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Kangaroo Island’s post-bushfires road to recovery

From devastation to regeneration, Kangaroo Island is rising from the ashes with newborn shoots and blooms, as Marie Barbieri discovers

“This is incredible! I was only here last week, and I almost don’t recognise where I am. It has completely changed. Basal growth is so much thicker. I’m so excited to bring you here today!”

The words spill at speed from my wide-eyed guide. Her neck craning through the passenger seat window of our 4WD, she is visibly emotional. So is her colleague, who is driving. It’s infectious. I, too, become watery eyed…

I’m with Nikki Redman and Gaylene Ingram of Kangaroo Island Odysseys, on their inaugural one-day, one-night ‘Road to Recovery Tour’. Having spent the evening at Mercure Kangaroo Island Lodge, we’re now bound for the western end of South Australia’s world-renowned wilderness, which was razed to the ground by the 2019/2020 bushfires – unprecedented in their scale and ferocity. Almost half of the 4,400-square-kilometre island was burnt, with a colossal cost to wildlife and its habitat, not to mention homes, farms, livelihoods and human life.

Regrowth at Remarkable Rocks Kangaroo Island
Regrowth at Remarkable Rocks © Marie Barbieri

Kangaroo Island is regrowing

But with every new dawn, upon an ash-laden land now charred and scarred, emerge new verdant shoots from ancient, determined roots. And standing alongside them is the unbreakable spirit of a fiercely bonded island community. With Mother Nature sewing her seeds, furry green leg warmers are once again climbing the trunks of the recently blackened ankles of eucalypts, sheoaks and melaleucas. And seeing it in its fresh chlorophyll flesh, changes you.

Returning birdlife

Nature’s leafy living room is inviting back its resident creatures and critters. And the skies once again flicker with black and red feathers. The glossy black cockatoo (extinct on the mainland) was severely impacted during the inferno, with five of the island’s seven flocks losing their drooping sheoak habitat. But there is good news.

“We have 23 fledglings now. And around 100 glossies flew over American River just yesterday,” says Nikki. “And did you know,” she adds, “that cockatoos always hold their nuts in their left hand?” So that’s why this guide’s nickname is Nikkipedia.

Read: Would you like to fly private around Australia? Here’s what it’s really like.

The dunnart lives on

Little was known about the island’s critically endangered dunnart, feared extinct after the flames. But sensor cameras set up by Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife, on the property of landowner Peter Hammond, captured the miniature marsupial happily scampering underground, informing researchers that dunnarts actually burrow during fire. This led local conservationists to construct shelter tunnels to protect them from predators while the bush regenerates.

Coastal calling

Arriving at Seal Bay, white-browed scrubwren flit between coastal bearded heath, native spinach and the pretty red bells of correa. But we’re here to see the Australian sea lions that call this part of the island home. Crouching on the sand, we watch a frisky male wooing a nonchalant female. “Visiting their territory is like being in a sea lion’s bedroom,” says Nikki, raising her camera lens. “They don’t live in families. They’re just sperm donors.”

Sea lions at Seal Bay Conservation Park
Sea lions at Seal Bay Conservation Park © Marie Barbieri

Fresh lease on life

Calling in at Vivonne Bay we’re confronted with a landscape of arthritic coal-black boughs. But closer inspection reveals native violet and yellow hop goodenia dot-painting the limestone slopes. The nutrient-rich ash is resuscitating epicormic buds in the unstoppable cycle of life.

Approaching Flinders Chase National Park (of which, 96 per cent burned), a magical landscape of ancient xanthorrhoea unravels, some of these distinctive plants 600 years old. The grass trees burst with towering yellow seed-filled flower spikes. Amazingly, Kangaroo Islanders had no idea just how many there were here, until the fires incinerated the thickly forested mallee.

Kangaroo Island regrowth
Xanthorrhoea sporting impressive flower spikes © Marie Barbieri

Remarkable encounters

Remarkable Rocks, formed 500 million years ago, was largely unaffected by the fires. Although some shaling occurred, the granite boulders are now fringed with blossoming purple fan flowers. Gaylene points out the seeds about to open on a dryland tea-tree. And we spot the tiny petals of the carnivorous sundew plant – it’s smaller than our toes, but devours insects.

Kangaroo Island – here, nature really speaks to you.

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Main image: Flinders Chase National Park © @bessiebusandus

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