It’s overcast when I land on Kangaroo Island, so at first I don’t notice the black of the burn. Instead, I’m immediately distracted by the kangaroos. The island off Australia’s southwest coast—a 35-minute flight from Adelaide—is well named; marsupials here number around 65,000, about 14 times the human population. I have never seen a kangaroo in the wild before, and here they feel omnipresent: pausing their feeding in a field to turn and stare, napping by a burbling river, bouncing off into the seemingly interminable distance.
From the airport, we drive toward the Cygnet Valley, an area of the island known for its conservation park and red gum trees, which line the Cygnet River. There are four of us here together, and to get a sense of the island, we swap our van for electric trail bikes. With a few instructions from our guide Michael from Exceptional Kangaroo Island, we’re off. I’m used to riding my bike in car-choked New York City; out here, with no cars in sight and nothing but a dirt road before me, I become 12 again. I switch my bike mode to “power” and speed off through the countryside, legs pumping, streaming beneath low-slung gum trees. The sky clears. Sunlight winks from behind the trunks, and sheep trot and trip in green pastures to my right.
Thirty minutes later, when we dismount near a quiet bend of the Cygnet River to examine a group of trees for koalas, Michael tempers our optimism. “You may see one, but probably not.” We walk quietly toward the grove, until I surprise myself by hearing my own voice: “There.” There: drowsily chewing, a Big League–sized chunk of eucalyptus in its cheek, is a koala, reminiscent of a grandfather who’s had one too many scotches but seems esteemed all the same. We coo and squeal and stand at the base of a tree, worshipers at the feet of this marsupial, whose very existence is threatened by the bushfires we have all come to learn about.
Eventually, we get back on the bikes and pedal on—back to the car, back to town. I count five rainbows in the 25 minutes it takes us to arrive in Kingscote, the island’s largest settlement (population 1,790). We sit at dinner at the Odd Plate, a cozy restaurant set inside a colonial home built in 1927, and can’t keep up with plates of buttery kingfish sashimi slicked with spicy black bean paste; chorizo jam with cherry tomatoes and toast; smoked salmon pastrami with pickled fennel. I’m told the ocean is right across the street, but the sun has by now turned off her own light and darkness is a blanket over the 3,400-square-mile island, Australia’s third-largest. Still, when I leave the restaurant and step outside to use the bathroom across the courtyard, where it is located, I listen and can hear the curl of the waves meeting the shore. Streetlights are minimal, and so I still cannot see the ocean or the green or that expanse of burn.
I knew little about Kangaroo Island before I arrived there in June, only that it is considered the “Galápagos” of Australia, home to roughly 900 Australian sea lions, seals, fairy penguins (the world’s smallest penguins), prehistoric echidnas (the only other egg-laying mammal besides the platypus), dunnarts, and glossy black cockatoos. Koalas, considered an “invasive” species, total around 8,500. The number of full-time resident humans? Roughly 4,500.
Yet a few years ago, nearly half of the island—more than half a million acres—had burned. On December 21, 2019, lightning ignited fires on the island’s north coast; 10 days later, it struck Flinders Chase National Park on the southwest coast. Until the zone was declared safe on February 6, 2020, fires destroyed forests, businesses, grazing land, infrastructure, and 87 homes. Firefighters from across Australia arrived to battle the burn, and members of the Army Reserves showed up to distribute water and supplies. Two people died, and 60,000 domestic animals and livestock perished. It is unknown how many wild animals did not survive.
Prior to the fires, Kangaroo Island was trending upward as a destination, attracting an annual average of 125,000 domestic visitors and 47,000 international visitors between December 2017 and December 2019. At that time, it had a higher proportion of international visitors than anywhere else in South Australia, with visitors touting “island wildlife,” “rock formations,” and “local produce” as key attractions.
Despite the terror and tragedy of the fires, Kangaroo Island was rebuilding, I’d been told—collectively, those on the island were choosing not to focus on the past but to look toward the future. With this, then, came a kind of hope: a belief that travelers will eventually return to this island off South Australia, and that when they did, the island will be better than ever. I was there to find out.
