Anyone who knows me, knows I get a child-like sense of wonder and excitement when it comes to animals, especially ones I’ve never seen before. So obviously, we were going to meet Australia’s native animals. We saw gorgeous dingos, much less scary than the myths, and Tassie Devils, as fast as in cartoons.
Known for being the perfect photo companion (and having chlamydia), koalas were difficult to spot in the wild, even when we knew where to look. Spending their days sleeping in the tops of tall trees, they only became active at night. Even walking right underneath them in Australia Zoo‘s brilliant Koala Corridor, we needed the helpful signs pointing out which trees we should be searching.
Australia Zoo also gave us the chance to get up close to koalas, stroking their poofy bums and, in my case, getting my fingers nibbled when one got too curious. The cherry on the cake – they had two adorable joeys! One of them was just getting the courage to explore away from mum, and clumsily climbed from tree to tree.
Less and less places seemed to be letting tourists cuddle their koalas, however, we visited a small zoo up in Kuranda, before we realised it was being phased out. The koalas only “worked” for 30 minutes at a time; they were put away if they showed any signs that they weren’t enjoying it; and the money we paid funded rehabilitation programs. Standing as still as possible (pretending to be a tree), we got to hold Hazel, who at only a year old was already getting heavy. She had a good long look at Sam’s beard that was getting quite long and poofy itself.
Our first time meeting wallabies was in the zoo in Kuranda. Very tame, they didn’t pay us much attention, except to eat the food we offered, and then sneeze on me. However, unlike koalas, wallabies were everywhere in the wild. While staying on the edge of the bush for a few months, we never went a day without seeing them on our drive to and from work.
In some tourist spots, wallabies had become so accustomed to people, that they wouldn’t run away. We spotted some on Long Island and Magnetic Island, where they conventiently sat next to the sign explaining what sorts of foods we were allowed to feed them.
One of my favourite places we saw wallabies was Granite Gorge – private property, overrun with rock-wallabies, open to the public. Smaller than other wallabies, their grey fur helped them blend in. Sitting quietly and waiting to see movement, we soon realised that they were everywhere. We coaxed one out of a very smelly nest to find that she had a joey stuffed in her pouch.
Although kangaroos weren’t as abundant as wallabies in the wild, we did spot a few. As we were driving past and they were bounding away, the only way to spot the difference was to look at the size of their heads – those on the kangaroos being much bigger.
The first place we got to meet kangaroos was at Snakes Downunder. A large field had a mixture of grey and red kangaroos. They had rest areas enclosed by trees but everywhere else was open for us to walk amongst them. Kangaroos raced up and down, skidding in the dirt or lazed in the sun, completely uninterested in us. They stood so tall and looked like they’d been hitting the gym, that they were slightly intimidating but very friendly.
While we were at Snakes Downunder we caught two snake shows. The first had itty-bitty snakes all the way up to pythons, while the second had five of the top six most venemous snakes in the world – including the Tiger Snake; the imaginatively named Death Adder; and the most toxic land snake, the Inland Taipan, that can kill 100 people with one bite. With a small first-aid kit on standby, their handler was typically relaxed, confident that they wouldn’t attack him unless threatened. He tipped them out of their bags, or lifted them out of their bins and they slithered around with only a short fence between us.
After the shows we were given the chance to hold a Black-headed Python. Surprisingly heavy, it was draped over my shoulders. I could feel its muscles under its scales as it wriggled around. It curled around my leg and didn’t want to let go.
What better place to see salties than at Australia Zoo, home to Steve Irwin, crocodile hunter. With over fifteen giant crocs – some of which he had caught by jumping on top of them, and all of which had been saved from dangerous situations – they outnumbered most of the other animals. They even had Caspar, who appeared yellow because he didn’t produce any skin pigments.
Continuing Steve’s legacy, they had a very enthusiastic show in a huge arena. They showed how quickly crocs could run across land; how stealthy they were underwater by stomping around in the shallows and being chased; and they tempted it into a tail-walk with a chicken. And if that wasn’t enough, you could watch feeding time at the smaller pens.
However, the biggest saltie we saw was back at Snakes Downunder. Four-meter-long Macca was like a pet to the park’s owner, despite it having bitten off one of his thumbs. Hopping over the small fence that we were hiding behind, he used a tiny stick to attract him out of the water and keep him in check. Macca wasn’t having any of it, turning and snapping at the stick. Unconcerned, his handler carried on, playing tug-of-war with Macca’s favourite yellow, plastic toy. All we could hear was his massive jaws clapping shut.
That didn’t put us off holding a baby. It’s scales were surprisingly soft around its belly and it vibrated when it grumbled. Thrashing around a little, we can now say we’ve wrestled a saltie.