Rich with nature’s gifts, Kangaroo Island is that rarest of destinations: a place where stunning beauty and amazing wildlife meet culinary bliss.

Story By Therese Hall

A shaft of light is the only indication that something lies beyond the cliff-face at Stokes Bay, on the north coast of Kangaroo Island. On closer inspection, the glow is emanating from a narrow stone passageway. Enter and you will wend past life-size boulders and squeeze sideways through a tight tunnel to emerge in a Shangri-la: a turquoise rock pool, sheltered surf beach and an arc of fine, white sand.
After relishing this blissful discovery, you will find chef Matthew Johnson on hand with a large paper cone full of fish, squid, prawns and scallops at his pocket-size seafood restaurant, the aptly named Rockpool Café. It doesn’t look like much more than an airy shed, but Kangaroo Island-born Matthew – who spent much of his childhood surfing, fishing and camping at Stokes Bay – manages to serve up a fresh seafood feast deserving of the pristine coastal setting.
Stokes Bay’s deceptive cliff-face and modest café are good examples of the understated surprises to be found on Kangaroo Island. A tapestry of innovative farming operations, sublime food experiences and untamed national parks makes ‘KI’ – as it is fondly known – an ideal canvas for the self-drive traveller.
A week spent ranging across its productive breadth – tasting its local fare then discovering its coastal secrets and exploring its vast wilderness – is a rich experience.
Lying off the toe of South Australia’s Fleurieu Peninsula like a discarded shoe last, Kangaroo Island is close enough for easy access by plane or car ferry yet detached enough to offer a distinct offshore experience. Its isolation has always been both a blessing and a burden. The original Aboriginal inhabitants abandoned KI thousands of years ago, though the reason remains a mystery. Isolation contributed to the demise of its 1836 European settlement within four years. The hardy pioneers who stayed on, pursuing risky occupations such as sealing, timber cutting and kangaroo skinning, have given the island’s 4400-strong population its resilient backbone.
From the 1930s, wool dominated the island’s economy – at its peak, there were one-and-a-half million sheep grazing its paddocks. When the wool industry collapsed in the late 1980s, residents’ primary income was decimated virtually overnight. “It wasn’t worth the freight bill to send wool to Adelaide,” says fourth-generation sheep farmer Larry Turner. “Thousands of sheep were destroyed.”

This story excerpt is from Issue #83

Outback Magazine: June/July 2012