Kangaroo Island: 10 essential tips when travelling with kids
No trip to South Australia is complete without a visit to Kangaroo Island, but for families travelling with kids, you need to be properly prepared.
There's no shortage of natural wonders to be found in South Australia. From sink holes to volcanic mountains, wide rivers to dry deserts, it's a great state for a family road trip. I recently took my family of five – kids aged 9, 7 and 5 – through South Australia on a 2-week road-trip, which included a 5-day visit to Kangaroo Island.
You can fly into Kangaroo Island directly, but otherwise it's a 3-hour drive south from Adelaide. The journey is bordered by breath-taking vistas, rolling hills and pristine coastline. Eventually you'll end up at a car ferry that you would be wise to have booked well in advance. You'll know if you've booked it; your wallet will be substantially lighter.
Around 45-minutes later, the ferry will ship you across to Australia's third largest island. A 4,405 km² chunk of wonderful wilderness, enjoyed by a standing population of just over 4,000. I highly recommend the effort and the cost of visiting this fantastic Australian destination. But if you're travelling with kids like I did, here are some top tips to help you get the most out of your trip.
Here's what I learned when travelling as a family to Kangaroo Island, South Australia.
1. Leave your trailer or caravan on the mainland
I'm not going to beat around the bush; getting to Kangaroo Island is expensive. It's worth it, but the lack of options and relative infrequency of ferries (which drives high demand), means your wrists are tied. And such is the size of the island itself, you really do need a car once you are there.
What you don't need, is everything you may have towed across the country. Adding a trailer, caravan, boat or any such towed contraption will greatly increase your ferry costs. If you don't need it on Kangaroo Island – as in, you're not camping – or can move what you do need into your vehicle-proper, you can store anything you've towed on the mainland.
We left our trailer at the BIG4 Cape Jervis caravan park, just five minutes away from the ferry. It cost just $5 a night (ring ahead to confirm price hasn't changed), was a secure location and was easy to access.
2. Food isn't horribly expensive, but fuel is
Prior to arriving on Kangaroo Island, I had assumed that, being an isolated location, food would be quite expensive. Not so. I need not have stocked up on the way south with 4 days of food – shopping bags piled up to the top of the back window, baking in the hot sun. I was pleasantly surprised by the prices at the local IGA in Penneshaw, where you disembark the ferry.
We also shopped and ate fast food in Kingscote and, again, all the prices were reasonable.
Fuel, on the other hand, was not. There was a significant mark-up from the prices on the mainland, maybe 40 cents a litre more. So, with that in mind, try and fill up as close as you can get to the ferry as possible while still on the mainland, including any jerry cans you may have.
3. Be prepared for long drives
Kangaroo Island is a lot bigger than you might expect. It's a good couple of hours to drive from one side of the island to the other and, naturally, the destinations you will want to visit are spread to all four points of the compass. You should plan your days so you can visit as many destinations as possible in each area on a single visit. Regardless, the way the roads are designed – many of them dirt – you will still need significant time behind the wheel.
As such, make sure you have the equipment on hand to keep the kids from going crazy, and retaining your own sanity, on these drives. I also recommend an esky or car fridge. Places like Seal Bay and the Remarkable Rocks are isolated and it is not easy to find lunch once you've made the journey.
For the record, the only places you can buy petrol are at Penneshaw, Kingscote, Parndana and Vivonne Bay. And also, double check the route your map app gives you: There are a lot of shortcuts on dirt roads that the GPS tends to ignore.
4. Avoid driving at night
Further to the above tip regarding long drives, do your best to avoid driving at dusk or into the night. Kangaroo Island is blessed with a large and diverse ecosystem, even after the fires. You'll know this from the amount of roadkill. As such, driving at night is sketchy to say the least. There are no streetlights and bushland is often crowded in on all sides. Plus, the locals hoon, meaning bright headlights are often sitting on your tail eager to overtake.
A couple of times I got caught getting dinner or returning late from an adventure, forced to drive an hour or so at night. I didn't hit anything, but that felt like a miracle. I lost count of the number of animals that ran or flew or hopped out in front of me during those drives. Add 3 tired kids fighting in the back row and you have a recipe for disaster.
Be proactive with your planning when it comes to dinner, and start your days early so you can get your adventures done before last light.
5. Visit the Wildlife Park
Not another wildlife park. That is what I thought when my wife and I considered spending half a day at the Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park & Aquarium. Driving around Australia, we'd been to 3 zoos in the month prior to our Kangaroo Island visit, so yet more animals didn't seem that enticing. But I'm so glad we went!
The Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park & Aquarium (although the aquarium bit is a stretch) takes in injured animals or those discarded from zoos, and gives them a home. There's a surprisingly large range of native and international animals, spread around an easy to navigate farm-like experience.
