Two years later
How Kangaroo Island is being rebuilt and reimagined
Sitting high on ancient rocky platforms above the sea, the surreal shapes and golden orange colours of Remarkable Rocks are arguably the most visited, and photographed site on what is the jewel in the crown for South Australian tourism – Kangaroo Island.
In December 2021, upgrades were completed around the picturesque, Instagram-worthy and iconic site, less than two years after the worst bushfires in the island’s recorded history.
From December 20, 2019 – when lightning strikes ignited fires on the north of the island — to February 6, 2020 – when fire zones were finally declared safe – half of the 440,500-hectare island had burnt, two lives were lost, countless numbers of livestock, precious habitat and wildlife perished, and many businesses, homes and farms were destroyed.
The opening of the new Remarkable Rocks infrastructure was a key milestone in the mission to work alongside the community and help the island rebuild from the tragic events that occurred around the same time fires tore through other parts of South Australia, as well as Victoria and New South Wales.
Staff from the Department for Environment and Water’s National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) were some of the first responders, not only to help fight fires, but to help in the island’s recovery. In many ways, since then, these staff – working hand in hand with dedicated local volunteers and conservationists — have helped the environment to heal.
Public infrastructure at iconic sites, including Remarkable Rocks and the Flinders Chase Visitor Centre, are being rebuilt following a dedicated and thorough public consultation process with dozens of Kangaroo Islanders. Upgrades are also underway at sites unaffected by the fire as part of the social and economic recovery.
Following feedback from the community, other parts of the island are being reimagined to create new visitor experiences to support the recovery of the tourism industry which is key to the Island’s current and future prosperity.
The island’s wildlife has proven to be resilient, with amazing stories of survival emerging. Dunnarts, pygmy possums and platypus sightings are being documented through wildlife surveys and green vegetation has sprung out of blackened land. Plants which have not been spotted in more than a century have arisen. Known as fire-colonisers, these unique species can appear for only one season, set seed, then lie dormant once more.
It’s a success story of survival, resilience, determination and hard work. But there is plenty of further work ahead.
Leading the effort
NPWS Executive Director, Mike Williams, who was the man handpicked by the State Government, in January 2019, to lead recovery efforts on the island, remembers vividly his first trip to Remarkable Rocks following the fires.
“I got here (on the Saturday) straight after the main fire that ran from the north to south of the island,” he said. “It was just mayhem, there was wildlife on the road everywhere, there were trees down everywhere. It was an eerie place to be. The speed and intensity of the fire was horrendous.”
Mr Williams said the journey from the start of the Flinders Chase National Park entry to Remarkable Rocks took three hours – well more than the usual 25 minute trip on the 20 kilometre stretch of road winding through the popular park.
Before arriving at Remarkable Rocks, Mr Williams had seen that the four Ranger homes, the research centre and the Flinders Chase Visitor Centre, had all been destroyed. “When I first saw the Flinders Chase Visitor Centre, as a crumbling mess, it was just gobsmacking. You could hardly recognise what it was. There were some stone façade walls there, but the rest was just melted steel and ash. That vision will stay with me forever,” he said.
Two years later and ground has been prepared for a new state-of-the-art visitor centre to be built in 2022. It is part of the much broader plan for the island’s parks, developed with the local community’s guidance.
“Two years on, we are in a great position to have the parks opened up again for the public with new facilities better than they were prior to the fires,” Mr Williams said. “I think the community sentiment is that we are putting good assets back, and we are trying to think about how we do fire management different in the future with good community support and input. Out of these unfortunate events there can be good if there is goodwill on behalf of the department working with the community to make things better. I think we are demonstrating that with the investments that we are making.”
"Two years on, we are in a great position to have the parks opened up again for the public with new facilities better than they were prior to the fires."
Mike Williams, NPWS Executive Director
Wildlife on the island
With its rugged wilderness and unique native plants, Kangaroo Island is home to some of Australia’s most iconic wildlife species. From the endangered Kangaroo Island dunnart, Kangaroo Island echidna, the endangered glossy black-cockatoos, koalas and platypuses - the abundance and diversity of the island’s unique and endemic wildlife is a huge part of its attraction.
Within days of the island being declared safe, key members of the national scientific community had met with conservation managers on Kangaroo Island to discuss in detail the impact of the recent fires on wildlife, including threatened and endemic species.
A three-day workshop identified short and long-term strategies for Kangaroo Island’s unique and threatened wildlife in the move from emergency response to recovery. Attendees included Threatened Species Commissioner Dr Sally Box, the Director of the National Environmental Science Programme (NESP) Threatened Species Recovery Hub, Professor Brendan Wintle, and the chair of South Australia’s Wildlife and Habitat Recovery Taskforce, Dr Felicity-ann Lewis.
Since then volunteer online eco-warriors from across the globe have been counting endangered dunnarts from their home computers in a bid to help save the species. Using the online portal DigiVol, 1158 volunteers from more than a dozen countries – including Norway, Guatemala and Peru – have collaborated to identify animals in images captured by more than 90 motion detection cameras positioned in key spots across Kangaroo Island.
The volunteer citizen scientists helped to speed up recovery efforts by identifying native and feral animal species passing through unburnt and recovering patches of burnt native vegetation. Citizens were also helping with the recovery of Kangaroo Island echidna by logging sightings and the Adelaide University creating an Echidna CSI reporting app.
Despite early concerns about the fate of the endangered glossy black-cockatoos population following the fires, there has been renewed hope. Within months of the fires, 23 glossy black cockatoo chicks had been discovered on the island, some in areas heavily hit by bushfires.
