One of the Australia's biggest attractions is its unique fauna -- from its iconic kangaroo to the more bizarre platypus and the potentially dangerous Cassowary. Although you are likely to get a good glimpse at most of the country's wildlife in a zoo -- both Sydney (www.zoo.nsw.gov.au) and Melbourne (www.zoo.org.au) have exceptional zoos -- there are several other alternatives and none better than actually seeing the animals in their own habitat.
I remember traveling and meeting people who thought that kangaroos actually hopped down the streets in Australia's major cities. To some lesser extent, in Anglesea, a small beachside town 68 miles west of Melbourne, they are correct. A trip to Australia's southern state of Victoria is hardly complete without a visit to the Great Ocean Road (www.greatoceanrd.org.au), a visually spectacular stretch of road and home to the landmark Twelve Apostles rock formations. Anglesea is the official starting point to the Road and it is here that you will likely see kangaroos making their way along streets, albeit small, quiet cul-de-sacs.
Their true home in this town is the Anglesea Golf Club (www.angleseagolfclub.com.au), where you will see literally hundreds of them lying basking in the sun or bouncing across the manicured fairways. In my opinion this is perhaps the best place to see kangaroos (short of a visit to the outback) and it won't cost you a cent (unless of course you choose to play a round of golf). In recent times the golf club has installed fences as a barrier (I'm not sure if it is to keep the kangaroos in or out), but you can still gain access. Apart from kangaroos, the golf course's trees are a breeding ground for various birds including galahs and sulfur-crested cockatoos.
And for a stunning visual of kangaroos frolicking on the beach, try Ulladulla or Pebbly Beach, on the south coast of New South Wales, approximately 110 miles south of Sydney. Here, Eastern Grey kangaroos from the nearby Murramarang National Park (www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au), tend to hang out and cool off after a hot day, both in the sand dunes and in the water.
The mysterious platypus is one of Australia's most intriguing cute and furry native animals. Although it has fur like a mammal, it has a duck bill and lays eggs like a reptile. They are shy creatures so seeing one in the wild, is a special experience. Eungalla National Park (www.epa.qld.gov.au) 50 miles west of Mackay (about half way between Brisbane and Cairns) in Queensland, is considered your best bet for a viewing. Access to the park is free for day trips, although if you intend to camp there overnight, fees do apply. Broken River runs through the park and several platforms have been set up along the river's banks to provide look out points for platypus sighting. Apart from the platypus (which is best seen early in the morning or late in the afternoon), the park is also known for its eels, turtles, rare species of frogs, a colorful selection of native birds (rainbow lorikeets, honeyeaters and pittas) various gliders (tawny frogmouths, sugar gliders and brushtail possums).
Koalas seem to be every visitor's favorite and there are currently a handful of wildlife centers that allow you to hold them (this practice was phased out in most states after lobbying by wildlife advocates who rightfully argued that these wild animals should not be handled). The Cairns Tropical Zoo (www.cairnstropicalzoo.com.au) charges a fee of $13 extra to cuddle a koala (or a snake) and get your picture taken, on top of the admission fee of $25 for adults and $13 for children. The Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary (www.koala.net/index.htm), near Brisbane, located less than an hour from the Gold Coast, also lets you hold and get photographed with one of their 100 plus koalas (for an additional fee of $8.50 over admission price) or perhaps a croc or a snake ($13). You can also hand feed the kangaroos. The Sanctuary also boasts Tasmanian devils, echidnas, dingoes and wombats. Entry for adults is $19, children are $15 and students/seniors are $16. Sydney's Taronga Zoo (www.zoo.nsw.gov.au) will let you be photographed next to one (a fee of $14 and a rather long wait in line awaits you). Admission to the zoo is rather pricey -- $32 for adults and $16 for kids but the views back on to Sydney Harbor and the city are well worth it.
Philip Island in Victoria, less than 90 miles from Melbourne and home to the famous fairy penguin parade, was also once known as the koala capital. Unfortunately, excessive building and destruction of their native habitat has meant that the koalas are no longer in such great numbers there but the Philip Island Koala Conservatory (www.phillipisland.net.au/koalas/koalacentre.html), part of the Phillip Island Nature Park, is considered one of the best places in the country to see these beloved marsupials. Remember that koalas generally sleep for upwards of 20 hours per day, so although you may see them, don't expect them to bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Admission is $8 or $4 for children.
Although there are no guarantees, there are many places where you can still see koalas in the wild. I have personally spotted them in the trees at Philip Island, in Noosa Heads National Park in Queensland and on the Mornington Peninsula (Shoreham to be exact) about an hour outside Melbourne. Both Port Stephens and Port Macquarie in New South Wales are home to sizeable wild koala populations. These docile creatures can get rather loud and animated at night while they are 'doing what comes naturally,' so don't be alarmed if you hear them.
The Emu isn't Australia's only large flightless bird. The endangered Cassowary, with its bright blue head, red wattles and glossy black coat is another, and these awesome yet aggressive animals are best viewed from a safe distance. Cassowaries can grow up to six feet six inches tall and can weigh close to 200 pounds so you don't want to mess with them. They have a dagger-like claw on each foot, can run over 30 miles per hour and have been known to attack if they feel threatened. I came across several along rainforest trails in Cape Tribulation (www.daintreecoast.com) in North Queensland, about 80 miles north of Cairns. The area is a paradise of beaches, mangroves and rivers where two World Heritage listed regions, the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest, meet. It is also home to crocodiles, so when the beach signs indicate not to enter the water, you'd best adhere to the rules.
Although not uniquely Australian, dolphins play happily on the shorelines of several coast in Australia and it is not difficult to get up close and personal with them in Tangalooma in Queensland or Bunbury in Western Australia where you can swim alongside pods. But for the most interactive experience, if you can get to remote World Heritage listed Monkey Mia and Shark Bay on the Coral Coast (www.australiascoralcoast.com) of Western Australia over 500 miles from Perth, you will certainly be rewarded. Here the dolphins come into shore and you need only wade waist deep in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean to play with these loveable creatures. You'll also get to experience dugongs (Australian manatees) and sea turtles, not to mention some of the most stunning white sand beaches in the country.
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