Australia: Wildlife Destinations
Great Barrier Reef Marine Park
Home to 600 species of soft and hard corals, 3,000 varieties of molluscs, 500 types of worm, 1,625 fish species, six of the world’s seven species of sea turtle and more than 30 different kinds of whales and dolphins, the Great Barrier Reef is just one of five world heritage sites in Queensland. Another, known as the Wet Tropics, stretches from Townsville to Cooktown and is recognised as the world’s oldest rainforest – an ecosystem that has flourished for 150 million years (10 times longer than the Amazon). As well as brimming with biodiversity, it plays a vital role in keeping the reef healthy – mangroves act as fish nurseries, while forests protect watersheds and reduce harmful runoff into the sea.
6 Great Barrier Reef Highlights
1. Lizard Island
Lying 33km off the coast about 100km north of Cooktown, this continental island has a mountainous interior, coral sand beaches and fringing reefs. Home to an exclusive resort, bush campsite and research station, Lizard can be reached by 1hr flight from Cairns.
2. Ribbon Reefs
Long, thin coral reefs forming the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef, 50-100km off the mainland, the ribbon reefs can be reached on day cruises and liveaboards, and promise superb diving at famous sites like the Cod Hole, Steve’s Bommie and Challenger Bay.
3. Port Douglas
A more relaxed alternative to Cairns (an hour’s drive south), Port Douglas has a good range of accommodation and offers boat trips to stunning outer reefs like Agincourt, as well as access to mainland highlights like the Daintree River and Cape Tribulation.
4. Michaelmus Cay
A tiny coral cay around 40km from Cairns, this slither of sand is a protected sanctuary for up to 20,000 pairs of nesting seabirds, particularly sooty terns, while its surrounding reef supports rich marine life, including green turtles, giant clams and Maori wrasse.
5. Whitsunday Islands
A popular sailing destination, easily reached from Airlie Beach, the 74 islands of this idyllic archipelago are mostly uninhabited, with dense rainforest, powder-sand beaches and fringing reefs. Accommodation ranges from campsites to exclusive resorts.
6. Heron Island
A forested coral cay in the southern section of the Great Barrier Reef, Heron Island has a small resort and research station. Over 100,000 birds breed on the island, sea turtles nest on its beaches, while divers and snorkelers often encounter rays, sharks and dolphins.
Getting there A chain of 2,600 reefs and 300 coral cays stretching over 2,300km along the Queensland coast, the Great Barrier Reef can be reached by helicopter, plane or boat from several towns, including Cairns, Townsville, Port Douglas and Airlie Beach.
Getting around Day trips are available to dive sites, coral cays or floating pontoons, while accommodation is available on various islands.
When to go Nesting season for sea turtles is November to February, while corals spawn after the full moon in November. Dwarf minke whales visit northern Ribbon Reefs May-Jul; humpbacks off Cairns Jul-Sep.
Things to do Open daily, Reef HQ in Townsville provides an excellent introduction to this spectacularly diverse ecosystem. The newly opened Cairns Aquarium immerses you in a journey from river to sea, exploring the rich aquatic habitats of Queensland’s Far North. Highlights include a 7m-high, 200,000-litre reef drop-off display, an Open Ocean tank with stingrays and scalloped hammerhead sharks, and a billabong exhibit with freshwater sawfish and barramundi. The aquarium plans to establish breeding programmes for endangered species and work towards improving coral resilience on the Great Barrier Reef. Ecocertified operators include: Adrenalin Dive, Big Cat Green Island Reef Cruises, Cairns Dive Centre, Coral Princess Cruises, Deep Sea Divers Den, Fantasea Cruises, Great Adventures Cruises, Lady Elliot Island Eco Retreat, Lizard Island Resort, Mike Ball Dive Expeditions, Pro Dive Cairns, Quicksilver and Wavelength.
Further information Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.
Kakadu National Park
Kakadu's star species: Magpie goose • Brolga • Saltwater crocodile • Sugar glider
Many of Kakadu’s mammals are either shy or nocturnal: sugar gliders and northern quolls hide during the day in tree hollows, while bandicoots shelter in logs. Wallabies and wallaroos are more readily seen and dingoes can be heard howling at night. Flying foxes roost in large colonies in mangroves and paperbark forests, dispersing at night to feed on fruit and nectar.
Kakadu supports over 280 bird species, the most conspicuous being dry-season flocks of magpie geese, whistling ducks and other waterbirds. Brolgas, jabirus and egrets pace the shallows, while comb-crested jacanas tiptoe across lily pads. Woodlands are home to kookaburras, lorikeets and honeyeaters. The national park’s 117 reptile species range from saltwater and freshwater crocodiles to pythons, goannas and the bizarre frill-necked lizard.
Kakadu undergoes dramatic seasonal changes, with six main phases identified by the indigenous Bininj-Mungguy. From December to March, Gudjewg is the main wet season. Heavy rain creates widespread flooding, magpie geese disperse to nest in sedgelands, while reptiles and mammals seek refuge on islands or in trees. In April, windy conditions flatten lush swathes of spear grass in the so-called Banggerreng or ‘Knock ‘em down’ season. Floodwaters recede and many birds and mammals have young. Humidity levels drop during Yegge from May to June. Early morning mists drift across the plains, while waterlilies carpet the billabongs. This is traditionally the time when the Bininj-Mungguy start burning the land to encourage new growth for grazing animals. Birds of prey patrol the fire lines as insects and small animals flee the flames.
