In North America, children are raised being told fanciful tales of the land Downunder, where baby animals hang in pouches, mammals lay eggs, and crocodiles and snakes have the lay of the land. To American and Canadian children, Australia is a land of animals that should sooner belong in fairy tales than the real world. Luckily, these children can now take a 12-hour flight and visit these fantastical animals for themselves, on travel to Australia.
While there are certainly exaggerations in children’s books when it comes to Australia, the imaginative sway that Australia and its wildlife has over all ages of travellers is undeniable. Simply put, Australia’s incredible wildlife is a big reason to head on an Australia vacation. There are certain wildlife experiences you can only have Downunder, where you’ll find animals you couldn’t find anywhere else in the world.
The Iconic Animals of Australia
If asked to name the most iconic Australian animal, you’d likely say the koala or the kangaroo. One is a medium-sized tree-hugging marsupial who feasts exclusively on toxic eucalyptus leaves, and the other is a large bipedal animal that bounces around on its enormous hind legs. Both are odd enough creatures that you’d think a fanciful child made them up based solely on their descriptions. But they are real and commonplace, even mundane, in Australia.
Travel to Australia and you will find koalas in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia. While you can come across them in the wild, your best bet for an encounter is to head to a nature reserve. Reserves on Kangaroo Island off the coast of South Australia or the Koala Cove Café on the Great Ocean Road in Victoria offer chances to closely observe koalas. If you want to get even closer, you can actually hug a koala in Queensland and South Australia, the only states that haven’t outlawed the practice. In particular, head to Australia Zoo or the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary on the Gold Coast to hug a koala with a trained professional nearby to help out if the animal becomes persnickety. I recommend that you don’t go trying to hug koalas in the wild. They might not be appreciative of your affection.
Kangaroos are more common than koalas and can be found in most regions of Australia, particularly areas with greater vegetation like grassy plains and forests. You’ll find them close to cities and in the furthest reaches of the Australian Outback, although in the Northern Territory, it’s more likely you’ll come across their smaller cousins like wallabies and wallaroos than actual kangaroos. Sadly, because kangaroos are so common, they’re often the victims of car accidents, as people strike them with their cars while driving, much as people strike deer in North America.
If you want to be guaranteed to have a close encounter with or feed a kangaroo on your travel to Australia, visit one of the nature reserves like Flinders Chase on Kangaroo Island – it’d be disappointing if a place named Kangaroo Island didn’t have kangaroos – or head to a zoo in a major city, like Taronga Zoo in Sydney. However, if you’re wanting an encounter outside of the confines of an artificial enclosure or reserve, head to the Flinders Ranges in South Australia or the MacDonnell Ranges in the Northern Territory. It’s likely you’ll come across kangaroos or their diminutive cousins, wallabies, while hiking these mountain trails.
Experiences in the Australian Waters
While marsupials like koalas and kangaroos enjoy much of the spotlight in Australia, ocean animals offer their own wonder on travel to Australia. As water surrounds Australia on all sides, the country abounds with incredible sea life worth visiting and encountering in the wild. In particular, the reaches of Western Australia and the northeast coast of Queensland are your best spots for underwater experiences.
In Western Australia, the coastal stretch between Broome and Perth is an ideal spot to encounter sea life. The Ningaloo Reef, to the south of Broome, is Australia’s second largest coral reef and its largest fringing coral reef. While its pristine condition makes it a popular spot for snorkelling and surfing, the reef is best known for the presence of shark whales, the largest fish in the sea. Between March and November, the whale sharks move through the waters of the Ningaloo Reef. You can go on dives to swim alongside these gentle sharks, although be sure to keep a safe distance from them and don’t use flash photography if you want to take pictures of them, the bright lights might scare them. You don’t have to worry about whale sharks becoming hungry while you’re swimming with them. Unlike most sharks, whale sharks are not predators, they feed on plankton.
Also in Western Australia, you can swim alongside dolphins at Monkey Mia, around 900 kilometres north of Perth. Bottlenose dolphins come near the shore at Monkey Mia, allowing you to interact with them and feed them. While there are many spots on the planet where you can interact with dolphins, few spots are as consistent or accessible as Monkey Mia.
On the opposite coast of Australia, in Queensland, you’ll find the Great Barrier Reef, the largest coral reef system on the planet and home to thousands of species of fish and marine life. There is nothing else like the Great Barrier Reef on the planet, and swimming through its waters and encountering the kaleidoscopic colours of fish and sea plants on your travel to Australia is something you can only experience Downunder.
