Let’s not comment on the ferry crossing. I was fine but others left some of themselves behind. The tiny town of Penneshaw with its sweeping beach and gaily coloured fibro shacks looked quaint and sunny in the rear view mirror but as we drove westward things got more sinister. KI is marketed as the Galapagos of the Antipodes for its unique and plentiful wildlife – however the wildlife is so plentiful that small piles of bleached bones glowed white on the red ironstone roads every few metres, some as skeletons entire, others in neat pyramids as if the flesh had vaporised and the bones dropped to the ground.
I once drove from the north of the island to Kingscote airport before dawn to catch the red eye, inching forward all the way, leaning on the horn, as my headlights lit up a seething mass of snakes, lizards, wallabies, bandicoots, kangaroos, echidnas and possums. It was therefore no surprise to see so much roadkill. When people talk about the Great White as a predator around KI, they’re probably referring to a Land Cruiser.
Leaving the carnage behind and entering the limestone gates of Southern Ocean Lodge is like entering a cocoon, although there is still plenty of wildlife to be found. One moonlit stroll to the bluff, we had to edge carefully past two tiger snakes lazily undulating across the boardwalk. The next day we spotted seals frolicking in the clear waters below the spa and a resident pod of dolphins provided daily entertainment.
The lodge is situated on 1% of a 200 acre clifftop property, backed by scrub and fronted by pounding seas as far as the eye can see. In fact, if you had a really big telescope, you could probably see to Antarctica, 6000km due south. The drama outside is reflected inside, with each of the 26 rooms named after a local shipwreck. Notwithstanding this, the lodge is a shelter of the most escapist kind, with interiors of sweeping limestone, towering glass windows, and sculptural furniture handcrafted by Adelaide artisan Khai Liew (including a long bar table I would commit any crime to own). Guests can relax amongst sunken lounges, open fires, books and board games, piles of linen cushions and alpaca blankets, and an open bar the contents of which would excite the most jaded alcoholic.
The Australian vernacular is evident throughout, from a carefully chosen reading selection of history, botany, geography and literature, to the tiny lamingtons left as a welcome gift. It would be easy to dismiss this as somewhat twee (a book entitled "Dinkum Dunnies" in the loo, Aboriginal Dreamtime bath products, a "Hooroo" departure gift of local Ligurian bee honey) but to be honest it was nice to see so much attention to detail.
The food was excellent, all locally sourced and presented with a lightness of touch which many of the US visitors didn’t seem to appreciate, staring at their single roasted marron with microsalad and lemon dressing as if willing it to turn into a peanut butter sauerkraut burger. I enjoyed everything I ate there, from a perfectly puffed blue swimmer crab omelette with local crème fraiche and chives for breakfast to a gala apple jelly with saffron yoghurt sorbet for dessert. Portions are small, but there are many of them.
Staff walked a difficult line between professionalism and a friendly Australian-ness with ease. No one was too matey, no one too distant. The same went for the guests. I always forget that a lodge often requires a certain amount of commingling and here you could make new friends if you wanted or just get by with a friendly "hi". The lodge encourages in house group tours and activities, but there is no pressure to join. As a seasoned visitor to KI, the tours held little appeal for me but if you were stretched for time, or a first time visitor to the island, they would be a great way to see the highlights. I prefer to scout around the edges of the island for windswept cliffs, deep clear waters, and black forests which make you feel like you could be the last living soul on earth and not know it. However, when you tire of that and want to be reminded of the comforts that 21st century civilisation has to offer, bartender Matt will be waiting in the lounge to mix you a Mojito with lime and ginger vodka brewed by a local still.