The locals on Kangaroo Island are in recovery mode. Here's why they need you to visit - and why you'll want to visit.
Kangaroo Island holds a special place in the hearts of Australians. Even those who have never crossed the narrow strip of ocean that separates the island from South Australia seem to be enchanted by this idyllic place.
The depth of attachment to Kangaroo Island (known to locals as KI) has been evident since massive bushfires swept across the island's west in January.
A new state tourism campaign using the slogan #BookThemOut is already lifting visitor numbers and local operators insist KI's major attractions - pristine beaches, premium wines, ocean-fresh seafood and abundant native wildlife - are all still here.
Craig Wickham, managing director of tour operator Exceptional Kangaroo Island, says that anyone booking a holiday on KI is not only supporting tourism but also boosting the wider economy which revolves around the land and sea.
"Tourism generates half of our economy and is influential in the success of many of our farmer and producer enterprises because guests consume our wine, olive oil, honey and other produce - or buy some to take home with them," he says.
Sometimes dubbed the "Galapagos of Australia" because of its abundant and varied wildlife, Kangaroo Island is seven times the size of Singapore and contains rolling farmland, towering sand dunes, pristine wetlands, old growth forest and wild ocean beaches.
The island is a major wildlife conservation zone with kangaroos, koalas, echidnas, wallabies, sea lions, goannas and many species of native birds. There is also some amazing local produce, such as artisan gin, oysters, King George whiting, Ligurian honey and organic olives.
Apart from destroying vast tracts of native bushland, the fires also reduced Southern Ocean Lodge to a pile of ashes. The lodge, one of Australia's most iconic properties, had a worldwide reputation for luxury.
Owners Hayley and James Baillie have already vowed to rebuild their multi-award-winning property on the same site and using Max Pritchard - the architect who designed the original lodge in 2008.
Even though the couple are mourning the loss of what they called their "dream" on the southern coast of Kangaroo Island, the Baillies are continuing to support the local community in the aftermath of the bushfires - and urge other Australians to do the same.
"The bigger picture is that we need now to rally together and present a positive picture of this incredible country and all it has to offer," say the Baillies.
"Your generous, ongoing support for Australian tourism is vital for the industry's future and for it to best recover from these challenging times."
Although the main population centres of Kingscote and Penneshaw were not affected, the fire badly impacted the island's farming community, killing sheep and razing several homesteads across Kangaroo Island. While most of the island's tourism operators, such as restaurants, B&Bs, cellar doors and tour companies, are already up and running, farming is going to take much longer to recover from the January bushfires.
"Our primary industries, such as sheep, cattle, oats, barley, wheat, grapes, took a big hit in the bushfires and they cannot bounce back immediately as they need to re-establish fences, flocks and pastures," says Wickham.
"It may take a year or two for these producers to start generating revenue. Tourism can do this today."
These sentiments are shared by the Kangaroo Island Spirits co-owner Jon Lark who remains confident about the long-term future of the island despite witnessing the destructive power of the bushfires.
"We did have to evacuate. The fire got within three kilometres of our distillery so we had to pull a lot of stock, including our whisky barrels, off site," he recalls.
"There was one very scary night when we thought the main town [Kingscote] was going to go up in flames."
In the days after the bushfires, Kangaroo Island Spirits opened its cellar door to locals who had been burned out of their farms or just wanted somewhere safe and welcoming to hang out.
The distillery has been donating $10 from the sale of every bottle of its artisan gin, vodka and liqueur to several worthy local causes.
"We've just given $10,000 to rebuild a little community hall on the north coast that was particularly badly hit by the fires," says Lark.
Apart from booking their next holiday on Kangaroo Island, Australians can also help the community by buying any KI products they see at their supermarket or deli.
"There are lots of little businesses on the island that are not as resilient as us - they were looking forward to the summer sales to get them through the rest of the year, but of course that never happened."
Kangaroo Island's beekeepers were particularly hard hit by the bushfires that damaged an estimated quarter of the island's 4000 hives and destroyed valuable bushland where the island's famous Ligurian bees gather pollen.
Sharon Simons from Clifford's Honey Farm says that while the island's important honey sector will survive there might be a short-term downturn in honey production.
"We are very grateful that our beehives were in safe locations during the fires and we did not lose any hives," says Simons.
"But we will have less honey production going forward as 48 per cent of KI has burnt and that means less flowers for the bees to make honey."
While the bushfires may have wiped out an estimated 170,000 hectares of bushland across Kangaroo Island, the worst damage occurred at the western end of the isle where much of the Flinders Chase National Park was affected.
The park contains such natural features as Admirals Arch, Remarkable Rocks and the Kelly Hill Caves. Authorities are currently installing a temporary visitor centre for Flinders Chase and plan to re-open the park shortly.
