The Ark of the South

28 Oct 2011 0 Share

Jock Serong

Senior Writer

Jock Serong travelled to Kangaroo Island to see the contest site for the upcoming ASP 6-star event. He found a haven of untrammelled nature, and a thriving island community.

In a quiet corner of Kangaroo Island, behind a stand of thin eucalypts, the handpainted signs point to a honey shop in a weatherboard bungalow. The store’s run by Jenny and David Clifford, an apparently tireless couple who’ve created not only a minor tourist attraction, but a metaphor for what makes this entire island unique. Jenny and David don’t just make jars of honey - they’ve built a shrine to the stuff, running a demonstration hive for visitors, offering samples of every conceivable kind of honey product, and constantly experimenting with new ones. Kangaroo Island honey is made by Ligurian bees, imported from Italy to the island in 1884. Over thousands of miles of open ocean and across from the mainland, the precious Ligurian queens were painstakingly installed in hives on the island to help generate industry among the free settlers. The South Australian parliament, in a far-sighted move, declared the island a sanctuary for the bees. Since then, no other variety of bee has crossed from the mainland, and meanwhile, the pure strain of Ligurians has disappeared from Italy. These are the last Ligurians on earth.

Separated from the Big Island by 18 kilometres of deep water, Kangaroo is a last refuge for countless flora and fauna. Spared the ravages of foxes and rabbits, these species have survived and diversified, in some cases creating new sub-species. There are sixty different orchids on the island; unique families of wallaby, echidna and kangaroo, and rare birds such as the endangered Glossy Black Cockatoo. Driving along the southern coast of the island (about 150kms from one end to the other), there’s the pristine scrub, occasional paddocks but no houses. In the silence, with the car turned off and no-one talking, the place is alive with birdsong. The sea life is phenomenal: vertebrates, invertebrates and mammals everywhere, including resident populations of Australian Sea Lions, which were hunted to near extinction between 1803 and 1830. The pelts of the animals were so valuable to the desperate settlers that they would lower themselves down the sea cliffs on ropes to access the last few remaining animals: several hunters died trying to access the rugged offshore islets around KI to pick off the stragglers. When the hunters were finally warned off through political intervention, the sea lions were on the brink of extinction. They remain in danger, their numbers declining by about 4% per annum (of which the majority is attributed to the shark fishing industry), though they can now laze unmolested on the perfect white sands of Seal Bay. And anywhere there’s seals, there’s sharks. Just ask a local – everyone’s got a tale, and some have even got the scars to back it up.

Huge tracts of the island are set aside as national parks and conservation parks, and these areas retain their remnant vegetation, their inquisitive animals, and their secrets. On a boat tour along the north coast, local fisherman Andrew Neighbour pointed out a deposit of 500 million year old trilobites in the conglomerate rock of the cliffs. “No-one goes there,” he said laconically. He made similar comments about the huge flathead and crayfish that abound along the coast, about the wild populations of dolphins that crowd around his boat, about the whales that go past his mooring for weeks on end. He didn’t mention the cuttlefish, the whiting, the marron...the abundance here is staggering, and it’s more or less untapped. For mainland Australians, busy turning our land into a quarry for the enrichment of a privileged few, there’s something forlorn about such places. They’re a reminder of what’s been lost elsewhere.

This was the first free-settled community on the entire Australian continent, discovered by the weirdest of flukes when Englishman Matthew Flinders and Frenchman Nicholas Baudin crossed paths, literally like ships in the night, just off the coast. Early explorers were puzzled to find no aborigines on the island, though later archaeology established that they’d been there for thousands of years previously. Where had they gone, and why? It’s an enduring mystery.

If an island in the teeth of the Southern Ocean is a frontier, then what’s surprising about KI is the absence of a cowboy attitude. The locals tread so very carefully in their environment that everyone you meet seems to have a personal commitment to conservation.

