Kendall Hill presents his choice of the nation’s best up-close animal encounters
For sheer concentration of koalas you can’t beat South Australia’s Kangaroo Island and Victoria’s French Island, with populations of about 25,000 and 3000 respectively. But few visitors are content to simply stare at koalas in trees; they want to hold them, cuddle them, have their photo taken. For happy snaps with Australia’s favourite marsupial, head to Queensland where countless operators provide the chance to hug a koala.
At Brisbane’s Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary visitors queue to pay $15 for a few minutes of furry bonding time. For a more natural encounter, try the Bungalow Bay Koala Village on Queensland’s Magnetic Island, off Townsville, where rangers escort guests to the koala park three times daily (10am, noon and 2.30pm) for a meetand-greet with the island’s resident animals.
As well as cradling a koala you can handle baby saltwater crocs, pythons and lizards and learn about the local habitat and history. If you can’t bear to leave, there’s a three-week paid volunteer program available. Interns live on site and work alongside rangers helping to feed and care for animals, among more menial duties. Park entry is $19 adults or $10 children; extra $14 to hold a koala (proceeds go to wildlife care on the island). More: 1800 285 577; www.bungalowbay.com.au.
The duck-billed platypus has a well-earned reputation for being shy, elusive and extremely difficult to spot in the wild. Except, that is, in the Tasmanian town of Latrobe, just south of Devonport, where the local platypuses tend to pop up all over town. ‘‘ They come up through the grids in the streets; people find them in all sorts of unusual places,’’ says Noelene Hedditch of Latrobe’s Visitor Information Centre.
Hedditch has clocked up 10 years of guided platypus walks through the town’s Warrawee Forest Reserve and claims visitors have a ‘‘ 99.9 per cent chance’’ of seeing these exotic creatures (tour charge is waived if there are no sightings). Expect not just flashes of fur or a quick glimpse of duckbill but platypuses scratching themselves on rocks beside the Mersey River, frolicking in the water or surfacing right at onlookers’ feet. She says there has only been one occasion — ‘‘ a windy, horrible night’’ — when none appeared.
The creatures are active year-round; the best time to spot them is early morning or dusk. Guided tours are led by local Landcare members for a $10 donation (free for children). More: (03) 6426 1774; www.latrobe.tas.gov.au.
In Victoria’s Otway Ranges, guided canoe tours of Lake Elizabeth allow visitors to see a platypus eye-to-eye. The three to four-hour tours cost $85 adults or $50 children. More: www.otwayecotours.com. The Phillip Island parade in Victoria is the obvious spot to see little penguins strut their stuff on the sand. The island is home to 60,000 little fellas, about 10,000 of whom live in the neighbourhood of the nightly penguin parade. Boardwalks and enclosed viewing areas shield animal from human and the grandstand viewing can seem rather businesslike.
For a less regimented evening, the so-called Ultimate Tour takes small groups to a secluded beach that penguins march past en route to their sand burrows. General admission, $20.60 adults or $10.30 children; ultimate tour $72. More: www.penguins.org.au.
More intimate encounters are guaranteed at Bicheno on Tasmania’s east coast, where groups of up to 20 visitors can visit the rookery homes of little penguins. There are no barriers; dozens of penguins mingle freely with tourists, who are warned to wear closed shoes because the birds tend to nip human toes. The tour costs $20, including hotel transfers. More: (03) 6375 1333; www.bichenopenguintours.com.au. WHALES Brian and Jill Perry developed Australia’s commercial whale-watching industry 23 years ago in Queensland’s USTRALIA is a big safari park brimming with unforgettable animal adventures on land, coast and sea. Every landscape, no matter how harsh or unpleasant, redeems itself with amazing fauna. Few countries can boast a natural history as rich and wonderful as ours.
But when it comes to managed animal encounters, there are great operators and some not so great ones. So if you like your creatures wild, not mild, where do you go to see unique animals without feeling as if you are the caged ones?
Tall tail: A whale at play in Hervey Bay, Queensland
Creature of the night: Tasmanian devil