You know, I love scratchy towels. The scratchier the better. If they come off the clothes line horizontal when held at one end, I’m pretty happy. Scratchy towels drink water like a barramundi on the Nullarbor and that’s surely what we all want from a towel. I find new towels almost water repellent; you may as well put a wet jumper on. They kind of just smear the water around and it just feels clammy and weird.
I was recently invited to spend a few days at Southern Ocean Lodge on Kangaroo Island, South Australia – about 200kms from Adelaide accessible by ferry or a rather bumpy 20 minute plane ride. From Kingscote airport, an hour drive at break-neck speed (the locals know these roads) and you arrive at Southern Ocean Lodge. There would be something chronically wrong with your mindset if you weren’t blown away by the sheer magnificence of this place – a short walk down a timber path deposits you into ‘the Great Room’ and my word, it is capital G for Great but true appreciation comes when you step out of the shower, reach for a big fluffy towel and it’s ABSORBENT. I could have cried. THIS is the true sign of a magnificent holiday. If you don’t have the same fastidious penchant for scratchy towels as I do, then I shall stop banging on about them and share some other wonders with you.
Back to that Great Room. In an ideal world, the entrance room would be empty of others, allowing patrons of the lodge if they so wished to run around screaming at the top of their lungs, possibly even swearing, about how jaw dropping it is. As you can imagine, it’s not that kind of place so I composed myself and felt a tiny bit sorry for those who find this kind of experience the norm. Your eyes hurt because they don’t quite know where to land first and although the calm-tonal furnishings, the suspended wood fire or the very well stocked guest bar are all sheer eye candy, you can’t help but be drawn to the view outside. The Kangaroo Island south coast line is as brutal as can be; crashing waves onto a shallow depth of sand before reaching miles of short Mallee scrub and… that is it. That’s the brilliance. You are completely and utterly on the edge of the earth. Incredible. Having spent the last few years with the closest stretch of land being the local cricket pitch, I can’t deny it’s a little daunting. Not daunting in a ‘what creatures will come for me in the night’ way, more of a ‘this makes me feel physically insignificant in the universe’ kind of way – especially at night when the stars come out. Minimum light pollution equals maximum Milky Way viewing. If you can open your eyes wide enough without getting coastal wind retinal burn, you are in for a mighty treat (thankfully the Lodge rooms have been designed that retinal damage is basically non-existent – almost completely sheltered).
We were all shown to our rooms after a quick welcoming glass of champagne and the jaw dropping commenced again. Each room is almost a mini apartment; recycled local wood and limestone tiles, split level with a large inbuilt curved couch with views out to the ocean. Like, way out. There are polar bears in your direct line of view (if you can see 4,500kms to Antarctica). No boats, no ships, no tourists walking past your window with straw hats and binoculars – just uninterrupted pristine coastline and deep, dark ocean.
We returned to the dining room and had lunch prepared for us by the lodge’s Executive Chef, Tim Bourke – a towering New South Welshman of few words who has rightly sold his soul to the allure of the Island. He threw together a frisee, smoked pancetta, shallot and poached egg salad. Yes, the best egg salad you could ever eat and this was just the beginning of the gastronomic magic this guy and his team weaves in the kitchen.
We set off after lunch on a cliff walk up behind the lodge, quite a feat after three exceptional glasses of chardonnay. Just as we left the sun came out and turned the water below the cliffs into the most magnificent aquamarine colour that artists beg to achieve on their palettes (I know, I’ve tried). Its views like these that make me wonder why people would even bother travelling to Bora Bora or a remote Greek Island when it’s right on our front porch.
Before dinner, we took a short bus ride to a clearing where our tour guide whipped out a few eskys of excellence. Kangaroo Island oysters and champagne, we walked among a few kangaroos having their evening nibble and saw some of the best examples of flora I have seen in a long time. Even the dead trees on Kangaroo Island are sights to behold. Back to the lodge for dinner; just a little basic meal, you know:
Marinated yellow kingfish, local yoghurt, pickled cucumber, dill, frozen horseradish – ‘Torbreck woodcutters’ semillion, Barossa Valley
Tartare of south rock lamb, slow-cooked egg yolk, dried olive, wild rocket, saltbush and sorrel – Hentley Farm zinfandel, Barossa Valley.
