Rocking in the boughs of a eucalyptus tree like a newborn baby in its crib, Australia’s A-list animal resident is sleepily unaware of the commotion he is causing below.
Hoisting cameras and iPhones aloft, crowds are snapping with the vigour of paparazzi at a red-carpet event. True to form, the ‘talent’ turns his back and refuses to cooperate.
Small country town Kennett River is famous for marsupial sightings, and local cafeteria Kafe Koala has even been named in their honour.
It was here, after a coffee and Tim Tam biscuit, that TV presenter Julia Bradbury laid eyes on her first wild koala, a moment captured in the final episode of ITV’s Australia With Julia Bradbury.
“My first sighting of a wild koala was up a tree in a car park,” she exclaims, when we meet in the UK to talk about her adventures Down Under, which involved filming in a whirlwind 70 locations.
“He was eating, which was pretty amazing, because they don’t usually move. They sleep for about 20 hours a day!”
Both Julia’s and my own encounters with the adorable species occur along Victoria’s Great Ocean Road, a road trip the TV presenter enthusiastically claims is “right up there with Route 66”.
Curving around the southeastern state’s wild and unkempt coastline, where the furious Southern Ocean collides with the Bass Strait, before heading inland to the Otway Ranges, the 243km trail was built by soldiers returning from World War I, making it the world’s largest war memorial.
But in place of monuments and grandiose statues, sublime forests and mighty limestone stacks commemorate their efforts, while also providing a home for a myriad of creatures.
Although Victoria is Australia’s smallest mainland state, it has the highest concentration of the nation’s indigenous species, largely due to the conservation efforts of a forward-thinking population.
The variety of animals here is astounding; prickly but irresistibly pettable echidnas, primitive-looking duck-billed platypus, wily snow-white cockatoos, and brazen kangaroos with a kick far more powerful than any kung-fu fighter, and a punch which could knock out a champion heavyweight.
But not all the natural wonders have a pulse.
Rearing up from the ocean like powerful guardians of the coastline, the 12 Apostles are a series of limestone stacks revered worldwide. Yet even these geological giants are not resilient to the tides of time, and decades of erosion have taken their toll, sending four of the monoliths to their watery grave.
Avoiding the crowds at sunset, I visit at daybreak, making my way down Gibson Steps to admire the pillars of Gog and Magog from their beachside base.
Even during a cloudy dawn, they reign supreme, demonstrating why Julia came here to film part of her program. In real life, they’re even more impressive; a jewel in Queen Victoria’s crown and reason enough to make a journey to the other side of the world.
Keen to follow in Julia Bradbury’s wildlife footsteps through Victoria? Here are five activities inspired by her travels.
1. Play golf with kangaroos in Anglesea
They’re not your typical fairway opponents, but kangaroos have taken up residency in the Anglesea Golf Club, set along Victoria’s Great Ocean Road. Content with grazing, they provide a useful mowing service and seem undisturbed by golfers. Fed up with hordes of tourists poking around the 18-hole course, the 60-year-old club set up tours in 2015, and since then, more than 40,000 visitors have come in pursuit of the roos.
Running every half an hour from 10am–4pm, and costing $12.50, the buggy tours travel around the course in search of marsupials, with trained guides available to share information about their behaviour. Regular contact with humans has tamed the animals and, although touching is strictly forbidden, this is the closest you’ll probably get to a kangaroo. Visit angleseagolfclub.com.au.
2. Stroke an echidna at Healesville Sanctuary
Covered in spines, echidnas don’t look especially cuddly, but in relaxed situations these Australian endemics feel incredibly soft. Find out for yourself by booking a 10-minute wildlife encounter at Healesville Sanctuary, an excellent centre dedicated to the care, protection and treatment of indigenous wildlife ($20, zoo.org.au/healesville).
There’s also the chance to meet a koala up close (although holding is not permitted), or get in the tank with a duck-billed platypus called Yami, who likes having her belly tickled. Encounters are highly controlled and only take place a few times a week, so – unsurprisingly – waiting lists are long.
3. Sleep beneath the stars in the Grampians
An important meeting point for Aboriginal clans, due to the abundance of water and food, this forested, sandstone mountain range has a significant amount of rock art. One of the most important pieces is Bunjil’s Shelter, featuring a clay ochre drawing of the Indigenous creator, although its age is unknown.
The Grampians National Park has many hiking routes leading to viewpoints; the most popular being the Pinnacle and Mount William. The Grampians Peaks Trail will be opening in late 2020, covering 160km and taking around 13 days to complete. Local operators will be offering glamping packages with fine food and wine supplied, providing an excellent opportunity to camp comfortably beneath a canopy of blinding stars.
4. Join the penguin parade on Phillip Island
Every night, up to 3000 little penguins waddle ashore at the Summerland Peninsula, part of Phillip Island, which is linked to the mainland by a bridge. It’s the only colony left after nine others were wiped out by human development, although in recent years conservation efforts have helped the population bounce back.
Encounters take place at the Penguin Parade Viewing Centre, with a footfall of up to 5000 people per night. It sounds chaotic, but the whole process is carefully managed, giving everyone an opportunity to see the ‘little blue fairies’ make their way across the beach and back to burrows. For the best viewing spot, book the 10-person Ranger Experience ($82.50, penguins.org.au).
5. Learn to throw a boomerang at Tower Hill
This dormant volcano in Warrnambool, one of the few craters in the world you can drive into, has rightfully earned its reputation as a world wonder. Aboriginal clans were the original stewards of the land, and Indigenous guides now run daily tours ($25, towerhill.org.au) explaining the history, importance and tragic degradation of their home.
Learn about the Earth’s oldest continuing culture and find out why their relationship with modern-day Australia is fraught with complication. Take a walk along a trail to sample traditional bush tucker, tasting nutritious plants and berries eaten for thousands of years. Finish up by learning how to throw a boomerang; it’s all in the wrist action and reading of the wind.
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