Below the Wallace Line.
Travel is about crossing lines. When you travel you are one person when you walk out your door, and quite another upon return. This is in large part due to the strides you take covering territory, physical or psychological, and territory is marked by lines.
The crossing from North America to Australia is expansive and the geographical coupe you count accumulates quickly during the flight. On the way to Sydney you’ll cross the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, the Equator and International Date Line.
There is another little known line that sequesters Australia behind its down-under nook and this partition defines the kind of mammals that live there. The Wallace Line divides the world of Asian animals like lions, tigers and bears from that of kangaroos, wallabies and wombats. The former are placental mammals. They gestate inside their mothers in an internal sack. The latter, marsupials, tend to be born as peanut-sized babies that crawl from the womb into external pouches where they develop. Alfred Russel Wallace was the bushy-bearded contemporary of Charles Darwin who gets semi-credit for discovering natural selection but total credit for the Wallace Line. Based on his observations he drew a precise division between some specific islands of Indonesia…to the east Asia; to the west Australia and New Guinea. It is an important division of faunal forms. Australia lies below the Wallace line and we figured the best place to see those strange faunal forms was Kangaroo Island.
Draw a diagonal line, northeast to southwest, between Indonesia and New Guinea. That’s about where the Wallace Line runs. Kangaroo Island lies to the south of Australia in the Australian Bight.
Galapagos of Australia
Kangaroo Island lies off the southern shore of Australia about thee hours from Adelaide by road and ferry. The ferry crosses from Cape Jervis to Penneshaw where we started our Australian safari. Kangaroo Island is often referred to as Australia’s Galapagos because of its rich native wildlife diversity but the nice thing about KI is that you can drive around on your own to see the sights. Pricey wildlife tours are available but with animals in abundance you can chart your own course, drive the backroads, and still see plenty.
You can circumnavigate Kangaooo Island in a day but to really see it you need time. We spent four days there but could have easily enjoyed a week or more. Driving our rental car out of the tiny town of Penneshaw early the first day we immediately spotted dark grey Kangaroo Island kangaroos. They were crossing the road, in the middle of the road and in nearby fields. Unfortunately, some were dead at the side of the road. At dawn and dusk they are so plentiful that we were warned against driving at these times for fear of hitting animals. But the best light of the day is around sunrise and sunset so we ignored the warnings and instead just drove cautiously and slowly, stopping often to photograph.
We got to the Seal Bay Conservation Park on the southern shore early so we could catch the first nature walk at 9:00am to see Australian Sea Lions. The nature walk is lead by dedicated guides who understand the animals and who can explain the intricacies of sea lion colony life. They can also keep you safe. These are big animals who, in spite of having flippers instead of feet, can cover a lot of ground quickly when motivated. We were visiting during mating season so the 700 lb. males were constantly “motivated.” Woe be it to any other male sea lion, or clueless tourist, who gets between a male and one of his mates. Forewarned by our guide to stay close and listen to her directions, our little group of four wandered down the boardwalk and right onto the beach with the noisy pinnipeds.
Flinders Chase National Park
Way out on the western coast of KI lies Flinders Chase National Park. This is an area of tall eucalyptus forests that meet cliffs sculpted by pounding seas. This is a pristine wilderness with colonies of New Zealand Fur Seals, and an abundance of pouched marsupials such as wallabies and KI Kangaroos. There is a great visitor’s center and kilometers of trails that wind into deep woods. Animal sightings are frequent.
And Then There’s the Echidna
To further tax your patience for faunal taxonomy, Australia has the planet’s only two monotremes; the echidna and the platypus. Monotremes are the third class of mammals after the placentals and the marsupials and they are the only egg-laying mammals. While we only glimpsed the platypus in zoos, we found several echidnas wandering around Kangaroo Island and were able to follow them as they went about their business of “hoovering” up insects. They have long snouts and even longer, sticky tongues so, anteater-like, they probe the forest floor. Like porcupines they sport spines and they roll up into a prickly, defensive ball when threatened.
The coast of Kangaroo Island abounds with natural wonders both living and inanimate. At the end of one park road lies The Remarkable Rocks, a formation of oddly shaped boulders that sits high above the shoreline, sculpted by wind and rain. Joanne and I could have photographed here for days, watching the shadows change with the southern hemisphere’s soft spring light, but we only had one morning. It was getting to be the end of our stay.
Australia is a big place and one of our toughest planning problems was figuring out where to visit out of all of the amazing possibilities. We had the luxury of five weeks in country and only just touched parts of the eastern and southeastern shores. This is an island continent, similar in size to the United States, with vast distances between cities and geographical destinations.
Of our many memorable Australian landing places, KI sticks in my mind. I would have liked to have extended our stay there. This is one of those travel experiences where you feel like you’ve really come to someplace different, exotic, maybe like another planet. For a geographically isolated continent like Australia, Kangaroo Island itself is isolated. It lies so far from Australia’s southern shore that the kangaroos and wallabies here evolved into separate subspecies.
It struck me that Australian cities were not much different from cities back in the USA and their people and language were similar as well. But wandering here among Australia’s wild creatures, often in very close proximity, felt like exploring unfamiliar ground. While in their alien-like presence it felt like I’d come a long way, crossed oceans, traversed some geography. It is a feeling I like. It is crossing lines and going distances, but it is also encountering, embracing and experiencing these others and bringing them into your mind and heart.