Poor Australia. Our family had just spent the most magnificent month in New Zealand, and none of us wanted to leave. I had anticipated this might be the case after hearing nothing but rave reviews from people who had been there. But our around-the-world ticket dictated that we had to board a plane for a short 3 1/2 hour flight from Christchurch to Brisbane. So we set off knowing that Australia would have its work cut out to match the experience we had just had.
Upon arrival, we found ourselves in anything but a Christmas atmosphere with just a little over two weeks to go before the big day. Having relatives in southern Florida, we’ve spent late December in warm weather before, but this was different. Instead of houses draped in flashing lights and lawns adorned with holiday displays, the kids stared bewildered at caricatures of Santa riding a surfboard and signs in store windows offering “Beginning of Summer Sales.” This just didn’t compute properly to a nine- and eleven-year-old, but the 85-degree temperatures and sunny weather quickly helped make sense of the situation and got us all excited to start exploring Australia wholeheartedly.
The itinerary for our time Down Under had been pretty well mapped out before we arrived, in large part from the recommendations of the national and local tourist boards. Our plans included quite a few stops to view native wildlife and take in the country’s fabulous scenery. New Zealand had set the bar pretty high in this category and anyone who’s traveled extensively knows it’s easy to get caught up in comparing experiences and rating different places for things like food, hotels, and in this case, natural beauty. You find this on the cover of travel magazines all the time (“Top 50 Places Rated”). So when we arrived at O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat in the heart of Queensland’s World Heritage Lamington National Park, I didn’t expect to find anything different or overwhelming that could top what we’d seen in New Zealand. To my pleasant surprise, it wasn’t just what we saw that impressed us (the sunset over the Green Mountains was an all-time classic), it’s what we heard.
O’Reilly’s mascot is a regent bowerbird, which should have been the first clue that this was a spot for bird enthusiasts. Although I’m not a birdwatcher myself, I have grown more interested in the subject from the expanding list of places I’ve been that have avian-viewing opportunities (the Galapagos, Panama, and South Africa, to name a few). The birds we did see, including the regent bowerbird itself and Australian king parrot, were so strikingly colorful, it would make even the most disinterested nature lover run for their cameras. But it was their distinctive and unique calls that were particularly attractive. We were serenaded by the appropriately named eastern whipbirds and green catbirds on our afternoon hikes; the birdsongs echoing through the forest each morning as we awoke was as nice a setting as we have been in all year.
O’Reilly’s was ultimately recommended to us for its reputation as being family friendly. They have a terrific program set up for young people, which included bird-feeding opportunities throughout the day and guided hikes to see glowworms after sunset. The feedings were particularly entertaining, since the crimson rosellas had no hesitation parking themselves on our children’s arms and shoulders, not to mention the tops of their heads. Photo opportunities indeed! They even have a tree-top catwalk over the rainforest canopy, which includes a 70-foot ladder that takes you to the very top of their booyong trees for an awe-inspiring bird’s-eye view.
After visiting Reef World and O’Reilly’s, we realized that what New Zealand offered us by way of dramatic landscapes, Australia would rival with wildlife. Koalas, kangaroos, wallabies and crocs, after all, are what Australia is best known for – to kids anyway. Unlike the Great Barrier Reef, however, there’s no one obvious place that neatly captures them all in the wild, so the Australia Zoo seemed like our best bet to catch a glimpse of the native animals.
Even though we’ve been to plenty of well-known zoos before, we were particularly excited about this one because of the legendary croc show and its affiliation with the late Steve Irwin, the famed Crocodile Hunter. We did not leave disappointed, but not for the reasons we’d expected. Overall, the live animal shows and variety of species were good, but not anything overwhelming. What made this place special, however, was the subtle and not-so-subtle emphasis on conservation and animal welfare. The croc show, actually entitled “The Wildlife Warrior Show”, probably spent more time promoting preservation efforts than it did feeding the crocodiles. Jaw-dropping excitement, no–educational and informative, yes! There were no cages or confined enclosures in this park. Instead, it seemed like all the animals had ample real estate to roam in, which didn’t necessarily make for the best possible viewing, but surely the most natural. There were also plenty of interactive opportunities for the boys as well, including elephant and the extremely popular kangaroo feedings.
But the Irwin family’s commitment to making this the world’s leading zoological destination was most evident with the optional tour of the Australian Wildlife Hospital, expanded and completed in November 2008 from money raised by the Wildlife Warrior Foundation. This state-of-the-art facility not only cares for the animals at the zoo, it takes in any and all wildlife needing its services. We watched as a possum was being operated on after being struck by a car (something we’d see plenty of evidence of later in the trip). They even rescued some baby fruit bats, who were kept housed in the laundry room. Then there was Maxine and her fellow orphaned koalas that were being raised as a result of their mothers being killed by a dog, car, or fatal trapping. The tender care and affection our guide Rhonda showed for these animals left as strong an impression as any crocodile wrestling daredevil ever could. I guess that was the point.
Photo: Rainer Jenss