The world is back travelling! Blair and I participated in the Australian Tourism Exchange in Sydney in May. We are excited to be reunited with so many of our Australian and International travel distribution partners, many of whom have become close friends. The energy on the trade show floor was amazing – and so many of us felt it was a palpable sign that we are on the right track for a return to a more normal business environment.
Be warned – this is a detailed update as there have been many changes…
Exceptional Kangaroo Island is a family-owned business based in Cygnet River on Kangaroo Island. Our core experiences are small group and private tours, guided walks and e-Bike tours. Common to all is a focus on good food, good wine and sustainable wildlife encounters. Our tours can be combined with a selection of accommodations and enhanced by the addition of encounters with local artists, wine- makers and ecologists. Our mission is to celebrate the very best Kangaroo Island offers in a sustainable way.
The past couple of years
Wow – who could have predicted that on the back of the bushfires, the world would come to a standstill? Those who did not get hit by fires got flooded! We know the combined impact of all of this has been hard on so many people and our hearts go out to anyone who lost loved ones, homes and businesses through all of this. We are now looking forward to getting back to hosting travellers on a more consistent basis – but thought we would reflect on some of the things we did to stay in the best commercial condition to restart.
We hosted private dinners in holiday homes, operated a pop-up restaurant in a shearing shed, started e-Bike tours, I did some keynote addresses at tourism conferences in Tasmania and Queensland, developed an operator “how-to” toolkit “Wildscaping your Tourism business”, Blair and I did a host of film-making to try to stay engaged with international customers, developed a new hiking programme ‘Walk Kangaroo Island‘ and reviewed all of our operations. Janet became our Chef and in between catering duties, returned to her profession as an Intensive Care and Anaesthetics Nurse. Our crew also did a big switch in direction and opened a business in a totally new industry ‘Island Laundry and Linen’. The net result of all of this is that we are still in business and have the core of our wonderful team of staff still in place.
Current touring capacity
To maintain cashflow we sold three vehicles but retained two Toyota Landcruisers (four guests), one Toyota Hiace 4WD (ten guests) and a Mercedes Sprinter AWD (eleven guests). The impact of this is that we have reduced our maximum group size on share tours to ten guests but can take up to eleven in this vehicle on a private basis. We have placed orders for another two Sprinters but have been advised the likely delivery date will be October 2023.
There are several elements to this – the natural recovery, business impacts, infrastructure rebuild and visitor experience.
The 30+ months since the fires have been remarkable – mild with no extreme heat events, and up until the current season, above-average rainfall. Whilst it is clear we lost many animals, the immediate rescue and animal welfare effort was unprecedented in a short window in which the animals were either rescued and rehabilitated or survived on their own. Enough donations have continued to come in that there is ongoing ecological survey work being done with the result being we have a far better understanding of the response of the wildlife – particularly the smaller mammals that we knew very little about.
It may come as a surprise that there are many positives to come out of the fires in terms of koalas and wildlife more generally. The foundation of this statement is that from a pure conservation perspective, the focus must be on habitat and populations, rather than individuals. Whilst from a humane perspective, we need to do the best we can for animal welfare and the work done in this regard during the 2019/2020 fires was unprecedented.
An enormous rescue, assessment and rehabilitation effort was made possible due to the extraordinary level of global support through donations made. There are so many legacies (skills, knowledge, networks and investment in physical resources) which make us better prepared for the next fire or other natural emergencies.
Looking at habitat, the fires were a massive regeneration event and it is important to look at this from the perspective of koala management. Prior to the fires, $8 million AUD had been spent on Kangaroo Island over about a 15-year period to manage the population – largely through sterilisation. Very high koala densities have had an enormous impact on the vegetation on which koalas and many other species depend, and the fires have given these vegetation associations a reprieve.
In the roughly 60% of Kangaroo Island that was not impacted by fire, koala densities are still above sustainable levels so the sterilisation work will need to continue. From a visitor perspective, there are still plenty of areas where we find koalas – largely in areas explored on our “Island Life” tour although koalas are currently found in and around the Rocky River precinct in Flinders Chase National Park.
Post-fire, we recommend the Island Life tour over Flinders Chase Focus if travellers are choosing only one of our tours. This is relevant where there is a high expectation of a rich wildlife experience which is likely for international visitors. As you can see from the image below, most of the time on a Flinders Chase Focus tour is spent within the fire-affected areas.
Does this mean that there is no wildlife there? Not at all – but because the landscape has opened up so much, the wildlife is very dispersed. Over time, as the vegetation regrows (this is happening fast – see the composite image) and the canopy closes, the grasses will disappear and remain only as seeds awaiting the next fire, and the wallabies and kangaroos will gravitate more to the areas adjacent pastures as they were pre-fire. So in short – Flinders Chase Focus on the landscape, fire ecology and coastal scenery – with Cape Barren geese and Long-nosed fur-seals being guaranteed wildlife encounters, and the Island Life itinerary is more of the wildlife day where kangaroos, wallabies, koalas and Australian sea-lions are the regular wildlife encounters.
