“I love living in a place where not only are there no traffic lights, there are not even any stop signs,” says Yale Norris as he stands on a sunny hillside... surrounded by just-budding grapevines. It’s a far cry from his former existence as a travel wholesaler in Boulder, Colorado – “a town of 100,000 people that had a six-lane highway leading from it to Denver, where there are 2 million people.” Now, Yale, along with his wife, Maren, and two children live on Kangaroo Island – with a permanent population of just 4,400 people. And no stop signs. “The other day
I was driving home and saw five kangaroos in the paddock, then there was a koala next to the road – which you rarely see. I couldn’t wait to tell my wife. I got home and she told me that they’d spent the afternoon watching four echidnas in a train. That night, we had two male koalas grunting at each other in our backyard. Where else in the world would you get all that?”
Kangaroo Island, Australia’s third largest island, with an area of 4400 square kilometres, is truly a microcosm of Australian fauna and flora with an estimated 267 bird species, 891 native plant species and a host of fauna, some of which have evolved differently to mainland relatives.
The island is also home to a number of relatively recent immigrants, people who have been drawn to this unique place for a plethora of reasons. Yale and Maren originally visited the island 10 years ago after they began selling tours through their US-based travel business. They fell in love with the island’s relaxed pace and bought a block of land to which one day they could retire. However, two years ago, they decided they’d had enough of their life in the US, sold their business and moved their family to the other side of the world. “It was life changing,” says Yale, in something of an understatement. “Sure, there were some frustrations after the initial excitement of the move wore off, but we love living here.”
Yale is now the general manager of Islander Estate Vineyards, which was established in 2000 by Frenchman Jacques Lurton, who was seduced by the island’s charm and its wine-growing potential when he holidayed here in 1997. With vineyards around the world already in his portfolio (France, Spain, Portugal, Argentina and Chile), he knew good land when he saw it and promptly purchased 400 hectares in the island’s centre. He now has 10 hectares planted with vines, cultivated in the European style and Islander Estate now produces eight wine varieties each year, most of which is exported to Asia.
While its wine industry is still a relatively fledgling one, the food of Kangaroo Island has long garnered accolades, and, some of the more recent arrivals have been adding their own flavours to the island’s offerings. Esther Stephens is a second-generation Mexican American who moved from Los Angeles to Kangaroo Island in 2007 with her Australian husband. “It was a bit of a challenge at first,” says Esther. “I wanted to keep busy, but I wasn’t allowed to work for the first year. Then I started thinking about hospitality or a B&B. I got a seed of an idea and started thinking,” she says. “As the only person of my descent here, I wanted to share my culture.” She decided to open a Mexican cafe, but “everything moves slowly here. That’s hard, because I’m an American! It was a lesson in patience.”
An empty house on the main street of Kingscote slowly evolved into a cafe that’s now brightly painted and serving traditional quesadillas, burritos and enchiladas. “I think my family eats more Mexican food now than we did while we were living in LA,” says Esther, who makes her own tortillas and grows chillies and tomatillos out back. “When we lived in the States, I cooked pies, pasties and sausage rolls for my husband.” While she occasionally finds island life “challenging”, Esther loves the social interaction the cafe provides – “back in LA, I’d have 10 women over at a time to make tamales. There were always lots of people at my house – it was the social focal point.”
That sense of community is just one of the aspects that makes Kangaroo Island so attractive to Jane Evans, who moved here “for a man”. “I’d been living in Ireland for most of my adult life,” says Jane. “I got to a point where I was looking for something else and I met a man from Glenelg who’d lived on Kangaroo Island for 22 years.” Jane had met her now-partner Ants online and says that within just a few phone calls, they both knew that they had a strong connection. Ants flew to Ireland for a visit. “He was wearing an Akubra with a feather in the brim when he arrived at the airport – it was love at first sight,” says Jane with a laugh. It’s been three and a half years since she moved to the island and she says she has “no regrets at all”.
Now working as a park ranger at Kelly Hill Caves, Jane loves “the acres of blue sky, the colours. There’s a sparkle and an intensity here. The UK is just more subdued.” Although there was some confusion at first with uniquely Australian customs such as ‘ladies, bring a plate’, Jane now embraces “the community that has been so welcoming and friendly. It’s a small population here, so people make an extra effort. I’d never heard of ‘nibbles’ before, but now I love it. What a great social thing to have bubbles and nibbles before dinner. I don’t think I’m ever going to tire of this place.”
While some of Kangaroo Island’s recent arrivals have landed directly on its shores, others have taken a more circuitous route. Prior to becoming a full-time artist, American-born Indiana James completed geology and engineering degrees, sat out the Vietnam War by working on a US government oceanography boat, worked at NASA mission control and then became an “elephant hunter” in the oil industry – searching out massive oil reserves. He moved to Australia in 1986 to work for an oil company and then reassessed his life when his first wife left him 11 months later. “I was suicidal for a couple of years, but then realised I had great freedom,” says Indiana, seated in the cottage he shares with wife and fellow artist Linda Jenkins, that’s perched on a narrow neck of land between the Southern Ocean and Pelican Lagoon. “So I started making things. Well, really, I just moved my arms and legs around and these objects appeared. It’s a gift.”
