SUN­RISE WITH SEA LI­ONS

Susan Kuro­sawa walks with the an­i­mals and checks out a new lux­ury lodge on South Aus­tralia’s Kan­ga­roo Is­land

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

FROM above, the sea li­ons look like old vel­veteen bean­bags flung about the beach. We are at a raised lookout point in Seal Bay Con­ser­va­tion Park with our ranger, Ben. He is serv­ing slices of ba­nana bread and pour­ing our lit­tle group its first cof­fees of the morn­ing from a sturdy vac­uum flask and as­sur­ing us it isn’t re­ally all that windy. We are wont to dis­agree; our chilled noses are run­ning and we haven’t worn gloves. My hair has been gust-pro­pelled to funny an­gles, as if I’ve put my fin­ger in a live socket.

Then one of us says that here we are alone on the very edge of Aus­tralia and he wouldn’t be dead for quids. He is right; de­spite the un­seemly hour and the blowy cold, we have ar­rived on a booked tour be­fore the park of­fi­cially opens and we are about to en­joy a private en­counter with the denizens of this pro­tected bay.

We make our wind-as­sisted way along the slop­ing path to the sea and shore; as crested terns and Pa­cific gulls wheel above us, the sea li­ons be­gin to as­sume ex­act form and dis­tin­guish­ing fea­tures. They ap­pear first as just a pal­ette of wrin­kled creams and fawns; then we see they are whiskery and mot­tled, with soul­ful ex­pres­sions and big brown eyes as lus­trous as co­gnac. The bulls are sim­ply enor­mous and even rolling over ap­pears to be a supreme ef­fort, ac­com­pa­nied by a suc­ces­sion of groans.

Ben en­sures we walk qui­etly and keep back at least 10m as he tells us th­ese sea li­ons are among the rarest marine mam­mals. About 5 per cent of the world’s pop­u­la­tion of an es­ti­mated 12,000 lives at Seal Bay; there would be many more if traders hadn’t dec­i­mated the sea lion and seal pop­u­la­tions on Kan­ga­roo Is­land in the 19th cen­tury.

One es­pe­cially cute pup is call­ing for its mother; it’s a keen­ing cry that cuts through our hearts like a blade. The par­ent has been off for­ag­ing for food in deep wa­ter for sev­eral days and the pup is hun­gry and dis­tressed. It wad­dles up and down the long beach hop­ing to find Mum, who could well have just col­lapsed on the sand where she has swum ashore.

As we walk back up to the vis­i­tors cen­tre and ranger sta­tion, its wails fol­low us, car­ried by the re­lent­less wind. in 1802, not so much for the beauty of the an­i­mal as for its use­ful­ness. Ac­cord­ing to Flin­ders Ranges Re­search, the ex­plorer noted in his jour­nal, ‘‘ The whole ship’s com­pany was em­ployed this af­ter­noon in the skin­ning and clean­ing of kan­ga­roos. Af­ter four months’ pri­va­tion they stewed half a hun­dred­weight of heads, fore­quar­ters and tails down into soup for din­ner, on this and the suc­ceed­ing days, and as much steak given, more­over to both of­fi­cers and men as they could con­sume by day and night. In grat­i­tude for so sea­son­able a sup­ply, I named this south land Kan­ga­roo Is­land.’’

The is­land is 155km long by 55km wide and more than one-third of that ter­ri­tory is na­tional or con­ser­va­tion park; hu­mans are the in­trud­ers here. More than 45 species of plants, in­clud­ing the full-skirted Tate’s grass tree, are found nowhere else. Tam­mar wal­la­bies, heath goan­nas and echid­nas can be spot­ted in wild abun­dance; the is­land’s iso­la­tion has pro­tected its fauna from pests and preda­tors such as rabbits and foxes, but not from bush­fires. The ef­fect of last year’s blazes, which were started by light­ning strikes, can be seen in the black­ened trees and scorched yakkas in Flin­ders Chase Na­tional Park, and the koala pop­u­la­tion has been de­pleted.

On my last visit to Kan­ga­roo Is­land, in the late 1980s, I re­call koalas neatly wedged into the crooks of gum trees in such pro­fu­sion they could have been placed there, like Christ­mas dec­o­ra­tions; this time we spot just one and it sur­veys us with ut­ter bore­dom, man­ag­ing a small yawn. The koala has not al­ways had the best time here; ranger Ben tells us their fur was ex­ported as

Aus­tralian chin­chilla’’ in the ’ 20s. sits lightly above Han­son Bay on the is­land’s south­west coast, its ser­pen­tine lines in com­mu­nion with its sloped sur­round­ings. As with all great de­sign, this new prop­erty from James and Hay­ley Bail­lie, the team be­hind Capella Lodge on NSW’s Lord Howe Is­land, has not been an ef­fort­less cre­ation. It is the re­sult of years of plan­ning and en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact and sus­tain­abil­ity stud­ies.

