My guide was wearing odd socks. One was green, the other a bright shade of yellow, so as he walked, it was like being flashed by the Australian national colours. With his Steve Irwin-style khaki shorts and shirt, thick grizzly beard, brown Tilley hat and aviator sunglasses, Trevor looked every bit the outback hiker.
“Admit it,” he reasoned, as we walked along the coast, waves crashing and frothing beneath our feet, “it will make it difficult to forget me.”
I was in South Australia, the often-overlooked state Down Under. Queensland has the Great Barrier Reef, New South Wales the Sydney Opera House and harbour, Victoria the Great Ocean Road; Western Australia has the stunning Kimberley Ranges; and the Northern Territory lays claim to the mighty Uluru. But South Australia? I admit I was sceptical about Kangaroo Island. Having been made to feel a fool before – with no monkeys in Monkey Mia, for instance, and a distinct lack of cerulean in the “Blue” Mountains, I was still not convinced that it would actually have any marsupials at all – never mind the additional koalas, sea lions and echidna that were promised on what is often called “Australia in miniature”.
I’d booked a hike on the Wilderness Trail, a 61km footpath that follows the island’s south-west coast – there’s nothing but ocean between here and Antarctica. But I wasn’t going to be roughing it entirely. A new service from the Wilderness Retreat – the only lodge inside Flinders Chase national park, offers the chance to walk the whole five-day trail but with the option to end each day with a transfer back to the comforts, hot showers and chef-cooked meals of the lodge.
I spent the first two days on the trail walking with Trevor, staying overnight at Rocky River Campground, which, with its designated pitches in secluded bays, some on raised decking, felt decidedly like glamping. Those days passed in a blur of wildlife sightings – from red-capped plover nesting in the sand dunes at Maupertuis Bay to red-bellied flame robins in the forest, koalas in the eucalyptus trees and fur seals leaping above the white caps out at sea. My evening ended with a blazing sunset of peach, damson and vermilion beneath the stalactites of Admirals’ Arch, while bats swooped in the beam from the lighthouse. It was hard to see how it could be bettered.
So at the end of my third day – after bountiful encounters with kangaroos (proving the island’s namesake very accurate) and a wedge-tailed eagle, and a wander among the cracked orange-coloured Remarkable Rocks – I had mixed feelings when my lift arrived to take me back to the lodge. I left the trail with a heavy heart, feeling somehow like a cheat.
That was until I had my shower and watched the ground-in bush dirt from my legs swirl satisfactorily down the plug hole.
A sumptuous dinner at the lodge included bread with herb and honey butter from the island’s Ligurian bees (thought to be the only remaining pure breed of its kind in the world), sheep’s milk cheese from Island Pure just down the road, and gin from Kangaroo Island Spirits. As the sun set, I sat on the veranda watching a tammar wallaby grazing just metres away. Who needed camping?
Next day, I shouldered my tiny daypack and headed to the track to pick up where I’d left off the day before. Feeling rested and refreshed, I bounded along the dust and mud path, marvelled at the rainbow-coloured sea spurge that grew on stretches of white sand beach (where not a single soul lingered or paddled) and lay on the ground for half an hour photographing a monitor lizard, unconcerned by the fact that my sweaty body was getting caked in a fresh film of dirt.
When I was picked up at the meet point that evening, in undulating landscape near an old farmstead, I lingered a while to watch the kangaroos graze. Even though my stomach was rumbling, I would soon get a hot meal, prepared by someone else, without a dehydrated packet in sight.
On my final day I met Alison Buck, the trail manager and park ranger who worked on establishing the Wilderness Trail just two years ago. “At first, local people were sceptical about the benefits of it,” she confessed as we wandered the last section of the coast, “but then the permits [obligatory tour passes, £43pp] started selling, bringing more people to this section of the island and encouraging them to stay in the park for longer.”
She said the popularity of the trail and new options – such as hiking and staying at the lodge – has meant access to those not able (or inclined) to carry a heavy pack for the five days.
I asked whether hardcore hikers had also been convinced. Did they perhaps see it as a “cheat’s” a way to walk a trail.
“Perhaps,” she admitted as we neared Kelly Hill show caves at the end of the trail. “But you don’t have to rough it just because you like to hike.”
I smiled, the image of Trevor and his coloured socks flashing through my mind. “And admit it,” Alison added, as an echidna waddled past us in the undergrowth, its blonde needles quivering, “no matter how you do it, it will certainly be hard to forget…”
• Accommodation and local transport were provided by the Kangaroo Island Wilderness Retreat; its five-night package, including transfers to and from the trail each day, pickup from the island’s Kingscote airport, breakfast, map and permits costs from A$750pp (around £580). More details of the trail from kangarooislandwildernesstrail.sa.gov.au
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