Roasted rump of Onkaparinga venison, wild rosemary, onion puree, poached pear, macadamia
I’m ashamed to say I couldn’t make it to dessert – sensory overload from the minute we woke up but the zinfandel finally took hold. I snuck back to my room and drunkenly cried at the stars. Feeling adventurous, I dragged my blanket and pillow out onto the balcony for that ‘true island experience’. It was so true however that I was in the comfort of the king sized bed precisely seven minutes later.
Embarrassingly the next morning I had to call the front desk and ask how to raise my blinds – Alison, the lodge manager had explained when we checked in but surely she must know that you can’t deposit someone into such a place and explain operating procedures to them?! My mind was absolutely not listening to mechanical blind instructions two minutes after entering my room. (tip: if you are staying at Southern Ocean Lodge, the blind controls are next to the bed. Makes sense when you think about it).
There is an abundance of wildlife on Kangaroo Island – kangaroos obviously, wallabies, too many cute and colourful birds to mention, seals and sea lions, snakes and koalas. So many koalas apparently that they are a bit of a nuisance. I was expecting to see koalas propping up the bar at the local but given the ferocious weather we were having on our trip, I only got to see one – and the back of him at that. The kangaroos are an odd dark colour, as though they have been rolling around in the bottom of a barbecue pit, but their dark fur is an adaptation to their environment. With no introduced predators on the Island like foxes and rabbits, all of these guys can lead a pretty serene existence, even the pub koalas.
We set off on our Gourmet food tour early Thursday morning driving almost a full circumference of the island and visiting the producers that have put this wild place on the world’s gastronomic map.
- The gorgeous crew at Island Pure sheep dairy who only refer to their livestock as ‘the girls’; they are banging out some incredible cheeses and given my history here at home, the feta and kefalotiri were my winners followed closely by the squeaky mild haloumi. Delicious. They also do a rather spectacular sheep’s manchengo which we’d paired with a fig and olive tapenade. If you have not had fig and olive tapenade I suggest you get on board that train immediately.
- Peter Davis of Island Beehive is pretty up on his organic Ligurian honey and the army that produces it. Starting as a small operation he now has international orders for his unique product from all over the world and is hoping to pump out 30 tonnes of the liquid gold this coming year. Do you have any idea what 30 tonnes of honey looks like? It’s a lot. There is a pretty schmick gift shop and café to take a jar of goodness home with you. Or a candle. Or some pollen. Or a plush toy.
- We visited Dave Huxtable at his goose farm, who casually sauntered out from his front door in gumboots, beanie and the most essential farmer’s apparatus – a bulging plate of goose rillettes. He has thousands of geese that roam about as they please, not a care in the world. If you want to witness the true meaning of free range – you need to visit Dave and his geese.
- The Islander Estate winery is set back off the road in Cassini (a road that is prone to flooding and thereby throwing all timing into disarray that no one actually cared about) a 300 hectare property of which 11 are dedicated vineyards. Jacques Lurton saw the unique agricultural and wine growing properties of this land and set up here the vineyard in 2000. Just about all of the equipment has been imported from France including the fine concrete wine fermenters produced by a French tomb maker in 4,000 and 8,000 litres (or 4 body and 8 body tombs if you like but don’t freak out, they are not second hand). The winery produces Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Sangiovese, Viognier and Semillion.
- It was in the barrel room that unassuming Chef Bourke produced a couple of equally unassuming eskys again. Out came a picnic lunch of smoked fish salad, preserved lemon and fennel salad, potato and dill salad, charcuterie, breads, cheeses. No fairy bread. No quiche in tin foil. It was incredible, all served with some cracking Malbec and Sangiovese from the winery. Stick a fork in me already.
