If you’re off to Australia in search of kangaroos, koalas, and other native icons, you probably won’t have to look very hard. While you won’t find them hopping through the streets, native animals abound in wildlife parks and – love them or hate them – zoos around the country, some of which do excellent work towards the conservation of these animals.
But why come all this way for the same experience you could have at your own local zoo?
Shaking off a late-night arrival into Melbourne and an early wake-up, I make my bleary-eyed, pre-caffeinated way downstairs, where a minibus awaits, ready to take our small group into the surrounding hinterland in search of Australia’s most famous furry faces.
Since 1993, Echidna Walkabout Wildlife and Nature Tours has been introducing visitors to Australia’s wildlife as it should be seen – in the wild. Dedicated to the preservation of these amazing creatures as well as the traditional local culture, the company offers fully guided and catered small group trips from Melbourne. These range from wildlife encounters… to Aboriginal culture tours… to multi-day journeys along the Great Ocean Road.
Today however, is all about kangaroos and koalas. After a merciful stop for a takeaway flat white – Melbourne’s essential start to the day – our guide, Martin, hits the highway, bound for You Yangs Regional Park, a 45 minute drive from Melbourne.
Echidna Walkabout’s work reaches beyond its tours. Following markers left by one of its expert researchers, it’s not long before we spot the first of three wild koalas seen in the past few days. Distinguished by their nose markings (ever think to look up a koala’s nose?), each koala is named and logged by the team, while still being left to its own devices – which mostly involve sleeping.
Part of each guest’s tour cost goes towards koala research, helping ensure a happy, healthy koala population in the future. Our visit also involves a more hands-on approach to conservation, hand-pulling Boneseed. This noxious, introduced plant has spread rapidly throughout the Victorian bush, making it much harder for the koalas to move from tree to tree, and choking the habitat of native ground-dwellers like wombats and echidna.
Dividing his time between Australia and his native South Africa, Martin is no stranger to leading small group safaris, and it isn’t long before our group meets a wallaby, a brush-tailed possum, and several parrots, which enliven the grey-green bush with bright red and blue plumage.
Not so great, he warns, are his skills at swinging the billy when it’s time for tea. This uniquely Aussie tradition involves swinging a can of hot water, tea, and eucalyptus leaves over the head in a circular motion. In theory, this not only stirs the tea, but sends any unwanted debris straight to the bottom of the billy. Luck is on Martin’s side today, and the tea lands safely alongside lamingtons, ANZAC biscuits, and other Australian treats to finish off a delicious picnic lunch.
Next, we’re off in search of kangaroos in Serendip National Park, stopping to wait for an inquisitive emu to make its way off the road. While kangaroos can often be seen bounding across the local fields, getting a close look at them is a trickier game than tracking down koalas. Staying in mobs and favouring long grass, these timid creatures move quickly, alerting each other to unwelcome visitors. This unfortunately includes our group and our first ‘roo sighting is all too brief.
Better luck awaits us a short drive down the road, where two mobs of kangaroos have settled into much shorter grass. Unlike koalas, who’d prefer to roll over and pretend we’re not there, these furry families give us their undivided attention the moment we set foot on their land. Staying in single file, our silent group manages to get as close as thirty feet from the mob, close enough to observe their grooming, the occasional social power-play, and see the paw of a tiny joey poking out of its mother’s pouch. Eventually, these wild animals need their privacy, and we slowly withdraw with a reel of photos and the memory of seeing these magnificent animals in their natural habitat, unhindered by fences or throngs of tourists.
Echidna Walkabout runs Kangaroos & Koalas in the Wild as an all-inclusive excursion, accommodating no more than 8 guests per trip. Pickup is available throughout the Melbourne Central Business District (CBD) between 8:30 and 9:30am, returning between approximately 5 and 6pm. While the walks are easy, guests can expect an immersive trip into the Australian bush, so reliable shoes and outdoor friendly clothing are a must. That said, if you’ve already packed for Melbourne’s unpredictable weather, you’re on the right track!