Indiana and Linda, who had grown up on Kangaroo Island, moved to the island 18 years ago to fix Linda’s mother’s kitchen and ended up staying. He now makes his living from sculptures created from found objects such as driftwood, “Gary Buick’s wool shed” and old machinery. “We’re all fugitives here,” says Indiana, “we’re all on the run from something.” Adds Linda, “Even if it’s just the fast lane.”
Bea Chuan-Ellson is someone who knows what the fast lane is like. “I’d wake up and think, ‘I know I’m in the US and I know I’m in a Marriott, but I can’t remember what city I’m in.’” At that time, she was running a 106-store retail clothing label that spanned South-East Asia and was about to launch in the Middle East and she was beginning to feel overwhelmed. Growing up in Malaysia had led to marriage to a Chinese-Malaysian man – “I was being the good girl. But that was too restrictive. That marriage ended and I married an Italian and moved to Milan. I soon discovered that Italians had very similar ideas to the Chinese when it came to marriage.”
Bea divorced again and returned to Malaysia to help a friend set up a clothing chain and soon became caught up in running a business. She turned to the nascent internet for some technical advice and began talking to an Australian man in a chat room. “Our minds met and he invited my daughter and me out to Kangaroo Island. I think
I fell in love with the island first, and then the man.” She moved to the island in 1997 and immediately began co-managing his family’s motel in Kingscote. “I’d dress in a cheongsam [traditional Chinese dress] and we’d have steamboat nights. I’d explain what it was and how to use chopsticks – it was the first Malaysian-influenced Asian food on the island. People loved it and we were packed.”
The marriage didn’t last, but Bea’s love affair with the island did and she now works at Seal Bay Conservation Park on the south coast, where her Italian language skills have been influential in attracting more Italian tourists to the island. “When I have a moment on the beach with the sea lions,” she says, looking fondly at a pup that has approached to within a metre or two, “it’s an affirmation that I’ve made the right decision by being here.”
The hit list
Thorn Park on the Island
This well-appointed self-catered accommodation has a spice rack that would inspire jealousy in most cooks and a cookbook collection to match. Perched on a hillside above Penneshaw, it’s the perfect place to cook up a feast with the island’s bounty. Wrights Rd, Penneshaw, (08) 8843 4304, thornpark.com.au.
Enjoy traditional homestead hospitality in the 100-year-old family home of Graham and
Lyn Wheaton. Delicious meals prepared by Lyn feature KI produce and Stranraer lamb. There’s also a whole farm to explore and farm cat Cedric to chat to while you relax with a sundowner on the wide verandah. 22 Lades Rd, Macgillivray, (08) 8553 8235, stranraer.com.au.
Southern Ocean Lodge, Hanson Bay
This luxurious lodge has won multiple awards with good reason – the staff are personable, the service impeccable, the food inspired by Kangaroo Island produce, and the location, well, stunning doesn’t begin to do it justice. Put it on your bucket list. Hanson Bay Rd, Karatta, (08) 8559 7347, southernoceanlodge.com.au.
Fish of Penneshaw
It’s been called the best fish and chips in the world and it’s only open during summer, but if Sue Pearson’s behind the counter when you visit, don’t miss out on this exceptional seafood offering. Sue also has a catering service for visitors renting accommodation, and runs four-day tours. 43 North Tce, Penneshaw, 0439 803 843, 2birds1squid.com.
Yellow Ash N Chili, Kingscote
Esther Stephens’s brightly painted Mexican cafe on the main street is the perfect place to enjoy burritos, enchiladas and specials such as pulled pork with salsa.
59 Dauncey St, Kingscote, (08) 8553 0330.
Restaurant Bella, Kingscote
New owners David and Chi Mitchell offer fine dining on one side and a more casual pizza bar on the other side of their restaurant. Chi makes Vietnamese fresh spring rolls with dipping sauce on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. 54 Dauncey St, Kingscote, (08) 8553 0400.
Hot Stuff, Kingscote
Try Ali Ali’s traditional Egyptian falafel at the only kebab shop on the island. Their coffee is worth a try and there are baklava and almond shortbreads for dessert. Shop 2/15 Telegraph Rd, Kingscote, (08) 8553 3070.
Kangaroo Island Source
Kate Sumner uses island produce in her regular monthly cooking classes that feature chefs such as Tim Bourke from Southern Ocean Lodge. She also provides catering services for holiday makers and sells chutneys and sauces. 90 Cape Willoughby Rd, Penneshaw, (08) 8553 1041, kangarooislandsource.com.au.
Perched atop a spectacular cliff overlooking the Backstairs Passage, this is the island’s first winery. Drop in for a cellar door tasting, as well as simple meals including an island specialty – King George whiting pizza. Open 10am to 5pm, seven days a week. 1153 Willoughby Rd, Penneshaw, (08) 8553 1333, dudleywines.com.au.
The writer travelled courtesy of The South Australian Tourism Commission.
Photography Sean Fennessy