Australia, New Zealand and New Guinea are ancient arks, carrying the descendants of Gondwana, the great supercontinent that began to break up and drift south some 200 million years ago. Isolated over millennia, plants like the endemic Araucaria pines of New Caledonia are relicts of that prehistoric age, while monotremes, marsupials and ratites (flightless birds like the kiwi and cassowary) also have Gondwanan ancestory.
When exactly the ancestors of indigenous Australians arrived is still a matter of debate. Lower sea levels some 50,000 years ago gave rise to extended regions of dry land across much of Southeast Asia, which would certainly have brought Australia and New Guinea within range of humans paddling canoes. Following their arrival, the Australian Aborigines evolved a rich diversity of cultures and customs which is still deeply entwined with the land and its wildlife. Clan members share a totemic ancestor who they believe created the landscape, leaving its creative essence at certain significant sites. It is these links to nature that the Aborigines emphasise when celebrating the creation period – or Dreaming. Walk westwards from Alice Springs, for example, and you follow the Arrernte spiritual track or ‘songline’ known as Caterpillar Dreaming – and looking at the crumpled hills of the MacDonnell Ranges you can clearly envisage a line of caterpillars marching across the landscape.
This rich cultural complexity is most vividly portrayed in the symbolic designs of Aboriginal art. With the arrival of Europeans, however, came an Austrian artist who would provide the first scientific illustrations of Australia’s fascinating fl ora and fauna. Ferdinand Bauer is now regarded as one of the greatest natural history artists that ever lived. Assigned to the 30m sloop Investigator, under the command of Matthew Flinders, Bauer joined naturalist Robert Brown on a survey of the Australian coast. Setting sail from England in July 1801, they reached Cape Leeuwin in south-western Australia five months later. Within a few days, the expedition had collected some 500 plant species, almost all of them new to science. Surveys of southern Australia, the Blue Mountains, Great Barrier Reef, Cape York, the Gulf of Carpentaria and Arnhem Land followed, with Bauer amassing a spectacular portfolio of drawings. By the time the Investigator returned to Liverpool in 1805, her hold contained a collection of around 2,000 sketches. Among them were gloriously detailed studies of cycads and banksias, vivid portraits of reef fish and meticulous illustrations of wallabies and wombats. Perhaps most extraordinary of all, though, was an anatomical study of a duck-billed platypus – a creature that Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society, had questioned the very existence of, until he saw Bauer’s artwork (backed up by a preserved specimen). The treasure chest of Australia’s unique plants and animals had been thrown open – and its contents continue to delight and inspire visitors today.
Read the latest posts on Australasian wildlife travel
HOW TO BE A RESPONSIBLE WILDLIFE TRAVELLER
When it comes to wildlife holidays, responsible tourism is not just an option – it should be considered an intrinsic part of the whole process. When planning your wildlife holiday in Australasia, read these 10 steps to minimise your impact on the environment, reduce your carbon emissions and support wildlife conservation and the livelihoods of local communities.
Australasia: Natural Zones
Habitats of Australasia
In biogeographic terms Australasia includes Australia, New Guinea and the easternmost islands of Indonesia, but for the purposes of this website it extends to cover the wider region of Oceania, incorporating New Zealand and the islands of the southwest Pacific.
Vulture-shaped New Guinea squats just below the equator, its highlands smothered in tropical rainforest that’s home to many endemic species, including birds of paradise and tree kangaroos. The island’s reefs are part of the so-called Coral Triangle, an area of exceptional biodiversity The tropics rub off on Australia’s Top End where the Cape York forests and Kakadu wetlands support a wealth of flora and fauna. Nowhere is nature more exuberant in Australia, though, than the Great Barrier Reef – a vast ecosystem of coral reefs and islands covering an area of nearly 350,000 sq km. The temperate forests and heathlands of southeastern Australia and Tasmania support some of the continent’s iconic animals, such as koalas and wombats, while the deserts of the Australian Outback have their own unique cast of arid-adapted species, from lizards like the thorny devil and bearded dragon to rock wallabies, bandicoots and other marsupials.
Native kauri forests, sub-alpine grasslands, rugged coastlines and offshore islands provide refuges for New Zealand’s endemic wildlife, which includes the kakapo, a flightless and nocturnal parrot. A relative of the rails and cranes the kagu is endemic to New Caledonia, while Lord Howe Island is an important nesting site for the Providence petrel – one of many species in Australasia vulnerable to predation by introduced rats and stoats.
Australasia: Wildlife Travel
HOW TO PLAN A WILDLIFE TRIP
With an impressive range of national parks and reserves, a strong conservation ethic and superb local guides, Australia and New Zealand make excellent wildlife travel destinations. Everywhere you go, you will find responsible tour operators, excellent facilities and a range of places to stay – from wilderness lodges in the Southern Alps to Aborigine-owned safari camps in the Outback.