It takes a little while to adjust to the idea that the bulk of KI’s population is crammed in the northeastern corner at Kingscote and Penneshaw, as though wanting to remain at least within sight of the mainland. There they’ve established grand old pubs, wineries, gourmet food businesses and some high-end accommodation. But the only evidence of life along the south road are driveway signs for little tourist businesses – backpackers, sandboarding, 4WD tours, crafts of various kinds, and action sports. Not needing a cheeseboard or a place to sleep, we pulled in at KI Outdoor Action for a quad bike tour. The owner, Brenton Davis, runs an impeccable workshop, the kind of clinically clean shed that says, everything in this place runs like clockwork, and I could eat a steak off that floor. We’d been driving all morning. I actually could’ve eaten a steak off that floor.

Brenton took us through his range of shiny, alphabetically-arranged protective gear, and then gave us a safety briefing, which included the chastening line, “I have a first aid kit in that cupboard. I’ve never had to use it, and you’re not going to be the first.” We were introduced to a precision-parked row of half a dozen brand-new, gleaming quad bikes. Not for the first time that day, I had the feeling you got when you stood in the queue at the dodgem cars: the rise of the inner idiot. Thumb throttles and auto transmissions. Count to ten now…deep breaths.

But what followed was sheer tranquility, if that’s possible sitting astride an internal combustion engine. We cruised over grasslands surrounded by hundreds of roos; we wove through delicate scrub and over spectacular rises, looking out over the endless coast. We saw giant xanthorrea spear grass trees that the locals call yakkas. With tyres inflated to a spongy 3psi, we didn’t seem to leave a mark on the ground. It’s a point Brenton kept emphasising – this kind of touring can be done with very low impact. He’s currently seeking carbon neutral accreditation, and he seemed able to name every plant on his property. He left us grinning from ear to ear, with our teeth full of bugs.

The hard reality of modern conservation is that sanctuaries like this one must pay their way in tourist dollars. At least at the level of economic rationalism, there’s no point in protecting a critter if there’s no-one to look at it.

Thus to the matter at hand: the festival. The Kangaroo Island Surf Music Festival will be held in early November on the island, in tandem with the Fantastic Noodles Kangaroo Island Pro. The surf comp and the music festival, (featuring Eskimo Joe, Ash Grunwald and Laura Hill and a host of others), will both be held at Vivonne Bay, on the south coast of KI. It’s a starkly beautiful stretch of coast – like much of the island, it’s a reminder of what various parts of the mainland coast would’ve looked like but for the grazing and the introduction of feral pests. There are 900 different native plant species on the island, and a good proportion of them are clinging to the sandy ground at Vivonne. Hidden under the coastal mallee scrub, some of these plants are very delicate indeed – tiny orchids, heaths and daisies that would be vulnerable to the heavy tread of, say, a sleep-deprived surf music festival punter.

The surf at Vivonne Bay is a semi-protected beachbreak on fine sand, with occasional flat reefy sections between the banks. It’s not massively exposed, being partially protected by a headland to the southwest. The beach curves around towards the northeast, facing more into the swell as it bends. So the top corner of Vivonne is a perfect learners’ pool, while the far end seems to offer some size. There are certainly other, more powerful waves all along the south coast, though no-one’s saying much to me about them. There’s a righthander at Admiral’s Arch, positioned at the extreme southwest corner of an island that is itself extremely exposed. Even in the ordinary swell I observed on my visit, it was a raw, heaving beast of a thing, cold and isolated. The wind out there smelled of seal crap and fear.

The festival’s undoubtedly an economic windfall for islanders. Local surfer Teale Vanner will compete in the event, along with Occy, Dion Atkinson and Blake Thornton and dozens more. Teale’s quietly proud to see the island showcased, particularly knowing that the event will usher in a new surf school in the bay from December this year. Coralie and Smiley, who run the art-focussed Rustic Blue Cafe just near the contest site, are equally delighted, as is Justin Harmon, the chairman of Good Food KI, which represents about sixty local producers. “They’ve been fantastic in giving priority to local suppliers,” he says. “There are plenty of businesses on the island that really need the kind of boost that comes with these events, and the response amongst a majority of locals has been positive.”

But there is opposition: people who say that a ten-day surf and music festival, attracting three to five thousand people, is more than the delicate ecology of the National Heritage registered site can bear. The island’s population is expected to more than double for the event. The beach at Vivonne Bay where the contest will take place is a recognised habitat of the endangered Hooded Plover, which is said to be in breeding season at the time the festival will take place.