What I loved about the Park is the access to the animals and its relaxed atmosphere. You wander around at your own pace, getting incredibly close to, and even feeding, a huge range of animals. Regular talks provide stacks of information and opportunities to fulfil dreams like patting a Koala at no extra cost. You don't need to be an athlete to get around the place either. A real winner.
6. It's hot even when it's not
We travelled to Kangaroo Island over the Easter weekend and were blessed with relatively calm conditions. There was no rain or even much in the way of wind. Perhaps we got lucky. Yet the daily temperatures still only hovered around the high teens, which most Aussies would consider cool. Despite this, it felt more like 30.
It could be a result of the dry, desert-like feel of the island's interior, where long stretches of sandy roads reflect the sun's heat. Or the ancient rock surfaces, as hard as titanium, that line the coast. But we found the conditions much warmer than the advertised temperature, even if it did cool down significantly at night. In short, don't assume you won't need "summer clothes" just because the temperature looks low, and pack accordingly.
7. Don't miss Flinders Chase National Park
Given that it's at the furthest point on Kangaroo Island from where you arrive, and has the main accommodation options, you may be tempted to ditch a visit to Flinders Chase National Park. Don't miss it. In fact, give yourself a full day as it's awesome and well worth the entry fees ($37.85 for our family of five).
The most iconic destination is the Remarkable Rocks, which live up to their bizarre name. You can liken them to Uluru in that they will surprise you with their scale and dazzle you with their sense of history and power. I can also vouch for the Cape du Couedic Lighthouse. You can park here and then walk down to Admirals Arch with its seal colony. I also enjoyed the Weirs Cove ruins that are nearby.
There are plenty of easy, kid-friendly walks to attempt too if you still have the energy. Notably the Platypus Waterholes or Snake Lagoon – the names alone will excite the kids. Indeed, South Australia Tourism should be commended for the way the tracks have been built and maintained, they're family and eco-friendly. But even if walks aren't your thing, just driving around this part of the island is breath-taking. On that, make sure you have plenty of petrol before you set out on this adventure!
8. Stay centrally or book two spots
The main accommodation areas on Kangaroo Island are between Penneshaw, where the ferry arrives, and Kingscote, the unofficial capital. We stayed on Island Beach, in a beautiful place called the Lagoon House. About 15-minutes west of Penneshaw, the spot hosts stunning northern views over the ocean, plenty of places to fish and wildlife everywhere.
However, it's a long drive from there to the major destinations. That's certainly something to keep in mind, especially if you are planning a very quick visit.
Staying somewhere more towards the centre of the island will mean a lot less time in the car as you get to all four points exploring its natural wonders. Alternatively, consider doing the eastern side first, then move to new accommodation for your western adventures.
If I were to stay again, I'd only choose the eastern edge of the island for the whole visit if I had a full week to explore and knew I didn't need to try and get a lot done in a small amount of time.
9. Consider free activities like fishing
If you're used to travelling with kids, then you'll know it's always expensive no matter what you want to do. However, some of the activities you can do on Kangaroo Island can certainly hurt the back pocket more than you might expect. Swimming with dolphins, the guided Koala Walk at Hanson Bay and even the Seal Bay walk – while awesome – feel overpriced for the time you actually spend entertained.
There are some free alternatives worth considering. Stokes Beach is a lot of fun. It's accessed through an intricate tunnel system that the kids will absolutely adore, and there is a pristine swimming hole on the other side. The lagoon at the end of Island Beach is also spectacular, and there's fantastic fishing to be had in the channel there between Sapphiretown and American River.
Then of course there are the hikes. One not to be missed is the Pelican Lagoon Lookout, which gives you a bird's eye view of the island at its narrowest point.
If you're happy to spend a little bit of money, sandboarding at Little Sahara is good fun. You can just hire one or two boards and bring your own helmets to keep costs down. Then take turns when you get to the giant sand dunes. Little Sahara has a refreshingly relaxed vibe. You can also feed penguins at the Kingscote wharf from 5pm. There was a nominal fee of $3 per person when we were there.
10. Keep an eye out for specials
There's no doubt that the expense of getting to Kangaroo Island is the hardest pill to swallow as a family. Especially if you intend on camping or caravanning and have a trailer in tow. With that in mind, it's a good idea to keep an eye on Sealink's specials page. Every now and again it has deals that can save you significant dollars on the ferry ride across to the island.
From my experience, it's important not to do Kangaroo Island last minute. There's not much in the way of ferries and flights, so you'll find yourself either pushed to a time that doesn't suit or missing out altogether. Get in early. Plus, you're unlikely to get a deal unless you have your dates in place well ahead of time and are actively keeping an eye on the pages linked above.
I don't regret spending the money I did to show my kids Kangaroo Island. But money is money, and if you can get a deal, then more power to you!
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