I am racing northwards on the Captain Cook Highway, along the sunny coastal strip that hugs the shimmering Pacific. This biosphere reserve is a living museum of the earth’s ancient ecosystems — the way it looked about 100 million years ago. It’s home to strange plants, and even stranger-looking animals. As I head deeper into the rainforest, the foliage turns denser and wilder — giant ferns and towering kauri — and I can no longer feel the cool ocean breeze. I finally arrive at my destination, the Kuranda Koala Gardens, a wildlife park in the heart of the Wet Tropics Rainforest.
I stop dead right in my tracks: there are wild kangaroos on the loose! They are bouncing on the lawns — and as far as I can tell, there is no fence in sight. A furry wallaby bounds up to me, demanding to be petted and fed. I gingerly hold out a handful of seeds for ‘Bubbles’ to nibble, and he firmly grabs my hand, digging in his sharp claws to keep it steady.
A park ranger walks past, with a python casually draped over his shoulders. I spot water dragons relaxing near the rock pool, as turtles paddle serenely next to them. Another ranger explains to me that free-range enclosures allow guests to observe wildlife in their natural habitat, while ensuring adequate safety. Sure enough, I can hardly spot the shiny tree frogs in their leafy homes, sitting so still they could pass for china figurines. Some distance away, in a fenced lagoon, freshwater crocodiles can be seen frolicking under their private waterfall, with their teeth bared in a grin.
I am shown around and introduced to all the animals, one of which is Pugsly the Wombat — a round, furry creature who is snoozing in a hollow tree trunk. I try to wake him up but then quickly back away when Poppy the Girlfriend arrives, making an angry appearance. Next-door to the park is Australia’s largest butterfly aviary. The cavernous glass building is lush with tropical plants and gurgling streams, and houses over 1,500 native species. The butterflies chase each other in a dazzle of colours, rest on tree logs, land on guests, and take turns sipping sugar syrup at the feeding stations. It’s magical to walk into their light, bright and airy home — a far cry from the damp and gloomy walk-through snake house. The highlight of the park is a chance to cuddle koalas. They are glued — like soft, grey furballs — to a short eucalyptus tree, where they sleep for over 20 hours a day, and wake up to munch on leaves before going right back to bed. My guide gently peels a baby koala off a branch; as I stand very still, Yoshi looks at me drowsily, and then wraps himself around me. The fuzzy top of his head grazes my chin, and I feel a rush of warmth coursing through my body. That’s the bear hug we could all use right about now.
The blue-necked southern cassowary is an endangered bird species, immortalized in the Road Runner cartoon serial. It’s not easy to spot cassowaries in the wild, but they do leave telltale signs: Jurassic-style, three-toed footprints with razor-sharp talons, and blue-green eggs. They run at incredible speeds, and the highway has speedbumps to make sure they don’t get run over, along with signs that warn of cassowary-rich areas.
There are also signs along the highway that warn of crocodile-infested waters. This coastal stretch is positively crawling with these ferocious predators; they lurk in shaded billabongs and even stray on beaches after dark.
I take a river cruise on the Daintree River to spot Australia’s legendary and infamous saltwater crocodiles, which were catapulted into cult status in Steve Irwin’s The Crocodile Hunter series. The air is muggy, but a balmy breeze ruffles the dense mangroves. Crocodiles are easily camouflaged in such muddy waters, but the eagle-eyed skipper of MV Matilda shouts and points to serrated scales slicing the surface. An enormous reptile crawls slowly out of the water and proceeds to climb heavily onto the river bank to lie down and sun itself.
“Crocodiles are very choosy. They only choose stupid people,” the skipper chuckles. He angles the boat closer to the bank and I quickly pull back my hand dangling over the side. I can taste the salty sea spray and feel my hair being whipped around, as the cruise boat hurtles towards the outermost edges of the Great Barrier Reef, carrying a group of excited snorkellers. The reef is home to six of the world’s seven turtle species and sea creatures of all shapes and sizes. But the biggest beast of them is the one where they all live. The Great Barrier Reef is the largest living organism in the world, visible even from space.
The roar of the wind and waves drops away when I finally plunge into the dimly lit, sea-green silence. Shimmering schools of fish dart about in every direction. They circle the snorkellers in a whirlpool of brilliant colours, while beautiful coral sways dreamily in invisible ocean currents. I watch awestruck, as massive stingrays glide gracefully on the white sand below me, and sea turtles sail off into the ghostly deep.
My snorkeling instructor slices through the water to the ocean floor, digs in and pulls out a sea cucumber. I blink. It’s the strangest looking creature I have seen thus far — a cross between a tuber and a giant slug — squelchy and wet.
It’s a fantastic-looking beast for sure — and after the group marvels at it, the instructor returns it safely to its home: the wild land of Oz.
Photos: Tourism and Events Queensland