The low-en­ergy lodge and its sur­round­ing in­fra­struc­ture oc­cu­pies a 1ha clear­ing within the 102ha pack­age of land ad­join­ing Flin­ders Chase and Kelly Hill na­tional parks. Un­der a her­itage agree­ment, the rest of the site will not be de­vel­oped.

Ma­te­ri­als such as re­cy­cled tim­bers, a ver­i­ta­ble acreage of glass and pale Kan­ga­roo Is­land lime­stone — in­clud­ing a stun­ning 200m-long wall built by a lo­cal stone­ma­son that curves into the Great Room, the lodge’s hub — make for a spare, or­ganic de­sign with no un­nec­es­sary falder­als.

The stormy blues, smoky greys and muddy greens of the decor merge with the heath and sky be­yond. There

seems lit­tle point in try­ing to com­pete with the view and floor-to-ceil­ing win­dows en­sure a panoramic out­look of near-wrap­around pro­por­tions. There are en­viro-friendly methy­lated spir­its fires, rain­wa­ter is har­vested and stored in gi­ant tanks, and an abun­dance of un­treated sur­faces, some­times with a rough edge of earth­i­ness, em­pha­sise the lodge’s in­ti­mate con­nec­tion to its site.

The Bail­lies are self-con­fessed lodge junkies and have taken in­spi­ra­tion from New Zealand’s best rural ex­am­ples; it’s fair to say Aus­tralia has never seen a wilder­ness lodge of this level, or one so at­tuned to its sur­round­ings. The Bail­lies are mad about good de­sign, too, and if you look at the fit-out here, it’s all about the cream of the Aus­tralian crop, from Khai Liew’s be­spoke tim­ber furniture to Jodie Fried’s wo­ven and em­broi­dered rugs and cush­ions.

Dur­ing my visit, so many guests are in­quir­ing about how to buy the sleek salt-and­pep­per shakers and the South Aus­tralian­made Small In­dul­gences soaps and toi­letries that Hay­ley Bail­lie is re­think­ing how she should stock the lodge’s lit­tle bou­tique.

Guest suites in four price cat­e­gories are ranged in a long line, like a re­treat­ing wave, and reached via a glassed-in tim­ber-floored walk­way that echoes the feel of the raised out­door board­walks. Those who don’t like walk­ing should re­quest a suite close to the Great Room and the cen­tral fa­cil­i­ties, as reach­ing one’s bed at the far end can feel like a heroic ef­fort.

But such ex­er­tion is in keep­ing with the rea­son most vis­i­tors are here; it’s not an idling des­ti­na­tion but one to ex­plore with vim. Com­par­ing South­ern Ocean Lodge with a pair­ing of the world’s best sanc­tu­ar­ies and per­son­alised ex­pe­di­tions, the Bail­lies de­scribe it as ‘‘ a blend of Aman­re­sorts and Lind­b­land Ex­pe­di­tions’’; cer­tainly one could hope for no finer base camp.

Our days are filled with lung-ex­pand­ing walks; many ac­tiv­i­ties are in­cluded in the tar­iff and the lodge has linked up with award­win­ning op­er­a­tor Craig Wick­ham of Ex­cep­tional Kan­ga­roo Is­land to of­fer a range of in­for­ma­tive small group and tai­lored ex­cur­sions, in­clud­ing the must-do sun­rise with sea li­ons out­ing.

We also visit the wind-sculpted Re­mark­able Rocks and Ad­mi­rals Arch, shel­ter­ing its colony of frankly odor­ous NZ fur seals, and his­toric Cape du Couedic light­house. Over­seas guests, in par­tic­u­lar, love the lodge’s lateafter­noon out­ing to nearby Grass­dale for a drinks-and-nib­bles con­gre­ga­tion with tam­mar wal­la­bies and kan­ga­roos that has been dubbed Kan­gas and Kanapes.

Our en­er­getic vir­tu­ous­ness is re­warded each evening by chef Tim Bourke’s splen­did cook­ing. For­merly of Capella Lodge, he is a con­vert to SA pro­duce; much of what he uses is from the im­me­di­ate parish, in­clud­ing freerange eggs and chicken, sheep’s milk yo­ghurt and cheese, strong and fruity olive oil and spank­ing fresh abalone, lob­ster, king ge­orge whit­ing and big, burly prawns.

There are oys­ters from the is­land’s Amer­i­can River, milk-fed lamb from Southrock farm on Kan­ga­roo Is­land’s east­ern tip and laven­der-in­fused oils, dessert syrups and vine­gars from Emu Bay.

