Australian wildlife is some of the most fascinating on the planet. Here’s our pick of some of the best places to spot anything from Lumholtz tree-kangaroos to little penguins, and cassowaries to crocs, and where to stay during your wildlife-watching adventures.
Mount Hypipamee National Park
Atherton Tablelands, Qld
With just 2000 remaining in the wild, it’s a pretty lucky day when you spot a nocturnal Lumholtz’s tree-kangaroo. These intriguing, heavily muscled arboreal creatures look like a cross between a bear and a kangaroo, and are found only in Queensland’s far northern forests. Zoologist Carl Lumholtz and his Aboriginal guides discovered them in 1882 on the Cardwell Range, 185km south of Cairns. Since then, Mount Hypipamee National Park has become the place to spot them. This high-altitude rainforest also supports a huge variety of gliders and possums, but it’s the park’s dramatic, water-filled volcanic explosion crater with sheer granite walls that plunge 140m deep, that attracts most visitors.
The Lumholtz’s tree-kangaroos are considered too rare to sight, so you could imagine our surprise when we encountered not one but two on our early morning stroll through the park. Bounding suddenly onto the path in front of us, the tree-kangaroos climbed just as swiftly away into the canopy above Dinner Falls, their long tails swinging free.
From a safe distance they turned to meet our stares and delighted us by staying within sight while we snapped some photos. You can’t overnight at Mount Hypipamee National Park, but there’s a spacious free campground at nearby Archer Creek Rest Area, 18km beyond Ravenshoe. Shaded by towering gums, this grassy free camp accommodates big rigs and pets, and just upstream you can explore Big Millstream, Australia’s widest, single-drop waterfall.
Location: Head 24km south of Atherton along the Kennedy Highway.
Camping: Archer Creek Rest Area (toilets and picnic tables available).
Djiru National Park
Mission Beach, Qld
Weighing in at around 65kg and capable of reaching speeds up to 50km/h, Australia’s largest flightless bird is a force to be reckoned with. When under duress, the southern cassowary becomes a dangerous adversary, but with only about 1500 birds left in the wild, you’d have to encounter one first.
For the highest known concentration of southern cassowaries, head to Mission Beach, a palm-fringed tropical village located 90 minutes by car south of Cairns. Behind a 14km-long strip of sand, Djiru National Park protects the rare Licuala fan palm forest that cassowaries call home.
Estimates put Australia’s entire cassowary population as low as 1500 – dire figures for this endangered ‘keystone species’ whose habit of eating and dispersing rainforest plant seeds makes them vital to the survival of these rainforests.
Two of the best trails are the Musgravea hiking and biking trail (6km, one-way) and the easy Fan Palm Walk (1.3km) that loops beneath the 15m-high Licuala fan palms, whose fruit is a favourite cassowary snack.
Location: Turn off the Bruce Highway just north of Tully and continue for 26km to Mission Beach.
Camping: Two council-run caravan parks offer beachfront sites at Mission Beach and Bingil Bay.
Facilities: Hot showers, toilets and laundry.
Fees: $18/$24 per couple (unpowered/powered).
Pets: Dogs on leads are permitted.
Contact: www.cassowarycoast.qld.gov.au and www.nprsr.qld.gov.au
East Alligator River
Kakadu National Park, NT
The biggest myth about the world’s largest reptile lies with their name. On the contrary, estuarine or saltwater crocodiles thrive in billabongs, creeks, rivers and freshwater waterholes, and are found far inland and on islands and sand cays more than 100km from the coast.
Hunted to the brink of extinction from the 1940s to the 1960s, crocodile numbers (and the number of attacks on humans) are on the rise. In the far north the rules are clear: never swim in crocodile habitat, camp well away from the water’s edge, and be careful when boating to keep your arms and legs on board.
One of the best places to safely watch salties from a distance is from the high banks of Cahills Crossing on the East Alligator River in Kakadu National Park. When the tide begins to recede, 4WD vehicles crossing the causeway stir up the water and enormous estuarine crocodiles slither down the muddy riverbanks to snap at unsuspecting barramundi trapped by the receding tide.
Location: Cahills Crossing is 40km of Jabiru.
Camping: Ubirr Campground provides hot showers, toilets, drinking water, picnic tables and fireplaces.
Fees: $10 per person (kids free).
Shoalwater Islands Marine Park
Girthed by Shoalwater Islands Marine Park and linked to land by a thin tendril of sand at low tide, Penguin and neighbouring Seal islands form one of the world’s most significant city-based marine sanctuaries.
Here you can encounter Western Australia’s largest colony of little penguins and access couldn’t be easier. Paddle your own seakayak or jump aboard the ferry that departs hourly from Mersey Point to tour the Penguin Experience Discovery Centre. Combined ferry/entrance tickets cost $25 for adults and $19 for kids.
The Penguin Experience Discovery Centre was created in 1987 to rehabilitate injured and orphaned wild penguins, which you can observe at feeding times (10.30am, 12.30pm and 2.30pm) and through a glass-panel on their swimming pool.
Around 1000 pairs of wild little penguins call this 12.5-hectare island home, coming ashore under the cover of darkness to nests hidden in rugged limestone pockets. They share Penguin Island’s protected headlands and beaches with up to 30 other bird species, including a rare breeding colony of Australian pelicans that mysteriously arrived on Penguin Island in 1998 and stayed.
Wheelchair-accessible boardwalks around Penguin Island provide close encounters with nesting seabirds and you can snorkel the Little Penguin Dive Trail. The bay’s protected waters make for perfectly pleasurable paddling too, gliding over seagrass beds through translucent seas, spotting bottlenose dolphins as you go.
Location: Head to Mersey Point ferry terminal on Arcadia Drive, Shoalwater, about 45km south of Perth. The ferry departs hourly from 9am to 3pm. Penguin Island closes each winter to allow the little penguins to breed and nest undisturbed.
Contact: www.penguinisland.com.au or www.parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au
Read how the Young Nomads – Drew and Court shared their campsite with wildlife