The vegetation has recovered to the extent that recent guests commented in one part of Flinders Chase National Park that they could not see where the fire had been! The composite image that illustrates the changes over time speaks volumes…
The business impacts have been significant with quite a few businesses choosing not to rebuild (Kangaroo Island Wilderness Retreat, Hanson Bay Sanctuary Visitor Centre, Hanson Bay Cabins (lost 4 of 6) and some taking a longer term approach to this (Southern Ocean Lodge, Vivonne Bay Lodge, Flinders Chase Visitor Centre) and are yet to rebuild, or are operating under different parameters (Kangaroo Island Wilderness Trail is operating as a series of day walks out of the Western Kangaroo Island Caravan Park).
Many farms and one of our vineyards (The Islander Estate Vineyards) were heavily impacted but an extraordinary amount of work by business owners and many volunteers have seen them back in production and The Islander Estate Vineyards have just finished their first vintage harvesting grapes from vines completely burned by the fires. Amazing resilience of people and plants!
From an infrastructure perspective, temporary offices and toilets have been placed at Rocky River in Flinders Chase National Park and the toilets and enhanced boardwalk reconstructed at Remarkable Rocks. There is ongoing work on walking trails, and campgrounds (although Western Kangaroo Island Caravan Park is back in business with improved facilities and capacity) and a new Visitor Centre has been contracted at the site of the former Kangaroo Island Wilderness Retreat. Kelly Hill Caves are still closed and we are yet to see plans or even a timeline. Mobile phone towers have been re-instated (services that switch to Telstra are much better than Vodaphone or Optus) and a few wifi hotspots have been installed in the park.
Given the scale of the fires and the fact that the vegetation that recovers first is far more open than the mature bushland that burned, visitors (particularly self-drive) will not see many animals in Flinders Chase National Park. Even on a guided basis, the number of kangaroos, wallabies, koalas and birds seen in the park at the moment, is lower than it was previously. These creatures are there – a short walk anywhere in the park shows signs of many creatures (bandicoots, echidnas, goannas and the usual range of larger mammals) in the form of tracks, droppings and diggings, but they are very dispersed. Outside of the fire-effected area, the numbers are probably larger than they were before due to them being displaced by the fire. Our recommendation is that guests select our Island Life share tour for the wildlife encounters, and Flinders Chase Focus for the fire ecology and iconic landscapes of the southwest region. We are yet to get access to some areas post-fire but have found excellent alternatives.
New e-bike tours
One of the new products that we developed post-COVID was Kangaroo Island E-Bikes. This is a guided tour with a very similar focus to our regular vehicle-based touring – storytelling, private property access, access to spectacular nature and our usual high standard of food and wine. The Gin, Wine and Wildlife tour operates from 10.30 am until 4.00 pm on Tuesdays and Saturdays with a minimum of 2 and a maximum of 6 guests. This is a great addition to a self-drive itinerary as this experience gets people off the beaten track with access to a remarkable re-wilding property, provides access to an enthusiastic local guide and includes our signature barbecue lunch.
Walk Kangaroo Island
The focus of this experience is walking and it is a different concept to most walks. It is not a linear trail from A to B but instead is a selection of diverse walks over six days and is vehicle supported so no packs need to be carried. Hosted by two of our guides, the walks are half-day and you walk into an elegant setting, enjoy a local produce-driven lunch with Island wines, and then do another walk in the afternoon. In total the walks cover about 65 kilometres over the six days so it is not a strenuous walk. It includes return transfers from Adelaide, all meals, and a series of community encounters with ecologists, wine-makers and artists. We understand that 6 days is a big commitment for international travellers but for the right client, this is a great product. Monthly departure dates can be found on the website.
If you have found trying to get clients to Kangaroo Island via air to be frustrating, join the club! Regional Express have recently withdrawing from the ADL/KGC route.
We are seeking clarification on when the flights post March 31, 2023 will be loaded… Meanwhile, options include ferry at least one way and linking up with Simon from Coast & Co (see further on for details) can make a long transfer into a more immersive food, wine and landscape experience. This can be done on arrival or departure depending on logistics. We can also organise air charters ex ADL or if clients have the budget for it – direct out of Melbourne. Keep in mind if you have clients visiting both Kangaroo Island and Port Lincoln – it is worth considering KGC to PLO as it reduces travel time significantly.
For those clients with a very flexible budget, there are also Heli-transfers. Helivista have small capacity R44 aircraft – suitable for two guests with a couple of light bags. For greater payloads, Aerotech have AS350 and EC130 aircraft (Adelaide Airport to Kingscote transfer = $5,500 plus GST nett each way ) and for an even greater lift, they have an EC135 which is a twin-engined aircraft that comes in at $7,500 plus GST each way. These rates are our buy-price – but thought having an understanding of indicative pricing to save you time down the track.
The payload is around 380kg but this needs to be confirmed each flight due to different aircraft weight capabilities). Availability is subject to other work commitments. Aerotech has aircraft available year-round but only one spare over summer due to fire suppression commitments.