His break­fast chef, he tells me, is grow­ing hy­dro­ponic herbs for the lodge and Bourke’s aim is to har­ness into ac­tion as many of the top lo­cal pro­duc­ers as pos­si­ble. The per­fect ac­com­pa­ni­ment to such light and in­ven­tive fare (think: salad of rock lob­ster, zuc­chini flower, as­para­gus and lob­ster vi­nai­grette; a zingy pineap­ple carpac­cio and star anise ice cream) is a well-cho­sen bot­tle from the walkin cel­lar (wine is in­cluded in the tar­iff), which ex­clu­sively fea­tures SA la­bels, in­clud­ing a smat­ter­ing from Kan­ga­roo Is­land winer­ies such as Bay of Shoals, False Cape and the per­haps pro­pi­tiously named Hazy­blur.

We find time, too, to hun­ker in our suite and con­tem­plate that seem­ingly lim­it­less view. All room cat­e­gories are ex­tra spa­cious and each is named for a ship­wreck off the is­land’s un­for­giv­ing coast; there are plans to put a book about th­ese ill-fated ves­sels, from Am­ber Star and Loch Sloy to Stella and You Yangs, in each suite. With the sig­na­ture Bail­lie at­ten­tion to de­tail, it will be cov­ered in the Julie Pat­ter­son fab­ric of re­cur­ring kan­ga­roos also seen in the Great Room’s soft fur­nish­ings. Luxe touches in the suites are well ev­i­dent, from the plat­ter of liqueur-coated lam­ing­tons that greets each guest to com­forts such as goose­down pil­lows, Dan­ish linen pil­low­cases, woollen doonas and soft and roomy gowns.

There are Bruce Gould linocuts of in­dige­nous fauna and flora on the creamy walls and the mini­bar comes stocked with SA beer and sweet treats such as Per­ry­man’s ginger­bread ba­bies and Aunty Joan’s gourmet tof­fee.

All ac­com­mo­da­tion fea­tures a glass-walled bath­room, a sunken sit­ting area and a pe­tite ter­race with a cush­ioned lime­stone bench, be­yond which a tufty car­pet of heath­land stretches to the edge of the cliff. Be­yond lie roil­ing waves and a mist-blurred hori­zon. The lodge has been well-named; it is above and of the ocean. James Bail­lie says that a week be­fore our visit it was like the Amalfi Coast, all serene and trop­i­cal blue.

But our group agrees the change­abil­ity of the sky and sea and this week­end’s show of great foamy swells and wind-bun­dled clouds is a more fas­ci­nat­ing prospect.

We feel we are liv­ing in the Weather Chan­nel. The exclusive po­si­tion, free of the in­tru­sion of neigh­bour­ing build­ings or pol­lu­tion, makes the lodge feel in­trin­si­cally linked to the el­e­ments. The oxy­genated air fairly fizzes this blus­tery late April and the light is an ex­tra­or­di­nary mix of grey-blue and gold; it feels charged by a cur­rent, send­ing wake-up sig­nals to our ur­ban-dulled brains.

As I progress from the lodge proper along the board­walk to the South­ern Spa Re­treat (where treat­ments are based on lo­cal in­gre­di­ents such as Shoal Bay min­eral salts, pink clay, laven­der and honey), I feel buf­feted about, like a lightly teth­ered di­ri­gi­ble. Seabirds are be­ing whirled around and around in the gusts; I fancy they are coo­ing hap­pily at such ef­fort­less fair­ground fun. Yes­ter­day I walked along the clifftop to see an osprey’s nest; in to­day’s con­di­tions, such an ex­posed ex­cur­sion could see me lifted off the ground and hur­ried south. Next stop, Antarc­tica. Susan Kuro­sawa was a guest of Bail­lie Lodges.

Check­list

Kan­ga­roo Is­land is 12km off the coast of South Aus­tralia, south of the Fleurieu Penin­sula; get there via car ferry from Cape Jervis (two hours from Ade­laide) to Pen­neshaw or by Rex Air­lines from Ade­laide to Kingscote. More: www.sealink.com.au; www.rex.com.au. Tar­iff at South­ern Ocean Lodge is from $900 a per­son a night, in­clud­ing break­fast, light lunch, four-course din­ner, se­lected bev­er­ages, com­pli­men­tary mini­bar and guided ex­cur­sions; re­turn trans­fers from Kingscote air­port also in­cluded if re­quired. No chil­dren un­der six; there is a min­i­mum two-night stay. Valid to Septem­ber 30 is a stay four and pay for three nights deal that in­cludes a $100 spa voucher and Bollinger cham­pagne on ar­rival; from $2700 a per­son twin share. More: (02) 9918 4355; www.south­er­nocean­lodge.com.au. www.southaus­tralia.com www.ex­cep­tion­alka­n­ga­roois­land.com

Art­ful lodg­ings: Kan­ga­roo Is­land’s South­ern Ocean Lodge stretches like a frozen wave along the clifftops near Han­son Bay, main pic­ture; in­set, sea lion at Seal Bay Con­ser­va­tion Park

All about the view: Ocean Re­treat suite at South­ern Ocean Lodge

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