By August 2020, other animals showing positive signs of recovery included the southern brown bandicoot, green carpenter bee, western whipbird and southern emu-wren. The success – along with that of the resident koalas and the island’s namesake, kangaroos – has continued.
With fears that koalas could die from starvation, a bold plan was devised to establish an ‘ark’ population on mainland South Australia by translocating animals to Cleland Wildlife Park.
A total of 28 koalas have now been transferred from Kangaroo Island to the park, with separate new enclosures built by Cleland Wildlife Park staff and the Australian Defence Force. The koalas came from the western end of the island, where most, if not all, of their habitat had been lost in the bushfires.
In late May 2021 an expedition was led by researchers from South Australia and New South Wales – with the support of the Department for Environment and Water’s Science team, NPWS and crowdfunding from citizens – to monitor platypus numbers on the island.
The team set survey traps in the isolated Rocky River area of Flinders Chase National Park to assess the species’ condition and population growth. After a slow start, the researchers successfully trapped two healthy juvenile females, two healthy juvenile males, and four mature platypus – two of each gender.
The age of the juveniles meant they had been born after the 2020 fires – a very positive sign for the recovery of the Kangaroo Island platypus population.
"We knew we had a unique opportunity to think about how we use, manage and offer experiences to visitors to parks on Kangaroo Island."
Jo Podoliak, NPWS Tourism and Economic Development Director
Kangaroo Island is the jewel in the crown of international tourism in South Australia. As soon as the island was declared safe, a state-wide campaign was launched to get travellers back into the regions spending money in local businesses.
Many of the island’s iconic sites had been impacted by the fires including infrastructure at Remarkable Rocks, the Kangaroo Island Wilderness Trail and Kelly Hills Caves. A commitment was made to not only rebuild, but to reimagine the visitor experience.
In fire-affected areas, the focus has been on:
- Resurfacing the road to the Cape Borda Lightstation which overlooks Investigator Strait
- Upgrading Cape Du Couedic Road to improve the trip to Remarkable Rocks
- Improved visitor facilities, including toilets, a boardwalk and signs, to Remarkable Rocks – the most visited attraction on the island
- Rebuilding two heritage-listed cottages, May’s and Postman’s cottages, so that they can again be used as tourist accommodation
- Recreating the Kangaroo Island Wilderness Trail
- Rebuilding eight campgrounds throughout the Flinders Chase National Park
- Reconstruction of Platypus Waterholes Loop walk aimed at giving visitors an increased opportunity to see the elusive animals
- Creation of a new Flinders Chase Visitor Centre
- Recreating day-visitor facilities at Kelly Hill Caves with the help of an internationally experienced cave tour designer.
NPWS Tourism and Economic Development Director Jo Podoliak said that following the fires her team recognised there was an opportunity borne from the adversity of the bushfires to reimagine what the visitor experience looked like on Kangaroo Island before rebuilding.
“This was based on the experience of the ACT who ran their own process to “build back better” after the Canberra bushfires in 2003,” she said. “As a result, the team managed an extensive community engagement process to seek community and stakeholder inputs to reimagine key locations on the Island. “We knew we had a unique opportunity to think about how we use, manage and offer experiences to visitors to parks on Kangaroo Island.”
Ms Podoliak said the work with the community was not just about rebuilding visitor facilities but also creating the broader visitor experience.
“But we wanted to know whether a more compelling and unique nature-based tourism experience could be created to build visitor interest and demand,” she said. “We knew that Island residents, tourism operators and previous visitors to the parks all had great ideas on how the parks could be used. Using this feedback as our anchor, we have developed a Visitor Experience Strategy for the Island to inform the design and delivery of exceptional visitor experiences within Kangaroo Island parks.”
As part of this broader plan to help rebuild the island, major upgrades have been underway on other parks of the island that were not effected by the fires.
At Antechamber Bay, in Lashmar Conservation Park, two campgrounds have been upgraded, new accessible toilet facilities have been constructed, and a new bridge has been built across the Chapman River to give visitors better access to facilities on either side.
At Murray Lagoon in Cape Gantheaume Conservation Park and Wilderness Protection Area, seven large camp sites and new facilities including toilets, shelters and campfire pits have been built to accommodate visitors in tents, camper trailers and caravans, as well as a purpose-built group camping area being created to service large school groups.
In the same region six new large campsites are available at D’Estrees Bay, including the new Tea Trees campground which offers a premium camping experience with ocean views and magnificent access to the bay.
At Cape Willoughby, the oldest lighthouse in South Australia, is set to become the next upgraded tourism destination on the island, with work commencing on the redesign and roll out of a new visitor precinct. The redesign will include upgrades to heritage accommodation and day visitor facilities, a café and visitor centre, new walking trails and a spectacular cantilever viewing platform overlooking ‘Devil’s Kitchen’.
The NPWS has also been listening to the community about how to manage bush fire risks in the future. A set of park management plans have been released that have given residents of the island another opportunity to discuss what the future looks like.
Mr Williams said the past two years has been difficult but the NPWS is committed to working with the community to help rebuild the island.
“Many staff had suffered significant loss and experienced extraordinary trauma,” he said. “The staff have been tremendous, some of the staff at and near Flinders Chase lost houses and they were involved in fighting the fire. To their credit they have been incredible in how they have pitched in and helped rebuild on the island whilst dealing with those circumstances of personal trauma and a significant event like that.”
“There is still a long way to go, and we need to continue to support them but they have been fantastic and you could do nothing but commend them on their efforts to pitch in and help the place rise from the ashes.”