Package structure review
We took the opportunity of our enforced “time out” to review our package structure so now the package name is dictated by the number of touring days, regardless of any overnight accommodation packaged with it. The focus for us, as tour operators, is on the touring experience. So if you have clients taking two of our small group tours, it is a Kangaroo Island In Style package and the arrival and departure logistics will most likely dictate the number of nights you need to add to the touring. At the moment this will depend on the day of the week and flight schedules. We know this is frustrating – we live with it every day but are hopeful that it will settle as demand normalises. The package structure is summarised in the graphic below.
Fleurieu and Kangaroo Island Combination
We continue to enjoy a positive relationship with Simon and the team from Coast & Co. Based in the Fleurieu Peninsula, Coast & Co offer private tours of the Barossa, Adelaide Hills, Southern Vales and Fleurieu that focus on lifestyle, landscape, food and wine. In combination, we are able to provide a seamless Adelaide to Adelaide service. The most efficient way to do this is fly/cruise or cruise/fly if this makes more sense in terms of flight schedule or availability.
Kangaroo Island Wilderness Tours
A reminder that Kangaroo Island Wilderness Tours is now part of Exceptional Kangaroo Island. We have enjoyed hosting Australian guests from Australian Air Safaris that came over to us as part of this transition and, now borders are open, continue to field enquiries and bookings from Wilderness Tours accounts. We are honouring all group itineraries and have consolidated small group touring on a “best fit” basis. We continue to enjoy contact with Sue Morris in her role as Product Manager for high-end hosted accommodation provider One Kangaroo Island.
There have been quite a few changes in accommodations across the Island – grab a coffee and sit down as there is a bit to cover!
Mercure Kangaroo Island Lodge
Mercure Kangaroo Island Lodge has changed ownership and upgrades are currently underway including repainting and room upgrades. The new owners are the 1834 Hotel Group who have previously provided management services at the Aurora Ozone and are familiar with the Island.
Staying in American River, Wanderer’s Rest has also changed hands – it is early days with the planning but what we know is to expect a name change and rolling series of upgrades including a signature seafood restaurant.
Kangaroo Island Seaview Motel
Speaking of restaurants – there is a new option in Kingscote, The Odd Plate, and it is excellent! Located at the newly renovated Kangaroo Island Seaview Motel, The Odd Plate is owned by ex-Southern Ocean Lodge Dylan and Yolandi Pitallo and offers generous and creative “feed-me” menus focused on local produce. This dining, combined with a stylish upgrade, elevates the Kangaroo Island Seaview Motel to serious consideration for guests wanting a central location, simple yet comfortable accommodation and excellent food. Breakfast is at nearby ‘Cactus’ owned by accommodation owner Yen Leow, and Louis Lark – also both ex-Southern Ocean Lodge.
Southern Ocean Lodge
After a careful site clean-up, the Southern Ocean Lodge rebuild is underway. Comprehensive vegetation and fire management strategies have been developed in conjunction with external stakeholders. Plans are on track for a relaunch in Q3 2023 – sign up to the Baillie Lodges website to be kept updated on progress or follow the SOL 2.0 instagram account.
Sea Dragon Lodge
At the other end of the Island, Sea Dragon Lodge is now in the hands of two couples well-known in travel circles – Greg and Alice Zammit have partnered with Karin and John Greenslade. They are doing their own touring and logistically it is challenging for us to tour out of this location but we welcome them as enthusiastic destination ambassadors.
Penneshaw Hotel, Seafront Hotel & KI Seafront Holiday Park
In a multi-property deal, the Penneshaw Hotel, Seafront Hotel and KI Seafront Holiday Park are now owned by the team associated with the upcoming destination golf development, The Cliffs, south of Pelican Lagoon.
Molly’s Run is also changing hands – it is early in the process but expect a name change but with “business-as-usual” hosted accommodation which is great news.
Lifetime Private Retreats & Wander
Also on the north coast, further west at Snellings Beach, the three villas at Lifetime Private Retreats are now managed by the team at Wander, who is on track to launch four off-grid elegant accommodation pods in December this year. At this stage the decision on distribution strategy is not finalised, so please check with us regarding the commission structure.
Properties that are unchanged and continue to provide excellent service in partnership with us are One Kangaroo Island, Stranraer Homestead, Aurora Ozone Hotel, and Ecopia Retreat. This is a long list – there are many other excellent accommodation choices if the criteria expand to include self-catering.
Oceanview Eco Villas no longer package with the Exceptional Kangaroo Island team so any bookings need to be handled separately.
The Cliffs golf course
Keen golfers or those with golfing clients will be excited by the new destination golf development between American River and Penneshaw. With elevated views of the southern ocean and protected waters of Pelican Lagoon, the site is beautiful. With a long history as a sheep grazing property, the open spaces can be readily developed for golf without impacting native vegetation. Stay up to date at www.thecliffs.com.au
That’s all from us for now. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to get in touch with our team.