My base for the next two days is Hamilton House, a four-bedroom bungalow minutes from Kingscote, which sits on the northeast corner of the island. The home was originally built in the 1960s as a family beach home and was renovated in 2018. It’s been in the same family, the Youngs, for decades, and feels that way: homey but not homely, it’s filled with international and local art, carpets from Shanghai, and baskets heaped with knit blankets. I make coffee and slide open the glass doors to the spacious deck. The sun is rising over the three-mile stretch of Emu Bay, just 400 feet away. I consider a swim, but then check the time: Michael will be arriving shortly.
Affable and quick to laugh, Michael has been a tour guide with Exceptional Kangaroo Island since 2018. His background as a former primary school teacher quickly shows itself: When we ask one question, he answers easily—and then connects the answer to something else we may have not considered. He’s also incredibly knowledgeable about flora and fauna: As we rumble west on dusty roads toward Flinders Chase National Park, Michael points out mallees, species of eucalypts that have a high concentration of eucalyptus oil and are extremely flammable. When the bushfires began, the trees were kindling. It did not take long for the forest fire to spread.
After we step out of the van 45 minutes later at Cape du Couedic, on the island’s southwest, I hear again refrains from last night: the whip and crash of the Southern Ocean. This time, I also see it stretched in its glory before me, the blue water pounding the rocks and hurling sheets of water into the air. We are here to descend to Admirals Arch, a natural geological formation that formed after thousands of years of erosion. From the parking lot, an elevated wide wooden boardwalk winds down toward the arch, and as I walk, I stop to look at the plants growing underneath and alongside. Michael notices I’ve paused and loops back to chat. He reminds me that bushfires are not all bad: For millions of years, they have been integral in helping shape Australia’s ecology, and much of the flora and fauna has adapted to regenerate after periods of trauma. Although 96 percent of the park was burnt in 2019–2020, there are true signs of recovery here, and a green cloak of plants covers parts of the gray ground.
Baby fur seals prompt a squeal as they blink sleepily and burrow into the cragged cliff face. Though the first three-quarters of the path to Admirals Arch was accessible, the last part includes stairs to a viewing platform, which sits at the base of the arch. Looking through the arch is like looking into a massive jaw. Adult seals sun themselves on the rocks, unbothered by the waves, which swish up, over, and around them.
Less than 10 minutes later, we’re standing at the entrance to one of the park’s other wind-whittled attractions: Remarkable Rocks, a collection of granite boulders formed over centuries into a dizzying array of shapes. On the drive over, Michael described the rocks as Dalí-esque, and it’s easy to see why: They are massive, hulking structures that twist and turn upward into shapes that look like elephants, falcons, skulls, upturned bowls. Some boulders have been so blasted by the wind that they are hollow in parts. Some lean against each other, creating a cathedral to walk through. It is windy today, so we tread carefully around these giants, taking care not to slip or stumble into the water (way) below. Aside from our group of five, there is no one else around.
When we walk on the boardwalk back to the car, I notice a small sign with yellow flags: REGENERATION AREA, it reads. “Please let the plants grow by staying on the allocated trails.” Though green is evident here, too, skeletons of trees—black, gray, ashy—stretch upward. Still, they are beautiful.
As part of the tour with Exceptional Kangaroo Island, Michael functions not only as chauffeur, guide, and resident comic but also as field chef. Inside a picnic shelter not far from Remarkable Rocks, he smooths a white tablecloth over a table and sets out the spread: a creamy gouda flecked with fennel, a wedge of sharp cheddar, a block of quince paste—all locally made. While we snack on cheese and nuts, he readies the main course—cold poached chicken with pea greens and a sweet onion jam; a sprout and romaine salad with mushrooms, tomatoes, peppers. In my commitment to supporting the local economy, I pick out a bottle of Cooper’s pale ale, brewed in nearby Adelaide. It is easily the poshest picnic I have ever been on.
Somewhat impossibly, the day is only half over. After we pack up, we head to the construction site at Baillie Lodges’ award-winning flagship Southern Ocean Lodge, which was razed in the bushfires. Prior to its destruction, the hotel was Kangaroo Island’s first true luxury lodge, with curved guest suites offering uninterrupted views of the ocean. All guests and lodge staff managed to evacuate safety, but two managers and some senior staff had to hide out in an on-property bunker, where they turned on sprinklers and hunkered down. Rebuilding of the current property began in earnest in February 2022, and as we drive through toward the site, Michael, who first came to Kangaroo Island a decade ago to work on the Experiences Team at the lodge, becomes visibly moved. It’s the first time he’s been back on the property since it was completely destroyed.
