and April; southern right whales are in coastal waters from May to September. However, there is excellent wildlife watching all year.

Tour operators:

  • Audley Travel, Tel: 01993 838 000; www.audleytravel.com
  • Responsible Travel, Tel: 01273 823700; www.responsibletravel.com
  • Wexas, Tel: 020 7590 0610; www.wexas.com