The KI Connection

Most mainlanders visualise Kangaroo Island as one big spectacular playground, an astonishing national park with masses of penguin and kangaroo colonies while seemingly obese seals laze beneath the stalactite formations.

However, beyond the breathtaking views there have always been challenges here, ever since a 16-year-old kid named Charles Newman was dropped off in 1838 on his voyage from England, and with his supervisor and a mate shared the job of looking after two sheep.

Almost every piece of building material, every pot of fertiliser and bag of flour has needed to be shipped here. The supply trail has remained endless, along with the frustration of nearly 5000 Islanders, especially the farmers who have had more to worry about than fighting over who misses out on shearing a sheep.

Recent news that a new passenger ferry – Kangaroo Island Connect, simply branded as kic – will operate from early this month has brought a wave of excitement, indeed relief. It is seen by many as a challenge to the monopoly SeaLink continues to enjoy as it approaches its 30th year of service to KI, and continues a struggle to meet passenger demand.

The new operation involves a $1.6 million, 25-metre Crowther designed, high-speed, wave piercing Tasmanian catamaran carrying a capacity of 95 passengers between Cape Jervis and Penneshaw within 30 minutes – 15 minutes quicker than SeaLink. There is the option for tourists to hire a car at a low rate. The first and last trips are from American River, adding life into near-by Kingscote.

As with many new tourism-linked ventures, some may choose to search for a sense of showmanship and the chase for dollars among the investors, but this is not what kic is about; nothing could be further from the truth. Behind this new KI challenge is the third-generation Cowell family whose passion and 50 per cent share of the equity in the project is based purely on their 100-years-plus farming heritage at Parndana, 40km west of Kingscote. Islanders would understand.

At the forefront as kic managing director is highly-successful businessman David Harris, and his wife, Jane, whose mother, Anthea Cowell, still lives on the Island. The project’s catamaran is named after her late husband; James Cowell, who died in 2003 after 40 years farming on KI.

The KI family connection comes with David also having been a farmer there, and his impressive accomplishments in business include his business AgriPartners Pty Ltd which, among many things involves vineyards, a winery and wine-marketing services.

The firm has also developed a hugely successful yacht charter and events management business in Hong Kong, and David’s amazing zest for sailing is reflected by having been part of five Sydney-Hobart campaigns.

David and Jane’s daughter, Jessica Hargraves, is currently assisting the kic project with her marketing expertise, and as managing director of Hong Kong Yachting, a company she created with her parents and in 2014 purchased from them, obviously also has that KI, business and love for sailing engrained.

Jessica has lived in Hong Kong for 11 years, and her business adapted to the needs there – motorboats hosting parties, corporates and weddings. One of her boats Tarzan has a 50ft inflatable waterslide from the roof, and of course there needs to be Jane to complete the fleet.

Yet, for all the frivolity and ritzy connotations that Tarzan and Jane and the business may generate, Jessica, a mother of a young daughter, is very much like her parents with her feet firmly planted on the ground. Another silent achiever despite the environment.

“The kic project is genuinely about our family’s heritage and passion for Kangaroo Island,” Jessica said.

“My grandfather was a fierce critic of the current operator’s monopoly that led to him starting the Sea Highway Action group in 2001. He wanted to do this with my dad more than 17 years ago, and it is so appropriate that we named the catamaran after him, the James Cowell. He was so loved and respected on this island until he passed away (in 2003).

“It was so frustrating for them when the licenses were completely tied up. Dad has just waited patiently and did other business. He found this opportunity, and everything happened in four months. We found the boat, and brought in all the investors. It has been really exciting.

“Dad is extremely entrepreneurial and he is a doer. He sees opportunities and takes risks, and most of them pay off. He has silent investors and he has done something like this multiple times with success. He is low key; he doesn’t like the limelight.

“I know other boat or ferry operators have tried before and failed. We are conscious of that, and the opinions of people saying, ‘oh just another boat’. We are confident, and while we are planning to start slowly and build it up we know the demand is there to ultimately ferry up to 800 people a day.

“We are going to keep it simple as possible. Book your ticket in the car, or on the mobile website; it’s going to be friendly and easy. We’ll have ferry cars on both KI and Cape Jervis, and have scenic flights and tours operating.”

The vessel is highly seaworthy with passengers in luxury touring coach-type seats. There will be four cabins, a small premium cabin on the flybridge, a kids fun and play area, and a snoozing zone or quiet area. Everyone sits at the back instead of the front bobbing around, which makes you sea sick.

Jessica said the plans for kic were also long-term, and they don’t lack imagination. The investment includes the Island’s second airport, the American River Airpark with an opportunity for people to operate their own planes and scenic flights. Her dad is also a keen pilot.

So far it has been about materialising the dream of David and his late father-in-law, and it doesn’t stop there. Once the ferry service is fine tuned there are plans to tackle an even greater challenge – a better freight system for KI.

Kic wants to launch another ship specifically for containerised freight, alleviating the frustration and high cost Islanders have faced bringing goods and supplies back-and-forth. Regrettably, it’s just the way things have been since the days Charles Newman tried to send the wool across Backstairs Passage. A lot of frustration.