- We set off after lunch to the Kangaroo Island Aquaculture facility at the KI Community Education Centre – this whole experience made me want to sue my parents for a less than desirable education. Kids of all ages have a very prominent hand in raring and producing barramundi in aquaculture facilities based at the school, the final product used right across the island (including Southern Ocean Lodge). We got to try the smoked barramundi and witness first hand what happens when passionate adults under the leadership of Peter Philip teach younger generations about our agriculture industry. Almost bought a tear to my eye. Cash up, mother.
- Our last stop with Kangaroo Island Spirits. My spiritual home, pardon the pun. Jon Lark is producing some of Australia’s award winning gins and spirits, using local botanicals and flavours in his 80 litre still. When I asked to see the distillery, Jon threw his thumb behind his shoulder to a copper contraption sitting on a kitchen cupboard. There was no massive warehouse or little guys in white coats. The wild gin was my favourite – very punchy juniper taste, but so, so smooth. Straight up. Heaven. From little things big things grow, hey. Of course, now I want my own still.
Back to the lodge for another of Tim’s little throw togethers:
Kangaroo Island Spirits wild gin cured Atlantic salmon, juniper lime cream, organic kale juice, gin powder
Salad of organic celeriac and lodge made fresh cheese, brown butter, hazelnuts, shallots
Slow cooked cheek of Barossa Valley Berkshire pig, Jerusalem artichoke, apple, walnuts, capers
I should have mentioned this before but just about every ingredient used at the lodge is local and foraged. If it can’t be found on the island, it is sourced from as close as possible. I’m viewing my backyard in a whole new light since returning. You’re a genius, Bourke. A tall, quiet genius.
The next morning after breakfast we set off to Cape du Couedic – tales of shipwrecks and cliff climbs, wild weather and solo journeys could not have prepared me for just how wild this end of the island was. It’s God’s industrial washing machine. Complete with God’s industrial dryer.
If it’s any indication, the tour guide told us that we may get blown of the board walk. Uh huh. The wind blows straight through your head, teeth achingly, eardrum shattering magnificence. How any creature exists out here is beyond me but tucked in amongst the rocks are the cutest little New Zealand seal pups and their parents. Given their ecosystem and its accompanying weather, they looked pretty darn warm. They have tiny ears so maybe they couldn’t hear Mach III winds blowing?
We drove up the road to Remarkable Rocks where my schooling let me down once again “couple of thou?” I said to the tour guide in reference to how long it took for these smooth formations took to create “50 million actually”. I had no response other than to snap as many pictures as I could and caress the cold granite in awe.
After lunch we set off to the Sea Lion Park. Thousands of them grace these sand dunes and waters – fighting and loving and parenting – diving for days at a time to collect food for their offspring. Funny that because they must have all been diving at once. I saw three sea lions. Three. And apparently they are quite vicious so maybe three was enough. Yet again though, they possess a decent dose of cuteness and regardless of their leathery fur, I wanted to toss them a blanket to protect against these shaking winds. Or I wanted someone to toss me a blanket at least.
We headed back to the lodge for a hot shower and another magnificent meal with the Lodges owner Hailey and our host John who were preparing for the start of Kangaroo Island Food Safari starting the next day – the most hectic time in the Lodge’s calendar.
The true mark of an excellent vacation, dining experience, anything in that ilk is how the staff make you feel. If you feel like you could share a beer with them at any given moment or talk about plans for Christmas dinner then you have found yourself a winner. You know me, I am no post card for Conde Naste – I don’t even own white linen pants or jazzy sandals, but John and Alison and all the staff at Southern Ocean Lodge make you feel like you are part of the furniture. Except when you tell them you aren’t in fact leaving and discreetly handcuff yourself to the bar – that may get awkward but I’m sure they would pour you an excellent glass of Shiraz whilst waiting for the fuzz to arrive.
If Kangaroo Island and Southern Ocean Lodge is on your bucket list, I suggest you ditch some other things from that there bucket and move it to the top. I feel as though I have very lightly touched on what it means to be part of this place. A truly unique experience that will be burned into my memory forever.