Tony Coppins told tourists the beautiful marina at Christmas Cove on the edge of Penneshaw was 500 million and 35 years old based on the fact geologists told him 35 years ago it was 500 million years old.
Fortunately, there was no extra charge for the attempted humour on top of the ride in his eight-metre vessel as part of his Kangaroo Island Ocean Safari adventure. There was, however, a frown from this bloke in the back that he was out-doing the pathetic jokes we run in Laugh Lines on page 17 of this magazine.
Nonetheless, it provided a hint about life in this gateway to Kangaroo Island; that it’s not all serious and everything is there to enjoy.
The proverbial red necks of this world probably would not have heard the line; too busy getting off the ferry and heading for the big tourist destinations like Admirals Arch and Remarkable Rocks in the west end, Seal Bay to the central south and American River to the north east.
Wonderful places, of course, but the thing is, if you think of Penneshaw as a destination rather than a landing there is a lot to love about this place too. More to the point, the 276 people in this small town on Australia’s third-largest island 150km long and 90km wide and with 540km of coastline believe there is no better place to raise a family.
Tony and his wife Sandy work their tourist boat business seven days a week in between caring for their two-year-old daughter Matilda and a nine-week old son Wyatt, tending to their 120-acre wheat and sheep farm, and the first Sunday every month picking up more tourists in a bus taking them to the KI Farmers’ Market. There is also Chelsea, the family Rhodesian Ridgeback, who is currently demanding the most attention having just lost her best canine friend Elvis to a snake bite.
Yet, for all of the challenges this rural life presents, especially the isolation, according to Tony and Sandy for every one of them there are positives.
“There is a balance when you live in a rural area,” Tony said. “Unlike a mainland country town you just can’t drive for two hours and find yourself in a completely different environment or near the city. Here, you have to get on a ferry and that is at a price. People complain about the cost but it is an excellent service; it’s reliable. You pay for a premium product.
“With a population of about 4500 people it’s great that we’re not big enough for a McDonald’s. The community would like a cinema or a bowling alley before that; but there are just not enough people to support these things.
“The gaps in the towns are so far. We are 55km to Kingscote. We play a footy team called Western Districts – it’s a 240km round trip. Visiting your neighbours can be quite a journey and expensive with premium price fuel. They say it’s 29 per cent more expensive to run a business on the island compared with Adelaide.
“We are now in our third year of our business, and I learned early the pitfalls with a very expensive supply chain; there’s the fuel, the cost of parts and services that you need to survive. We also have limited access to infrastructure like offices.
“But everything has been what we expected. As a tourist operator, we don’t rely on local trade, that’s for sure; it’s mainly off-island.
“It’s not like opening a café and the locals are buying a coffee off you. They have their boats and going on a sea adventure is nothing new for them.
“But what the locals have done for us is just one of the many reasons why we love this place. It makes you get through the challenges that every small business faces no matter where you live. It’s about going down the street and having this feeling that good, honest people are walking alongside you on this business journey. They encourage and give you that peace of mind.
“They tell the tourists what every operator has got to offer and they want them to succeed. They don’t just see it as your business, but something special for the town because they care.”
The locals are passionate about their town, but this is really no different to most. But here they appreciate the local council is responsible for looking after a huge area and the island has relatively few rate payers. The resources are limited, and while it is not an ideal situation there is this general understanding that no one expects the council to do everything that needs to be done quickly.
Remarkably, the situation has led to a fourth-generation Penneshaw local Brian Bewick, a renowned artist afar, to take it upon himself to get behind the landscaping in the main street.
“He’s doing it himself and out of his own pocket,” Tony said. “There have been a lot of locals who have supplied their labour free, and they all feel good about playing their part in beautifying their town.
“Sometimes people remember towns not for the giant buildings and structures, but for what they are; beautiful little towns. We are trying to create that here.
“There is no doubt that people get off the ferry here and don’t see what we have to offer. We have one of the best natural marinas in terms of accessibility, and more than $400,000 is being spent on upgrading the facility. We can go either way off Penneshaw and within 10 minutes see colonies of New Zealand fur seals, Australian sea lions, dolphins and a White Bellied Sea Eagle. The whales also pass through here.”
Tony said the importance of the local football club, the Dudley United Eagles – and that of the other four football clubs on the island – could never be under-estimated. It opened the opportunity for him to tell us his mighty green and gold won both the A & B-grade premierships this year, and for good measure the Dudley netball girls won their eighth successive grand final.
After a seemingly four-hour kick-by-kick and pass-contact-pass description of these extraordinary sporting triumphs Tony said it was astonishing that more than 800 people young and old and the good and no-so-good were playing either football or netball during the winter and there were only 4500 people living on the island.
The footy teams bring some players over from the mainland, from the northern suburbs of Adelaide to as close as Victor Harbor, and everyone embraces what sport is really all about – enjoying the game and playing to the best of their ability. According to Tony, the beer tastes even nicer in the Penneshaw Hotel after a win.
Sandy said from a parent’s perspective, sport provided a healthy lifestyle for the kids in the town. “It’s safe in more ways than one,” she said. “There’s not as much traffic, and importantly everyone looks out for each other’s children no matter what club they are from. If they get into mischief the mums and dads seem to find out quickly.”
As a mum Sandy said Penneshaw was not just a town, but a lifestyle.
“It’s nice here,” she said. “It’s a good community; good for kids. I was born here on a 1200 acre sheep and crops farm at Karatta on the west side of the island.
“When I was 20 I left for 10 years, but I always wanted to come back and raise my children here. You feel safe. You can go to the football on Saturday, and while we still watch them because they are young, you always know people in the community are looking after their well-being too.
“As a mother of two, there is great comfort in that we have an excellent health care service on the island.
“Obviously you miss your shopping and the movies. It would be nice to have something like a Marion or Colonnades shopping centre here, but that’s not what you move here for. It’s more about a place for your kids, the wildlife and the easy lifestyle. Besides, it’s really only a short trip to Adelaide.”
Tony grew up in Tea Tree Gully, a north-eastern suburb of Adelaide, and in between dabbling in real estate and other sales ventures worked with boats – fishing, tourism, and even the big motor boats in the south of France and the white super yachts sailing the off the Mediterranean.
His parents moved here 35 years ago, and like Sandy always knew Penneshaw would draw him back.
“I feel good about being here,” Tony said. “The people of this town make their own fun. We have a lot of creative people who put things together with music and food. We love our local markets.
“The local wine industry is growing too with cellar doors at Sunset Wines, Chapman Wines, and Dudley Wines, plus there’s a sensational new café Zest + Thyme at Cape Willoughby. People come here and go to these special places and enjoy the experience. Everyone loves to walk along our beach and look at the wildlife, and then we have the world’s best coffee at Granny Stirling’s Craft Shop.
“I just love this town. I love what we do as a business knowing we are providing something for the tourists which was not here previously. And I love the fact I can say I live in a town full of good people who care for each other.”