Just a few years ago, this beautiful 61km multiday walk was created to showcase the flora and fauna of Flinders Chase National Park in South Australia. But in January 2020 it was engulfed by fire and 96% of the park was destroyed. An estimated 25,000 koalas died along with countless other wildlife. In April 2021 I travelled to Kangaroo Island to hike the newly re-opened Wilderness Trail and see for myself how the park has recovered.
At the time of my visit the trail remained closed to independent visitors for safety reasons due to the damage and the destruction of all park facilities, but had re-opened to a small number of guided groups. I travelled with small Adelaide company Big Heart Adventures, who are passionate about this area and bringing people back to stimulate the local economy and help define a new route through the park that can then re-open as a public trail.
The Trail is divided into five sections and on this trip we completed them over four days, combining sections 4 and 5 for one long (20km) but achievable final day.
Section 1 is relatively short (10km) and can be walked in an afternoon after travelling to Kangaroo Island from Adelaide. It starts out in a section that was completely burned out in the January 2020 fires, and is undergoing some serious regeneration. Before the fire this section had a thick canopy of trees. Now those trees are just carcasses, standing stark against the horizon. But from the ground has sprouted beautiful green undergrowth - that never could have survived before because it would have had too much shade.
And there are even signs of new life amongst the charred remains. Grass trees (yuccas), burned black, sprout new growth. And eucalyptus sheds its outer burned layer to reveal new growth within. Renewal is everywhere.
Following the Rocky River we kept our eyes peeled for movement and before long were rewarded with an echidna spotted meandering along the far bank. Stopping at the Rocky River Cascades, we took time to sit and reflect before heading back with our transfer to the cabins at the nearby caravan park. This is presently the only accommodation option, as the park campsites were completely destroyed.
After making our way through the fire devastated forest, section 2 began with a detour down through the boulders of Rocky River to Snake Lagoon. Despite the ominous name, this was a fantastic side trip into what truly felt like a secret beach, with gorgeous white sand free of a single foot print.
Heading back up onto the main trail we popped out onto the coast. The water here is truly beautiful, in a way very hard to capture in a photo. Beautiful lines of turquoise, crystal clear ocean - with no land between here and Antarctica. We made our way down and onto the beach, slogging our way through soft sand. The water seemed so inviting, but treacherous rips and currents prevented us from just stripping down and going in.
There were less signs of fire damage here, and it was almost possible to forget what had occurred, until we headed back up off the beach past the singed remains of what were once wooden steps.
The remainder of section 2 and most of sections 3 and 4 of the Kangaroo Island Wilderness Trail is clifftop hiking - for kilometres and kilometres along the south-west corner of the island. The views are dramatic - both out to the Southern Ocean and back along the coastline. There is no one else here, and no road access; just your group and the sound of the wind and ocean. Plus the odd escaped sheep, that has been here since the fires and are almost impossible to catch.
The surface is limestone and can be deceptively tricky to cross; especially as the heat of the bushfires has formed new cracks and holes. I recommend poles! And while beautiful, it is extremely exposed - to wind, rain or sun. We had a super hot day of over 32 degrees celsius/100F (temperature of course being measured in the shade - of which there was none). It made it brutal in the afternoon. You must carry plenty of water; I took 4L each day and that was barely sufficient. While for our group this was our toughest section due to the heat and terrain, it was also utterly magnificent.
After a final cliff section at the start of section 4, we turned inland, to avoid the wreckage (and now building site) of what was - pre-fire - the very fancy Southern Ocean Lodge. In this section the signs of fire are once again front and centre, with black twisted bark pushing toward the sky, while lush undergrowth fills the spaces. The ground remains covered in a super fine ash that gets into every space - leaving our feet and legs black at the end of the day.
At the moment section 5 must be completed in the opposite direction (I believe due to safety permissions) which would be impossible on a self-supported hike, so this will have to be fixed eventually. But as you can currently only hike with a registered tour operator, we were picked up at the end of section 4 and transported to the start of section 5.
I thought walking section 5 "backwards" would be disappointing, but the pre-fire attractions at the end of section 5 are completely gone. The picnic areas and visitors facilities were destroyed. And the cave tour that was a highlight for many hikers is completely unsafe. on the new direction, by walking towards the coast instead of away from it, we followed the river and ended our hike at the beautiful Hanson's Bay beach - which was a magnificent way to finish 4 days of walking.
Despite the exposed nature of it, I absolutely loved this trail, From forest, to river, to beach, to cliff walking, the Kangaroo Island Wilderness Trail has a bit of everything. There is no doubt it will continue to get better as the trees and plants grow back to what they once were. But right now there is the chance to see it in recovery, and pretty much on your own.