In 2019, when we booked on to walk the Kangaroo Island Wilderness Trail, we had not reckoned on the total devastation of the bushfires which obliterated most of the western end of Kangaroo Island. Then there was the uncertainty of Covid meaning we did not know up until the last minute whether we could go. But on a mild sunny morning on 21st March, twelve walkers lined up for the ferry from Cape Jervis to Penneshaw.
The drive from Penneshaw to our base at the Western KI Caravan Park was approached with some apprehension. We soon saw the first signs of the fire damage with the roadside vegetation burnt but the trees had bounced back with the limbs of the larger trees covered in regrowth. Further on we saw the devastation of the blue gum plantations, a contrast to the defiant yakkas with their huge flower spikes, albeit past their best.
We arrived at Western KI caravan park where the owners, Fiona and Mark, have been battling against the odds to restore operations after the park was devastated by the fire. There were still plenty of signs of the impact of the fire with scorched trees and temporary facilities. But the caravan park proved to be the best place for wildlife with lots of koalas, some kangaroos, goannas by the lagoon, flame robins, blue wrens, crimson rosellas, Cape Barren Geese and plenty more birds.
Day 1 –Rocky River Section – 14kms (including Snake Lagoon Hike)
Mark drove us to the start of our walk in a car park behind the non-existent Flinders Chase Park Headquarters. The trail went down to Rocky River and headed west generally following the river to Snake Lagoon.
First off, we met a koala perched high up the burnt branches of a mallee, perhaps it was a trail sentry checking the walkers on the trail. It was odd to see the koala perched among the forest of bare, burnt mallee with a skirt of green growth sprouting from the base.
A tiger snake playing dead next to the track was missed by many of the walkers. But otherwise, there were not many birds or animals to see. We looked for the platypus at the Cascades without success.
Generally, the trail to Snake Lagoon was quite easy albeit a bit dusty. But those that followed the hike to the mouth of Rocky River found the rock hopping a lot harder. Ultimately, we did not get down to the beach because we did not want to miss the ride back to camp.
Day 2 – Maupertuis Section to Admiral’s Arch – 18kms
Starting from Snake Lagoon, our second day went south to Cape du Couedic allowing us to enjoy some excellent sea views along the coast. We had an early sight of the lighthouse at Cape du Couedic and that became our beacon for the day. While the trail was fairly easy to follow at the start, it was difficult to find after lunch, just as well that we could see our destination and kept the ocean on our right.
Walking conditions were much harder with rough and rocky sections of limestone to pick through. As a result, we had a couple of falls but there was no significant damage. The 2kms of beach walking along Maupertuis Beach were a relief compared with the rest.
The beach also provided us with the best wildlife of the day with a small flock of hooded plovers and some dotterels. Otherwise, there was little wildlife except for a couple of kangaroos and the ubiquitous crow who followed us most of the day. However, near the end, we spotted a goanna and we were fortunate to have a park ranger show us some rare southern emu wrens near the lighthouse.
The area around the lighthouse and Admiral’s Arch was one of the few areas that was not burnt. So, everything there was much the same – the fur seals smell just as bad as usual.
Novelty of the day was the Sealink tour lined up for afternoon tea and wine in the car park at Admiral’s Arch. We almost scored some new ARPA members.
Day 3 – Sanderson Section – 17 km
We started from Weir’s Cove and quickly lost the trail which headed inland on a rough, rocky section across to Boxer Road. Across the road, the trail to Remarkable Rocks was well marked and quite easy to follow. The trail went through burnt mallee but with the regrowth only about chest height, we could see our immediate destination of Remarkable Rocks.
The rocks themselves were unscathed but the adjacent infrastructure was destroyed and is being replaced.
After Remarkable Rocks, we struggled to spot the path but eventually found it, a rough, rocky path as we headed east along the cliffs by the ocean. We spotted a small mob of sheep which escaped into the park after the fire but they are not allowed to bring dogs into the park to round them up.
We had lunch on the cliff overlooking Sanderson Bay and enjoyed seeing the seals playing in the water as others lounged on the rocks. The only other wildlife spot was the tail of a goanna which had escaped into a bush.
The vegetation changed from the coastal heath and succulents to banksias and hakeas. They were all burnt but many had re-seeded with lots of little banksias sprouting along the trail
After a quick visit to Sanderson Beach, we finished the walk on the Sanderson fire trail adjacent to one of the walk-in camp sites. It was totally destroyed although strangely some wooden sections of the seats and tables had somehow survived the fire.
Day 4 – Grassdale Section (11km)
We picked up from where we left off on Sanderson Section following the fire trail down to the ocean cliffs. From there we rock-hopped our way around to Cape Younghusband, a tiny section of unburnt country, spotting a couple of ospreys unfortunately wheeling away from us. Our entertainment at morning tea were the young seals basking on the rocks below.
After we reached the fire trail, we headed inland. It was easier walking although more undulating. We were soon back into the burnt mallee with the phalanx of burnt trunks partially covered by the regrowth from the roots.
Fortunately, Michael who was at the back with Joan, had his eyes open and spotted the goanna lying beside the trail near an ant mound. Unfortunately, we did not see any echidnas or the puggles which Fiona said were placed in the ant mounds – there were plenty of signs of their diggings, however.
We also came across two golden orb weaver spiders which had strung the webs across the trail. This proved to be a real challenge for Barbara who suffers from arachnophobia.
We finished at Hanson Bay Road and had a very quick trip with Mark back to the caravan park.
Day 5 – Kelly Hill Section 9.5 kms
Our last day’s walk started at Kelly Hill Caves which was the end of the original Wilderness Trail but because the caves have not been re-opened, walkers now head back to Hanson Bay. While the sign for the end of the trail was unaffected, there was something poignant about the ashes of the visitor’s book which remained there.
The terrain was different from the previous days with larger trees and some steeper sandhills tracking around to the dry Grassdale Lagoon and the full Wilderness Lagoon with its swans and ibis swimming among the gaunt reflections of the burnt trees while flocks of ducks wheeled overhead and were mirrored in the still waters. After that, the trail met the South West River, which is blocked at Hanson Bay, enabling us to meander through the sandhills and cross the beach to our pickup point.
Wildlife was a little sparse other than another arachnophobic experience and a large tiger snake coiled by the side of the trail but content to remain still while we went by.
The final episode of the camp was dinner arranged by Mark and Fiona – a substantial feast of roast beef and chicken plus vegetables followed by apple crumble and fruit salad.
Special thanks to Joan and Monique for organising the camp. In particular, thanks to Joan for giving up her sleep to organise everything during the week.