How Kangaroo Island recovered from Australia’s devastating bush fires and a global pandemic
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Bush fires are an unfortunate reality of life in Australia.
Vast areas of untamed scrubland, combined with searing hot temperatures, prolonged droughts and unpredictable weather patterns mean that blazes flare up each summer with increasing regularity and intensity.
The summer from December 2019 through March 2020 (just before the coronavirus pandemic took hold) was an especially bad season for Australian bush fires. One of the hardest-hit locales was the tourist magnet of Kangaroo Island, off the coast of South Australia, which is famed for its vast array of indigenous flora and fauna.
From Dec. 20-30, 2019, a rash of lightning strikes sparked blazes across the island, running from the north coast down to Flinders Chase National Park in the southwest.
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With persistent adverse weather conditions, the conflagrations quickly spread across the western part of the island, where they burned out of control for several weeks and eventually destroyed more vegetation than any previous fires in the island’s recorded history. Kangaroo Island was not declared safe again until early February 2020.
Two human lives were lost along with many homes and businesses. The impact on the island’s wildlife was catastrophic, wiping out over 40,000 animals, including many from already threatened species.
Like many others around the globe, TPG readers quickly and generously donated money to help communities affected by the 2019-2020 bush fires across multiple Australian states. But just as recovery efforts began, COVID-19 arrived, halting international tourism almost overnight.
I grew up in South Australia and have fond memories of visiting “K.I.” on school camping trips as a teenager and then as a young adult. Two years on from the devastating bushfires, as Australia reopened its borders to once again welcome back tourists, I returned to Kangaroo Island in March. I wanted to see how (and if) the island has recovered, how all those donations have been used, and what’s in store for tourists ready to return.
Fighting fires and saving livelihoods
Over the course of my day-long visit, I asked locals I met on the island who are involved in the tourism industry what they remember from the fires two years ago. I was amazed to hear how they simultaneously fought the fires and managed to continue operating their businesses (including welcoming international guests).
Craig Wickham runs Exceptional Kangaroo Island, a luxury small-group tour company that relies heavily on international visitors.
“A normal day back then would consist of getting up early, loading water into the tanks on the back of my ute [the Australian word for a pick-up truck], and heading over to the western side of the island to help fight on the frontline until midday. Then I would freshen up, head to the airport or ferry terminal to collect incoming guests and take them on their prearranged tours,” Wickham told me as we chatted under a grove of gum trees.
“We didn’t have a choice,” he said. “We couldn’t afford to lose both the island and our customers at the same time. Fortunately, our tours could be run on the eastern side of the island where the blazes had not (and did not) reach. We saw some nervous faces leaving the aircraft, having seen the island from above, but we were able to assure them as they arrived that we could conduct their tours safely — and mostly as planned.”
While juggling these two roles, Wickham was fielding calls from customers both with confirmed bookings and those considering a visit. Would-be travelers from around the world were seeing media reports that the island was on fire and were unsure if they should travel. Yes, there were parts of the island ablaze, he told them, but he was confident the tours could go ahead and he encouraged guests to make up their own minds about traveling. He didn’t want to see his livelihood go up in smoke — even though the scope of these fires was larger than he had experienced before.
“I’m used to containing fires here, but I have never seen fires as large or sustained as the 2019-2020 fires…. There was definitely a smell of smoke everywhere on the island — it was even noticeable on the South Australian mainland,” he said. But, “Bush fires are a part of life here. Everyone pitches in to help, whether your property is affected or not. We survived this one and we’ll survive the next one, too.”
Donations poured in
While none of the locals I spoke to disclosed the exact amount of financial aid they received from fundraising efforts such as TPG’s GoFundMe appeal, they all expressed gratitude for the donations.
Some K.I. residents whose homes were destroyed in the blazes have chosen to rebuild in exactly the same location, knowing their property could be again at risk in future summers. And it’s not just homes: One of the most iconic and luxurious accommodations on the island (and in all of Australia for that matter), the spectacular Southern Ocean Lodge, was completely destroyed during the bush fires of 2019-2020.