Despite the images of blackened trees and dead wildlife broadcast around the world about 60 per cent of the island, including major attractions such as Seal Bay Conservation Park, Raptor Domain and Little Sahara, survived unscathed - as did Penneshaw and Kingscote. Vital transport infrastructure, such as the airport and the ferry port, were also not touched by the fires.
Although the fires did kill significant numbers of koalas, kangaroos, echidnas and other native animals, wildlife experts say that there are many positive signs.
Not only is burned-out forest already starting to regenerate, there have been numerous sightings of young echidnas, goannas, wedge-tailed eagles and other bird species.
"When an event such as fire occurs, nature is not slow to respond. Nature responds immediately," says Dr Peggy Rismiller from the Pelican Lagoon Research and Wildlife Centre.
"Nature is a dynamic multi-tasker. Nature can adjust and process so quickly and subtly that we are not always aware of what is happening."
Like many other operators, Craig Wickham, who is a celebrated local guide with a passion for the island's unique wildlife, is confident that KI will regain its reputation as a tourism megastar, but is calling on people to come back to the island as soon as possible.
"Don't come because you feel compassion for us - although we love and welcome the warm support extended," he insists. "Come because you will have an awesome time. And you will help us out."
Take me there
Fly: Qantas operates direct flights from Adelaide to KI five times a week at peak times. From $158 one way.
Ferry: SeaLink is offering discounted passenger fares and special offers for campers and caravanners. Fares start at $15. See sealink.com.au
Cruise: Kangaroo Island is a popular port of call for many cruise lines, including Cruise & Maritime Voyages, Cunard, Holland America Line, Oceania, P&O, Princess, Seabourn and Silversea.
Explore more: tourkangarooisland.com.au
From wildlife watching to gin tastings, Kangaroo Island is open for business and the locals hope to see you soon.
Seal Bay Conservation Park
This world-class facility offers a rare opportunity to see endangered Australian sea lions in the wild. The superbly maintained park includes a 900-metre boardwalk and a state-of-the art visitor centre. Visitors can observe the 800-strong sea lion colony as they laze on the beach or dive into the waves for a fishing expedition. Young pups can often be seen in the park. Most people take a self-guided tour of the dunes and beach via the boardwalk, but for a really special experience join an escorted tour. The guides here are passionate about sea lions and keen to share their extensive knowledge of this lovable marine species.
This is a must-do experience for anyone who has a fascination with birds of prey. Raptor Domain is not a traditional zoo, but a wildlife sanctuary where visitors can interact with wedge-tailed eagles, barn owls, kestrels, buzzards, falcons and many other birds. Ever held a wild eagle? You can do that right here.
There are regular flying displays, plus a chance to come face to face with deadly spiders and scorpions in the Venom Pit. For those with an interest in snakes and lizards, book into the daily Fang-Tastic reptile show. The sanctuary has a cafe and a shop.
Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park
This long-running and popular wildlife park is playing an important role in the recovery of Kangaroo Island. Apart from its own resident population of koalas, penguins, snakes, kangaroos, echidnas, wallabies and cassowaries, the 20-hectare park is caring for many native animals injured in the recent bushfires.
Daily activities range from dingo presentations to holding a wombat - and, of course, a chance to observe koalas at close range. Visitors can also book a private animal encounter, such as feeding kangaroos, holding large snakes or cuddling marmosets. The park has a cafe for snacks and drinks.
Kangaroo Island Spirits
Launched in 2006, Kangaroo Island Spirits (KIS) is a micro-distillery which makes small-batch artisan gins using wild botanicals such as coastal daisy bush, samphire, wild rosemary, lemon myrtle and native juniper. The tasting room at KIS is popular with tourists and residents alike, and visitors can purchase a wide range of artisan gins, vodkas and liqueurs. KIS has gained an international reputation for its products and has won numerous awards.
In addition to the company's gin, visitors should sample some its more exotic creations, such as the Honey and Walnut Liqueur, made from roasted King Valley walnuts and Kangaroo Island Ligurian honey, and the Limoncello, made with local lemons.
Little Sahara dunes
This series of perfect white sand dunes rising out of mallee scrub is on the southern coast of Kangaroo Island. The Little Sahara dunes are perfect for sandboarding and tobogganing for people of all ages. Sandboards and toboggans can be hired at Outdoor Action in Vivonne Bay from $37 for two hours. The company also runs quad-bike tours, kayaking trips and guided walks.
Nearby Vivonne Bay is one of the island's finest beaches, with a long, sandy strip and bush setting. It's generally safe to swim near the jetty, but the bay itself has a strong undertow.
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