From June to August, Wurrgeng is a cool season when night-time temperatures can drop to 17C. The floodplains continue to dry out, forcing huge flocks of waterbirds to crowd the shrinking billabongs. Hot dry weather occurs during the Gurrung from mid-August to mid-October. The arrival of white-breasted wood swallows heralds the pre-monsoon season of Gunumeleng (October to December) when thunderstorms begin to green the land and streams flow once more.
Getting there Directions 250km east of Darwin, Kakadu can be reached by car or coach tour, although seasonal flooding may close some roads.
Getting around Guided tours are available (see below).
When to go Park open year round. See above for seasonal variations.
Visitor centres Bowali Visitor Centre and Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre, both open daily.
Things to do 4WD safaris, boat trips, Aboriginal rock art tours, scenic flights, bush walks, fishing. Self-guided trails, such as the 4km Bubba Wetland Walk from the Muirella park camping area, are also possible. Tours are available from Animal Tracks Safari, Gagudju Adventure Tours and Kakadu Culture Camp.
Places to stay Located 5km from Bowali Visitor Centre, Jabiru has accommodation, including the Gagudju Crocodile Holiday Inn, Kakadu Lodge and Lakeview Park, plus facilities ranging from a service station and supermarket to travel agency and pharmacy. The Aurora Kakadu Resort is located in the South Alligator River area, while Gagudju Cooinda Lodge is situated near Yellow Waters Billabong. Camping is also possible.
Further information environment.gov.au/parks/kakadu.
Kangaroo Island's star species: Fur seal • Sea lion • Koala • Grey kangaroo • Echidna • Pelican
Australia’s third largest island is a veritable ark of native wildlife. Not only is a third of its land protected in national parks and reserves, but there are no predatory dingoes or foxes to prey on its koalas, echidnas, bandicoots, possums and endemic subspecies of Tammar wallaby and western grey kangaroo. Flinders Chase National Park at the western end of the island is one of the best places to observe Kangaroo Island’s abundant wildlife. Koalas are common in the manna gum trees near the park headquarters, while platypuses are sometimes seen at Rocky River Waterhole. The Admiral’s Arch area is a popular haul-out for around 6,000 New Zealand fur seals, while Seal Bay has a colony of 600 Australian sea lions. Don a mask and snorkel for underwater encounters with these graceful marine mammals, and keep an eye out for well-camouflaged leafy sea dragons. During winter, southern right whales are sighted off the island, while seabirds like gannets, terns and shearwaters are regularly seen along the coast. Other top ticks include pelican, white-bellied sea eagle, wedge-tailed eagle, glossy black cockatoo, little penguin and Cape Barren goose.
Getting there Around 100km southwest of Adelaide, Kangaroo Island is reached by Sealink ferry from Cape Jervis.
Getting around Self drive or join a guided tour.
When to go Year round.
Visitor centres Kingscote Visitor Centre, open daily.
Things to do Guided tours, walks, kayaking, snorkelling, diving.
Places to stay Wide range, from luxury lodges to campsites.
Further information tourkangarooisland.com.au
Lamington National Park
Lamington's star species: Bowerbirds • Fruit doves • Parrots • Noisy pitta • Pademelons
Subtropical rainforest merges with rare fragments of moss-cloaked Antarctic beech forest in this highland reserve in southern Queensland. Although red-necked pademelons are often seen at dawn and dusk on forest paths and around campgrounds, birds are the main attraction at Lamington. You only have to visit the bird-feeding area at O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat to get an idea of the diversity of species found here. King parrot, crimson rosella, rainbow lorikeet, Australian brush-turkey and regent bowerbird are easily seen, but you will have to work harder – listening for calls – to identify more elusive forest species, such as Albert’s lyrebird, eastern whipbird, green catbird and paradise riflebird. Night walks in the forest might reveal the eyeshine of the well-camouflaged marbled frogmouth and, if you’re extremely lucky, you could see a greater glider take flight, its ‘gliding membranes’ stretched taut between wrist and ankle.
Getting there Two-hour drive south of Brisbane.
Getting around Easily accessible by road.
When to go Year round.
Things to do Guided tours, hiking, birdwatching.
Places to stay Accommodation at O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat ranges from simple Garden View rooms to luxurious Canopy Suites. Facilities include a cosy lounge and library, plunge pool, spa and a Discovery program featuring 4WD tours, rainforest hikes, tree-top walkway, glow worm walks, evening spotlighting and zip-lining.
Further information derm.qld.gov.au/parks/lamington/index
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wildlife travel essentials: Australia
WHEN TO GO
The southern half of the country is best from October to April, while the more tropical north is less humid and wet from May to September. The coolest months for the Outback are from April to September
WHERE TO STAY
Australia has some superb ecolodges and safari-style camps, often run in close partnership with local Aboriginal groups. You will also find excellent value B&Bs, campsites and hostels. Motorhomes are another popular option.