Destructive and terrifying as the bushfires were to the lodge, its owners are instead seeing it as an opportunity to start anew—to build back better. The new lodge will use 25 percent less energy than the original lodge, and diesel fuel consumption will be halved. There will be rainwater harvesting, reliance on a hybrid solar-and-battery system, and elevated boardwalks to minimize impact on the health of coastal plants. Smart landscaping will create a sort of buffer around the lodge; on the day I visited, I saw juniper and fire-retardant succulents surrounding the foundation. There was little else at the property, which is slated to reopen in the second half of 2023, but it was easy to imagine the suites snaking along the coast. For a few moments, all of us stand in silence and look east toward the head of Cape Gantheaume, which juts out into the crystal blue sea.
Regeneration, revival, renewal: All were what I came here to see, and now that I’m here, they appear at every turn. Before the sun sets on the day I will sit on white-sand beaches near Karatta and whoop, marveling at the clarity of the water. At Seal Bay, I will stand quietly to watch a male sea lion flap its way out of the foaming surf to challenge another male for territory, their bodies clapping together with a terrifying thunk. Before I go to sleep, I will charge into a different stretch of foamy surf myself, delighting in the bracing cold of the Indian Ocean.
If my first day on Kangaroo Island is about seeing regeneration in the field, my second day is about learning from some of the experts in charge of it. Unlike yesterday, the morning is cool and overcast. We drive west to meet ecologist Heidi Goffen, who works for the conservation program Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife. As if on cue, it starts raining sheets the moment we step out of the van.
Goffen, though, is happy: Along with the Australian Wildlife Conservancy and private landowners, Land for Wildlife now protects more than 900 acres of critical habitat for endangered species. They have installed a five-mile-long fence protecting parts of the habitat from feral cats, which are the chief cause of mammal extinction in Australia. (Per the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, the postfire landscape favors feral cats, since they can hunt more efficiently. Around the country, cats kill around more than 1 million native mammals, 2 million reptiles, and 1 million birds every year.) Dunnarts—tiny marsupials that resemble a mouse—are Australia’s most endangered animal, with only around 500 left, and more than 90 percent of their habitat was burned. But Goffen says there have been signs of recovery: Kangaroo Island echidnas, vulnerable bassian thrushes, near-threatened western whipbirds, vulnerable heath goannas, endangered southern emu-wrens, and endangered southern brown bandicoots have also been spotted in the refuge in increasing numbers.
As we squelch through mud, Goffen points out shelter tunnels that she and her team built out of chicken wire and shade cloth. There are 18 in total across the island, strategically across landscapes to allow dunnarts (and other “priority species”) to move safely while the burnt areas regenerate. As we reach a clearing, Goffen kneels down to check a motion-tracking camera and flicks back through footage: We coo at the sight of a dunnart; later, a cat waves past the camera, and Goffen clucks discontentedly. But then she brightens: Her team will review the footage and, using the markings from the cat, cross-reference it to see if they can locate its patterns and whereabouts.
In my time on Kangaroo Island (or KI, as the locals call it), I have seen many of its “main” species—kangaroos, sea lions, koalas, dunnarts, bandicoots. One animal, however, has proved elusive: the short-beaked echidna, a small animal that looks like a cross between an anteater and a porcupine, and that is (aside from the platypus) the only living mammal that lays eggs. It is the world’s oldest mammal. I am excited, then, that our guest for today’s picnic lunch is Dr. Peggy Rismiller, who has been called the “Jane Goodall of echidnas”; she has been researching the animal since 1988 and is the world’s foremost expert on the mammal.
Solitary by nature, echidnas are hard to track, and Rismiller agrees with my (amateur) assessment that they are hard to spot: They use sharp claws to burrow quickly and can travel several miles a day. They have survived millennia, evolving and growing, doing the best with the cues they get from the weather and the wind. I don’t end up seeing an echidna during my time on KI, but still. I am heartened by their existence on this small island, on this epicenter of renewal.