Thirteen guests and around 50 lodge staff were able to evacuate, though as the building started catching embers from the advancing fire, managers Alison Heath and John Hird as well as some senior staff decided take shelter in an on-property bunker instead. They regularly turned on the overhead sprinklers to keep themselves wet and protect themselves from the heat, smoke and any rogue embers.
Owners James and Hayley Baillie have since commenced rebuilding the property in the same spot and plan to reopen in 2023, despite the Country Fire Service deeming the remote site to be high risk and imposing 34 conditions to meet, including the construction of a helicopter pad for potential emergency evacuations.
Some Kangaroo Island residents whose properties were destroyed have relocated to other parts of the island that they consider to be less at risk from future fires.
I was struck by how calm every local was when discussing the devastation — with a shrug they kept reminding me that bush fires are now pretty normal here.
In addition to rebuilding and revegetating the island, donations have helped fund important new conservation projects, Wickham told me.
For the first time ever, for instance, the Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife group, a volunteer biodiversity conservation program, has been able to comprehensively find, monitor and protect the endangered Kangaroo Island dunnart, a tiny marsupial that resembles a small possum and weighs less than a AA battery. This species was thought to be almost extinct, numbering as few as 50 after the fires destroyed so much of its natural habitat.
The group has also used donations to revegetate the dunnart’s habitat, planting 3,500 drooping she-oak trees and 4,000 seedlings of other assorted plants to provide cover for these minuscule animals to protect them from predatory birds and feral cats.
Border closures and local staycations
On March 19, 2020, only 41 days after the Kangaroo Island bush fires were declared to be safe (meaning no sources of ignition within containment lines had the potential to cause further fires, and the area no longer required patrols), Australia closed its borders to international tourists to slow the spread of COVID-19.
For those businesses decimated by the fires, the timing didn’t have as much of an impact, as they were mainly focused on rebuilding their livelihoods. But for residents like Brenton Davis, who operates the Little Sahara Adventure Centre, which takes guests up and down the island’s towering natural sand dunes in dune buggies, the cancellations flooded in immediately.
“We have miles and miles of sand dunes on site, so we were fortunate to escape the worst of the fires, though I still helped fight them on other parts of the island,” Davis told me. “With no international tourists coming onto the island … we had to immediately pivot to focus on attracting locals here while we waited for the borders to reopen.”
Fortunately for Brenton and Little Sahara, South Australians were not banned from traveling within their own state — and when they did visit during the pandemic, it wasn’t just for the day or a long weekend.
“With hardly any intrastate restrictions, South Aussies would visit for a week or two at a time during the pandemic, which was wonderful,” said Davis. “It gave them the chance to explore the island properly at a more leisurely pace, rather than trying to cram everything the island has to offer in a day or two.”
While his business is now thriving, he admitted not every tourism operator on the island has survived the cataclysmic combination of bush fires and pandemic. Those that have been nimble enough to adapt their business to the constantly changing pandemic restrictions have made it through to the other side, though.
As Davis starts to receive international bookings once more, he is encouraging visitors to slow down and enjoy the island over a little more time than they might have taken before, including a stint on his hair-raising dune buggy rides, which I tried out while I was there.
“There’s too much to see to do it in just one day — you need a week!” Davis said with a wink.
Wickham’s Exceptional Kangaroo Island team also benefited from some local bookings during the pandemic but suffered unique challenges.
Government capacity and density limits for vehicles like his touring minibus meant his group tours were restricted to just a single guest plus the driver — something that wasn’t at all economically viable. So his team put their thinking caps on, found some bicycles and began offering cycling tours around the island to replace the minibus. With no indoor transporation involved, there were no density caps.
