They say art imitates life and there’s no greater muse than nature. Imagine living on an island where at every corner there is inspiration—a view of a towering cliff or a surf-pounded white sandy beach with lolling sea lions; where you can cuddle a koala in the wild or surprise a kangaroo. Where you can gorge on what’s farmed on land or fished in the waters and enjoy the tranquility of sunsets and sunrises.
I am on Kangaroo Island, the third largest island off the mainland of Australia. Sprawling over 4,500 sq km, KI (as the locals call it) is billed as the Australian Galapagos. It is home to legions of sea lions, fur seals, kangaroos, echidnas, more than 250 species of birds and two endemic species of snakes. After two days of seeing the usual tourist sights, I want to see the creative side of the island. So I visit Rustic Blue, an art gallery located in a former shearing shed. Run by two local artists, it stocks Australian art from local artists as well as gifts and has a veranda with views where you can enjoy coffee and cakes. “What do people do on the island?” I ask Bill Prime, my affable guide. “In the early 1980s when the wool trade lost its mojo, locals innovatively diversified into boutique enterprises like bee-keeping, eucalyptus oil, dairy products, even a boutique distillery. Many people are farmers and also part-time tour guides. And artists, of course, love the island,” he says.
I meet Larry and Bev Turner at Emu Ridge Eucalyptus Distillery, who started the company in 1991 when the wool trade slumped. I learn that though there are more than 100 species of eucalyptus, only about ten of these have commercial value! At one point, there used to be 48 private distilleries on the island employing over 600 people. “Do you know that today more than 90 per cent of the eucalyptus oil comes from countries like China and India?” he stumps me with his query. I watch the simple process that they use to make their oil; apparently this has remained constant over a hundred years. Cut the leaves with a chainsaw; boil them in a pot of water. The steam that rises up through the leaves ruptures the oil cells and the vapour rises through pipes and condenses in a recycled beer keg. Eucalyptus oil is versatile in its uses: it can be a disinfectant, a stain remover, natural antiseptic, an insect repellent, a mouthwash, a decongestant, the list is endless!
Next on my list is the Kangaroo Island Spirits (KIS), where a rustic shed hides the only boutique distillery in Southern Australia. I meet owners Jon and Sarah Lark who make gin out of the wild juniper on the island and honey and walnut liqueurs using the organic honey from the island. When I hear that more than 10 per cent of the local population is involved in some art form, I head off to the Bay of Shoals to meet the charismatic artist Neil Sheps at his studio. The stately straw bale and stone and loft was designed and built by the artist himself. Sheps is the stereotypical painter with clothes stained by paints. His work is big and bold and full of colours–the prolific painter paints beachscapes, rural scenes at a blistering pace. “An artist on KI is never short of inspiration,” he says. I talk to Fred Peters at his jeweller shop in Kingscote Town called ‘Some Bling New Jewellery’. He casts sterling silver over cuttle bone among other things.
On the island, there are producers who are famous for their free-range eggs, olive oil, honey, jams, smoked fish, sauces and marinades, breads and biscuits. “Did you know that you cannot carry a bee into Kangaroo Island?” asks Steve. I look bewildered as he tells me the story of KI and the bees. In the early 1880s, August Fiebig established an apiary near Peneshaw on the island with hives from Liguaria, Italy. They thrived so well that KI had the peculiar distinction of being declared the world’s only bee sanctuary. I visit Clifford’s Farm to taste honey and learn about the process.“Pure honey has no expiry date,” says Steve. I am fascinated by the flavours of honey that I see. “How do they do it?” I ask. “By a nomadic programme, where they move the hives into areas where different species are blooming.” There are more than 30 species of flowering eucalyptus that they are exposed to. I taste a wide range of flavours ranging from cup gum honey to creamed honey.
Spread throughout the island there are more than 30 vineyards and KI wine may be the next big thing. Kangaroo Island was declared a wine region in 2001. For seafood lovers, KI is a paradise with the marron fresh crayfish. I have a Mexican dinner at yellow Ash and Chilli, opened by a mother and daughter duo from California. By the end of my stay, I have eaten my way through the island, filled my bags with art, and my heart is full of the nature and wildlife that I have seen, with images of the pounding sea and craggy rocks, the white beaches forever imprinted in the recesses of my memory chip.