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Island of Animal Magnetism

Off the southern coast of the land Down Under, Kangaroo Island is a haven for creatures great and small that delight the human visitors who encounter them

September 29, 2002|DEBBIE SEAMAN

KANGAROO ISLAND, Australia — Hearing one's sons outside yelling something about a great white shark fin is a particularly effective alarm clock, especially when one happens to be in a house perched atop a cliff overlooking the sea off South Australia.

By the time I ran to the patio in my nightgown, the mysterious fin had multiplied, and we were looking not at sharks but at a dozen dolphins cavorting just beyond the breakers, their smooth, wet skins reflecting the rays of sunrise.

This was my second stay on Kangaroo Island--70 miles southwest of Adelaide, which in itself is almost at the bottom of the continent known as Down Under--so I was no stranger to its spell. Yet watching my 8-year-old fraternal twins, Cameron and Lachlan, react to its animal magnetism was as much a gift to me as this trip was to them.

Accompanied by my Australian husband, Warren Lancaster, and his parents, Tom and Kath, we reveled in sights such as a seal bodysurfing in the Southern Ocean off Kangaroo Island's south coast; wallabies, smaller cousins of the kangaroos; and large-eyed possums surprised by our car headlights, scurrying in the bush at night.

Kangaroo Island, first found uninhabited in 1802 by British explorer Matthew Flinders and now populated largely by farmers, is more than a mere travel destination. I learned of KI, as the natives refer to it, in 1979 when I interviewed a bearded young wilderness photographer, Mike McKelvey, who had emigrated from California to Kangaroo Island and whose photos brought Australia and KI to life for me. I swore then that if I ever visited Australia, I would go to Kangaroo Island.

In March 1992, I made my first visit to Australia on vacation. After falling in love in Sydney with the man who would later become my husband, I ventured on, solo, for the visit to KI that I had promised myself 13 years earlier.

The island was an unspoiled microcosm of Australia: pristine, deserted white beaches, rolling pastures populated by sheep and various species of gum, or eucalyptus, trees, and even its own tiny "outback," a four-square-mile expanse of dunes called Little Sahara. I was sufficiently charmed in my five days here by the kangaroos, koalas and other critters in the wild to be temporarily distracted from my lovesickness.

McKelvey was still here, and, having become interested in wildlife research, was working with his partner, Peggy Rismiller. She is an American biologist and an expert on tiger snakes and echidnas, the quirky-looking quilled anteaters that abound on the island. He also insisted that I meet Belinda Hannaford, a creative spirit and gourmet cook who rented out lovely cottages overlooking Snelling Beach on the island's north coast. Her own home, Cliff House, had a breathtaking view of beach and breakers, framed by native foliage and exotic flowers.

Children were only a gleam in my eye then. But after Warren and I were married in Australia and had our twins about two years after that visit to KI, I fantasized about showing the boys the wildlife here someday. That dream materialized this year when I planned a trip for their 8th birthday and invited Tom and Kath Lancaster, the boys' grandparents who live outside Melbourne, to join us.

July falls during the Australian winter, but the temperatures can hover around 60 degrees, although it felt warmer. I tracked down Belinda Hannaford and was delighted to discover that she would rent us the glorious Cliff House overlooking Snelling. We flew from Adelaide to Kingscote, where we rented a car.

When we converged on Cliff House, the usually unflappable Australians in our group were as effusive as the Americans. The beach, bathed in alpenglow, was visible from almost every room, but the most spectacular view was from a bedroom I dubbed the Ivory Tower. Like the rest of Cliff House, it was whitewashed brick with touches of Mediterranean blue, a round turret entirely occupied by a bed. I immediately claimed it for Warren and me.

Lachlan and Cameron, meanwhile, declined the remaining bedrooms and instead ran down into the living room and staked out a space I called the "Pit"--the nook that was actually the lower part of the Ivory Tower but sunken a few feet below the living room floor, with pillows and sheepskins scattered around a glass-covered fireplace.

There is much to see on the island, so we spent too little time at Cliff House, and I wished I had allowed time to stretch out for a few hours in the Ivory Tower to read and gaze at the waves. Three days here was insufficient, and our reconnaissance fell well short of thorough, but the kids enjoyed the momentum.

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