Exploring Kangaroo Island by car

The road to Snelling Beach

Bruce Newton

Posted June 23, 2017

For a stunning change of pace, take Kangaroo Island's road less travelled.

There are moments on any trip that just make you glad you made the effort to get where you are. Arriving above Snelling Beach on the north coast of Kangaroo Island is one of them.

We’d followed the North Coast Road eastwards for much of the day, wending on gravel roads across rolling hills, spiralling into beautiful bays and then winding up again to be greeted by the vastness of ocean shimmering under the autumn sun.

But nothing could match the view down on to Snelling. We’d rounded a corner to be confronted by crystal-clear perfection.

Pale hills tumbled through fenced paddocks to a scattering of houses sheltering in the lee of bush-covered dunes. Just steps away a crescent-shaped white-sand beach arced, a small swell wrapping around the headland at the far end.

Down below us on green grass in front of a farmhouse, a boy was throwing a ball for his dog, which raced enthusiastically back and forth. Joy personified. At the far end of the beach a couple of vehicles were parked and surfers in the water paddled furiously to catch the small waves.

Within minutes we were on the beach ourselves. Maybe five other people were scattered along Snelling’s pristine length. We’d found the other Kangaroo Island.

No, don’t go rushing to an atlas to see if there are two Kangaroo Islands located in the Spencer Gulf south-west of Adelaide. There is only the one, famed for Seal Bay, Remarkable Rocks, Admirals Arch and the Flinders Chase National Park.

All those places are located on the rugged south coast, its character hewn by gales that have carved out a unique geography and habitat. It is a place of spectacular beauty, which is why you’ll see a regular fleet of tourist coaches disgorging from the SeaLink ferry and heading that way.

So no surprise the South Coast Road is sealed, as is the Playford Highway that bisects the island from Kingscote, in the east, most of the way to the west side of the island. But up north, the road literally and figuratively less travelled is unsealed. And that puts people off.

Road next to coast at Eastern Cove

Eastern Cove, Kangaroo Island. Photo: Thomas Wielecki

“The North Coast Road is completely under-rated,” says Mick Rosewarne, the senior guide at Cape Borda Lighthouse, which has sat square and squat overlooking the north-eastern approaches to KI – as the locals call it – since 1858.

“It’s a great drive, there are cliffs, wonderful beaches. Not many people know about it because everyone does the south coast.”

Cape Borda, in the west, is the symbolic start of our northern exploration. The views are breathtaking, the interplay of wind, sun and clouds changing the texture and shade of the ocean continuously. Today it’s calm and beguiling, but it’s not always that way.

“It is always going to be dangerous out there for any shipping. I have seen some stuff out there that’s amazing; 18-metre swells, thunderstorms,” says Mick.

At Snug Cove just down the road an information board tells us about the wreck of the Fides in 1860, smashed on rocks in the middle of the night. Ten lives were lost. Five survivors walked for days to the lighthouse. The disaster is hard to picture on such a beautiful day.

From here we backtrack along the Playford Highway on deep, red gravel, thankful for the all-wheel drive and added ground clearance our Forester provides. It’s not a necessity, but it’s added insurance on roads that are sometimes slippery and rutted.

To our south is Flinders Chase National Park and to our north private farmland. Forty per cent of Kangaroo Island remains in its natural state. There are no rabbits and no foxes, although wild cats are an issue. Thick roadside vegetation is full of native fauna and devoid of imported species. Being an island has preserved this place better than the mainland.

We reach the coast again at Western River Cove, descending a tight and twisting dirt road. There is camping, toilets and little else, except peace, quiet and beauty.

Then it’s another venture inland making relaxed progress through groves of eucalypts, in and out of valleys, over hilltops both bald and forested and past the occasional farmhouse. A local in a 4x4 heads the other way, acknowledging us in time-honoured KI fashion with a single index finger flicked up from the steering wheel.

Small white dome by water

The dome housing replica, Frenchman's Rock. Photo: Thomas Wielecki

And then there’s Snelling Beach. Its beauty is almost painful. If ever proof was needed that nature’s vision outdoes our own, this is it. We park and walk into the clear water. Paradise.

“The water is a lot warmer and safer on the north side of the island,” local sheep farmer Des Pratt tell us.

We’ve sadly left Snelling Beach and stopped for Des as he herds sheep across North Coast Road. He was born here, lived here all his life and would never dream of living anywhere else. Oh sure, he’s travelled the world, but this is home.

And what a home he has. His property sits either side of the North Coast Road and runs all the way into the sea.

“I am the youngest of three brothers and my father actually apologised to me when he gave me this land,” chuckles Des. “It wasn’t as high quality as what my brothers farmed inland. But I think it has its plusses.”

He takes us down a bumpy 4x4 track to a cottage in a small cove. No internet, no phone, no television. Rocks have formed a natural boat ramp and small swimming holes. We have just missed a visit by dolphins, a goanna strolls across the sand. Bliss.

There’s still much to explore on the way back to Kingscote. Stokes Bay is home of the charmingly ramshackle Rockpool Cafe, pensioner George Turner’s Castle of 52,000 Lights at Smith Bay is a must-see – mainly because it’s impossible to describe – and there’s kilometres more beach driving at Emu Bay.

Then comes the tarmac and the return to that other Kangaroo Island, the one that most people know best.

Is it the best part of Kangaroo Island though? There’s one way to find out. Enjoy the drive.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was amended on 29 June 2017 to take out a reference to driving on Snelling Beach. Local by-laws state that you are only permitted to drive on a beach up to 250 metres from a constructed access road for the purpose of launching and or retrieving a vessel. Once the vessel is launched the vehicle should be parked off the beach. It was our intention to bring attention to a wonderful part of the world and we apologise for appearing to encourage driving on this wonderful beach. Please do not drive on Snelling Beach.