Since these tours weren’t enough to keep the business afloat on their own, Wickham came up with a savvy side hustle. He had heard that the Mercure Kangaroo Island Lodge hotel was sending its guest laundry to the South Australian mainland each day to be laundered for the simple reason that there was not a single commercial laundromat on the island. The cost of sending laundry back and forth every day was considerable.
So, with fewer bookings and a glut of time on his hands, Wickham found an empty industrial space near his home on the island and built a commercial laundromat. Now his staff launder all the towels and sheets for the hotel at a much cheaper price than the hotel was previously paying to do it on the mainland. This meant he was able to keep his team employed while patiently waiting for international visitors to return.
Regeneration and recovery
The impact of the bush fires is still readily apparent as you drive towards the western half of the island. The trees become darker and darker, their trunks charred or stained with soot. There are miles of blackened forest, but I was pleased to notice significant natural regeneration springing up already.
The contrast of the bright green, new foliage against the charcoal-colored, wizened trunks was oddly beautiful. I suspect that in the next 24 months, the evidence of the 2020 bush fires will become barely noticeable.
Where to go from here?
While the Kangaroo Island locals have enjoyed a steady stream of visitors from South Australia and some other Australian states during the past two years, everyone I spoke to is very ready for international tourists to return now that borders have finally reopened and restrictions have been significantly relaxed.
“There aren’t many places in Australia you will see such diverse wildlife and landscapes in a relatively small space,” the cheery ticket agent at Seal Bay Conservation Park proudly informed me. “There’s the obvious draw cards of kangaroos, koalas and seals, and birdwatchers find plenty of see here, too. There’s classic Australian bushland with miles of pristine deserted beaches perfect for swimming six-plus months per year — you can see it all in a day here if you want. The fires unfortunately impacted the numbers of wildlife, but you will still see everything you hope for here right now.”
Those words rang true as I walked along the sand, mere meters from dozens of Australian sea lions relaxing on the beautiful beach. Down at dramatic Admirals Arch, there are also thousands of long-nosed fur seals.
With the exception of some accommodations that are still being rebuilt, most businesses are open and ready for visitors, too.
At time of publication, masks were still required at shared indoor public spaces, but you won’t be spending much of your time indoors here since the attractions are all outdoors. Remember to be patient with hospitality staff, too. Many businesses on the island are still struggling to recruit enough staff, as some workers decided on career changes during the pandemic, and others headed to the mainland in search of work that was not so reliant on tourism.
My last stop on the island was to taste some delicious local wines at Dudley Wines, which has a convenient location close to Penneshaw, from which the ferry back to the mainland departs.
The shop has one of the most spectacular views on the island across Cuttlefish Bay, with the mainland in the distance. You can even track your ferry as it arrives at the nearby harbor. The 45 minutes I spent sampling a flight of locals wines and enjoying a delicious grazing plate was not nearly enough.
The friendly owners explained to me that, before the pandemic, the shop was usually the last location on the whistle-stop day tours from Adelaide, with visitors only popping in for a quick drink before heading home. They confessed they have loved the change in visitors’ habits the last two years, with more folks arriving for longer stays and taking more time to enjoy their beautiful space and local products.
“Instead of trying a few wines and hastily catching the ferry home, now people enjoy a long lunch and a glass or three of our 13 different wines while soaking up the view. I hope when international visitors return to the island they will do the same,” Tam Howard, Dudley Wines’ general manager, told me.
I felt a real sense of nostalgia returning to Kangaroo Island after so many years away. The scenery and vast array of wildlife was as I remember, though koalas are now much harder to spot. As a teenager I recall seeing one in almost every tree, but the koala population on the island was decimated by the bush fires. Although the destruction from the 2019-2020 fires is quickly apparent when you enter the western half of the island, the regeneration is just as obvious now.
The resilience of the locals impressed me, too. It wasn’t the first bush fire outbreak and it won’t be the last. Right now, however, Kangaroo Island is open for business and ready for international visitors to return to this unique Aussie spot.
Just don’t try and see it all in one day.
Featured image by Ben Smithson/The Points Guy.
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