There’s also said to be an element of “not in my backyard” about the protest movement – it’s principally coming out of a group of residents of the small Vivonne Bay community – about 30 permanents and another 30 holiday houses – and is getting vocal support from a mainland surfer with a reputation for intimidation and personal attacks on all sorts of perceived opponents. Organisers say there will be about 50 security personnel in attendance, along with boosted police numbers, though no-one expects any trouble from the crowd.

Some of the opposition relates to the perception that the KI ferry business – Sealink – has enriched itself at the expense of ordinary islanders. Sealink is in many respects a local success story: a group of South Australian entrepreneurs bought the island ferry company from a Malaysian interest in 1996, transforming it into a multi-faceted freight, tourism and transport business with interests in mainland Australia and New Zealand. According to their website, their 2009-10 turnover was $61 million, and they employ around 350 people, many of whom are island locals.

On the island, Sealink owns property (including the land on which the KI surf music festival will take place) and runs businesses which sometimes come into competition with the locals. There are complaints that the prices for passage to the island are over the top, even allowing for a discount for locals. Whether this is a ruthless exercise of monopoly power (Rex airlines has a similar monopoly over air travel to the island and a startling fee structure for a 30 minute flight), or a reflection of other systemic problems such as the federal government’s failure to include KI’s roads in the National Highway, is all a matter of perspective.

Steve Reddy of Surfing SA has patiently shouldered the task of answering the various concerns raised by the community. Surfing SA’s efforts are visible everywhere: they’ve had ornithologists assess the site and assist with mitigation measures for the plovers. Signage has been placed next to rare and vulnerable plants. The path to the contest site will be off limits to all vehicles and will be stabilised using mulch. Parking, toilets and access to the beach are all tightly controlled.

Not far away from Vivonne Bay is the conservation facility at Seal Bay, where protected Australian Sea Lions laze on the sand after their three-day fishing runs. Visitors are carefully guided around the sleeping mammals by staff, partially for their own safety (they don’t wake up happy), and also to preserve the delicate environment of the colony. Timber boardwalks skirt around the snoring families, and marine litter is obsessively picked off the beach to prevent entanglements. We’ve put every bit as much ingenuity into saving these animals as we did into slaughtering them.

But back to the lovably eccentric locals. On the road out of Kingscote, we stop at the home of KI Spirits, a little wonderland of offbeat genius that again says a lot about the innovative drive of the islanders. Jon and Sarah Lark’s showroom out the back gives you the feeling you’ve been invited to witness a neighbour’s secret garage hobby: there’s couches, friendly signs and a coffee machine, newspaper clippings on the walls and a very Dr Seuss-looking copper still bubbling away in a corner.  The Larks’ children are climbing trees outside and playing happily with a tired-looking dog in the afternoon sun.

But the distilling venture that the Larks have underway is very much more than, well, a lark. They’ve created dozens of different gin varieties, and have now established a serious following among Adelaide’s finer hotels and restaurants. Jon Lark tells us he personally sources the crucial aromatics and essences for his gins (he’s not interested in doing whisky at the moment – “everyone’s doing it already” he says with a breezy indifference), and while he pours samples he takes us on a rambling ex tempore tour of imperial France, occupied Hanoi and the British Raj in explaining the virtues of quinine and the correct presentation of the world’s great cocktails. I’m on an island in the southern ocean, says a little voice in your head. What current washed these people ashore?  

Mainland Australians don’t seem to have found KI. Few could even find it on a map, despite its prominent position as the exclamation point at the foot of the Fleurieu Peninsula, (across the sniggeringly-named Backstairs Passage). We like our islands to tell us horror stories, like Macquarie Harbour’s gothically brutal Sarah Island, and the macabre massacre sites on the Abrolhos. Or we like them to be idylls, like the Whitsundays. But this place fits with neither stereotype: its uniqueness highlighted by the very odd fact that it’s a cult favourite with Italian honeymooners. Maybe that’s just one of those curious symmetries: Italians and honey, the birds and the bees.  

Jock travelled to KI as a guest of Tourism SA.

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