In the north of Queensland, you can also get up close with whales as they pass through the waters during their yearly migrations. At Hervey Bay, around four hours north of Brisbane, you can visit the migrating humpback whales between July and November. At the Ribbon Reefs of the Great Barrier Reef north of Cairns, you can swim alongside the tiny minke whales as they pass through the waters in June and July. Minke whales are relatively unknown compared to other whales like humpbacks or orcas, so you should take advantage of the chance to see them in the wild if your travel to Australia takes you around Cairns in the Australian winter.
The Colourful Birds of Oz
It’s not just Australian land and sea that has incredible creatures, the air sports some fanciful animals too. Australia is home to colourful birds like the Australian king parrot, regent bowerbird, and the cockatoo. Best of all, Australia has a few species of Birds of Paradise, which are typically found on Papua New Guinea. The trumpet manucode, paradise riflebird, magnificent riflebird, and Victoria’s riflebird all call Australia home.
In particular, the Victoria’s riflebird is incredible. Anyone who has seen Planet Earth knows that the Birds of Paradise engage in elaborate rating rituals. The Victoria’s riflebird is no exception. The black-and-blue males puff themselves up, outstretch their wings in a U-pattern, and perform a dance where they seem to shimmy between their two wings, bobbing from right to left and back again. It’s an incredible display of colour and an eclectic performance you won’t find anywhere else in the world. You can find the Victoria’s riflebird in the north of Queensland in the Daintree Rainforest.
The Victoria’s riflebird may be incredible, but it’s not as iconic as the emu, which is the second largest bird on the planet next to the ostrich. The emu adorns the Australian coat of arms alongside the kangaroo as they are two endemic species to Australia that cannot move backwards. This inability to reverse symbolizes the nature of Australian progress. However, you don’t need to know this bit of trivia to appreciate emus. These giant flightless birds grow up to two metres tall and run up to 50 kilometres per hour. You can come across emus in the Flinders Ranges in South Australia or the Outback of Victoria, but your best bet for finding them is probably Tower Hill on the Great Ocean Road.
A Touch of Danger Downunder
Australia is also home to many dangerous animals that you won’t want to come across in the bush without the company of an experienced ranger… and the safety of a thick metal door. However, the fact that Australia is home to such animals adds to its allure.
Perhaps most terrifying of these is the cassowary. Cassowaries are similar to emus in that they’re large, flightless birds. However, while emus are not exactly friendly, they are nowhere as dangerous as the cassowary, which is often considered the most dangerous bird on the planet. Cassowaries live in the north of Queensland and on Papua New Guinea. They can run up to 50 kilometres per hour and have a long dagger-like middle toe that can reach 125 mm long. This makes them especially tough customers when provoked.
While cassowaries are typically shy, it has recently become common for people to feed them out of curiosity. This has made the birds more aggressive as they increasingly expect food from humans. When they don’t get it, they can attack and inflict deadly injuries with their claws. The bird’s piercing gaze and dinosaur-like bill or casque only makes them more intimidating. However fascinating the cassowary is, it’s the one bird you’d best avoid on your travel to Australia. If you do come across one in the north of Queensland, stay calm and get to a safe distance.
For many people, crocodiles are scarier than a cassowary could ever be. As well, it’s much more likely that you’ll be able to see a crocodile than a cassowary on a trip to Australia. Luckily, rangers and conservationists like the late Steve Irwin and his family have pioneered ways of engaging safely with crocodiles, reducing much of their stigma in the process. Instead of actively avoiding crocodiles, it’s now common to take excursions centred on viewing crocodiles. Such trips include a river cruise in Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory to see their famous saltwater crocodiles, or a visit to Australia Zoo on the Gold Coast to witness a crocodile feeding and witness the good work that the Irwin family continues doing in the field of crocodile research.
Regardless of whether you like cuddly koalas or minke whales, or prefer the more dangerous variety of beasts Downunder, Australia offers plenty of unique wildlife experiences that you can’t get anywhere else. It is home to the most bizarre and fascinating animals on the planet… and I didn’t even mention the other endemic and arresting animals like quokkas, quolls, spiny echidnas, wombats, Tasmania devils, and the famous platypus.
If you’re looking for wildlife on your Globetrotting adventure, travel to Australia is a great bet. It’s ground zero for the wondrous and fantastical animals of our planet.
Unique Wildlife in Australia and New Zealand
Get the latest travel trends & hear about the best deals on vacations around the world.
If you’re a Globetrotter, these are the newsletters for you!