Australia’s softer side

Of all the countries we have visited so far, Australia is most like America with its wide roads, big cars, huge shopping malls and the bombardment of advertising. Being a relatively “young” country, there aren’t cathedrals and castles to visit. Its primary attraction is the great outdoors. Before coming to Australia, I pictured it as an arid landscape with vast, harsh deserts on the interior and scrubby, dry areas nearer to the oceans. This might actually be true of parts of Australia, but not the parts we have visited. I have been delighted and surprised by the lush and gorgeous rain forests, the tropical plants, the stunning tropical birds and fish. I’ve always considered it my own little dirty secret that I love tropical plants, birds, and fish. In California, these things are exotics or invasives and to be avoided. But everything is native to somewhere and I’ve been completely “wowed” by the lush, verdant, and colorful world around me here in coastal Queensland.

As George pointed out, all this beauty comes at the price of a little danger, but Australia has its softer side, too. Every bit as iconic as the saltwater crocodile is Australia’s indigenous teddy bear, the koala.

These furry little marsupials are as soft as they look.

These furry little marsupials are in no way related to bears and they are as soft as they look.

Today we spotted one in the wild. It was in a tree near the visitor’s center at Noosa National Park on the Sunshine Coast. Somehow, the fact that it was right near the parking lot felt a little cheap, but at least it wasn’t because it has become habituated to human food. Koalas eat only eucalyptus leaves which are very low in calories, and consequently they spend most of their day sleeping because they don’t have energy to do anything else. We were hoping this would mean we would see dozens of them snoozing away in the trees, but today we only saw the one.

Female cassowary, about 6 feet tall.

Female cassowary, about 6 feet tall.



We still haven’t seen a kangaroo or a cassowary (human sized bird found in the tropics – see George’s previous post) in the wild, but we did see them at the Australia Zoo the other day.

I’m usually not a fan of zoos, but I thought this one was quite well done. The zoo was begun by the parents of Steve Irwin (the Crocodile Hunter) as a small wildlife park in the 1970s. Steve took over the park in the 1990s and changed the name to the Australia Zoo. When Steve began filming the Crocodile Hunter series, he and his wife, Terri, decided to put all the money from filming and merchandise back into the zoo and wildlife conservation. Many of the enclosures at the zoo aren’t really enclosed, like a lot of the bird habitat, so some of the animals are hard to spot. Staff regularly walk around with animals that you can meet and possibly even touch such as small freshwater crocodiles, wombats, and eagles.

Red kangaroo roaming through "roo heaven" at the Australia Zoo.

Red kangaroo roaming through “roo heaven” at the Australia Zoo.

You can pet a koala and feed a kangaroo. Rather than having kangaroos in cages, they have a huge walk-through kangaroo area where you can just wander around with over 14 different species of ‘roos and wallabies.

The zoo mostly focuses on Australian wildlife, but they also have an African and Asian section where you can see bengal tigers, rhinoceros, giraffes, elephants and zebras. The bengal tiger was the highlight of the day for me. I think they are perhaps the most gorgeous animals in the world.


A black-tipped reef shark floats above us in the tunnel at the aquarium.

A black-tipped reef shark floats above us in the tunnel at the aquarium.

We spent the next day at Underwater World, the Sunshine Coast Aquarium and Oceanarium. Definitely the highlight there was the enormous shark and stingray “tube” where you can walk through with beautiful sharks and rays swimming around and above you. We learned that out of the 360 shark species, there are only 4 species of shark that will attack humans unprovoked – great whites, tiger sharks, bull sharks and the oceanic white tip. Fatalities are rare. In fact, on average, fewer than 2 people per year dies from shark attack worldwide. If you go to the beach, you are far more likely to drown than to be attacked by a shark.  Over 100 million sharks are killed by people each year though, mostly to supply the shark fin product trade. Sometimes sharks fins are cut off and then the still living shark is dumped back in the water where it can no longer swim, so it sinks to the bottom of the ocean and drowns. While we were snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef we felt so incredibly privileged to see White Tip Reef sharks. These beauties were about 5 feet long and so graceful. They are a little shy, but we managed to enjoy watching them cruise slowly through their natural habitat. At the aquarium, we also learned that 30% of shark species lay eggs, while the other 70% give birth to live young. I did not know that before.

We don’t even have to go out to see great wildlife, though. The home exchange we are doing here on the Sunshine Coast has a beautiful deck overlooking a flora and fauna preserve. We get to see the most fantastic bird life. Between this spot and the back yard at our home in Cairns, we have seen so many gorgeous birds hanging out nearby and serenading us with their songs, calls, and whistles. Yesterday a flock of rainbow lorikeets flew by. We spotted some really large owls in a neighboring tree, and we’ve seen a few cockatoos. We recently spotted a kookaburra in a tree near the driveway, though, we have been hearing them “laughing” in the trees for a couple weeks now.


Kookaburra. Their call really does sound like maniacal laughter.

At the house in Cairns, a playful pair of sunbirds darted all around our deck area, landing on any brightly colored thing and looking very much like hummingbirds as they hovered and checked it out. We’re still trying to identify some birds that we are hearing but not seeing, especially one that starts up in the early morning and sounds like someone cracking a whip. Maybe that’s just our neighbors getting a little feisty, though.

Green sea turtle with tropical fish (not my photo, but I wish it was!)

Green sea turtle with tropical fish (not my photo, but I wish it was!)

And then, of course, there are the stunningly beautiful and completely harmless tropical fish, coral, and other marine life that congregate along Australia’s shores. Six of the seven species of sea turtles in the world are found in Australia’s waters. These slow moving, peaceful amphibians move languidly through the water, practically asking you to follow along and enjoy the slower pace of life. All seven species are endangered, some of them critically so.

And lastly, there are the peaceful and fun-loving Aussies themselves. Their most frequent refrain seems to be, “No worries” and they really seem to mean it. George has enthusiastically picked up this turn of phrase and uses it at every opportunity. We have found them to be friendly and helpful, kind and generous.

Although we are only going to see a tiny little slice of this vast country (this time around), I have loved getting to know this area that feels a little like home, but in other ways still feels exotic and wild and enticing… in a very sweet way.