August 30, 2008
By Susan Mansfield
South Australia is wildlife heaven. Even the elusive duck-billed platypus puts in an appearance if you're lucky
THERE are bubbles on the pond surface, a circle of them, as if someone is boiling a kettle under the water. This is the first sign that I'm about to encounter one of Australia's shyest, most elusive animals, the one I've come half-way round the world in hope of seeing: a duck-billed platypus.
Then the creature that produced the bubbles surfaces, swims a little and performs a sleek dive. Unperturbed by the light of the guide's powerful torch, he gives us a clear look at his small, furry body, paddle-like feet and distinctive duck bill. If the description sounds incongruous, the animal is not. He's an adept swimmer, agile as an eel.
Warrawong Wildlife Sanctuary, about 40 minutes south-east of Adelaide, offers one of the better chances in South Australia to see these elusive creatures. The 34 acres are fenced to keep out non- native predators such as cats and foxes (believe me, a cat-proof fence is no mean feat) and contain five wild habitats, including the pools where the platypus lives and breeds.
The guided walk starts at sunset, the best time to see the large numbers of small marsupials which flourish in the protected surroundings. The torchlit undergrowth is alive with bright eyes and small furry bodies: bandicoots (or kangaroo rats), potoroos, wide- eyed, bouncing bettongs, watchful, brush-tailed possums.
A different type of animal encounter is on offer at Cleland Wildlife Park, a short drive from here. Cleland is a popular family attraction, where visitors can wander through the large enclosures hand-feeding kangaroos, wallabies and even emus, although when Jeff, my guide, tried to feed one of these fierce, flightless birds, it showed considerably more interest in his fingers.
During the park's afternoon "koala close-ups", visitors can be photographed cuddling Australia's iconic bear. Mine was called Pete, a solid armful of fuzzy grey fur, chewing thoughtfully on a piece of eucalyptus.
There is no doubt that the welfare of the animals themselves is the priority. Keepers monitor visits carefully so no animal is handled too much.
For spotting Australian wildlife in unspoilt natural habitats, head to Kangaroo Island, a 155 mile-long island off the coast of Adelaide, accessed by ferry or a 30-minute hopover flight. Kangaroo Island has been voted best island in the Asia Pacific by National Geographic magazine. One third of it is protected wilderness, brushland and eucalyptus forest.
A variety of companies offer organised tours of the island, while those visiting under their own steam should allow at least three days to watch wildlife, visit galleries and craft shops and enjoy the superlative beaches (Vivonne Bay has been voted Australia's best beach). However, drivers should be aware that many of the island's roads are unsealed, and that wildlife on the road is a common hazard.
My guide, Terry Pearce from Kangaroo Island Odysseys, soon has me walking in Lathami Conservation Park, an area of protected brushland. "Are you lost yet?" he jokes, as we wander through the scrub, flocks of parrots screeching above our heads. He points out a wedge-tailed eagle soaring in the distance, a gigantic bird of prey with a wingspan of at least two metres.
I soon become aware that we're also being watched from the ground: the dark, nervous eyes of tammar wallabies follow our progress. In the more open areas, kangaroos are grazing or resting (the island's native kangaroo is a sub-species of the Western grey, with a longer coat to withstand the cooler, coastal climate).
Then it's time for lunch, and while sending me away to look at some termite mounds, Terry conjures up a white tablecloth, dishes of quiche and salad and a bottle of fine Australian chardonnay. The only thing he can't produce, it seems, is bathroom facilities. In certain parts of Kangaroo Island, your only option is a "pee tree".
After lunch we go koala spotting, which, it turns out, isn't too hard. Koalas, largely due to the low nutrition levels in their diet, spend up to 19 hours of the day asleep, and can be seen dozing in the fork of a tall eucalyptus tree, or hugging the trunk, chewing on a leaf.
Kangaroo Island is home to 20 per cent of Australia's koalas, a population so successful that they are outstripping their food supply (an adult koala will munch through a kilogram of eucalyptus leaves per day). In an attempt to control numbers, the state is implementing a sterilisation programme: a team of "koala catchers" capture the animals and give them a brief trip to the vet before returning them to the trees.
At Seal Bay, another group of the island's residents are at rest. The stretch of golden sand, lapped by warm, blue water, is a des res for the 700-strong colony of Australian sea lions, who act like the VIPs they are, playing in the water, basking in the sun, and dozing in the shade of the boardwalk.
Visitors must go with a guide, or as part of one of the regular organised tours from the visitor centre, and are under instructions to give way to the animals at all times, but in fact we can walk quite near them without causing them to bat even a whisker.
I'm staying the night at the north end of the island in the town of Penneshaw, in Hog Bay Hill, whose luxury suites overlook the bay. Kangaroo Island is offering an increasing range of modern, upscale accommodation. The Seafront Hotel in Penneshaw has had a revamp too, its restaurant, Sorrentos, offering an attractive menu based on the best of local produce, with island wines.
After dinner, I have one last group of special island residents to meet before I go to bed. The little or fairy penguin was once common around much of the Australian coast, but development has restricted their colonies to island areas. Kangaroo Island has about 3,000, with a roost at Penneshaw.
Out fishing at sea all day, these timid creatures - the smallest of the penguin family - return to their roosts under cover of darkness. On a guided walk at dusk from Penneshaw Penguin Centre, you can glimpse them, their backs an iridescent blue, waddling resolutely up the long beach to their nests.
The next day, it's back on the road with Terry and down to the southern tip of the island, to Flinders Chase National Park. Underneath the sweeping curve of Admirals Arch, a colony of New Zealand fur seals play in the water or hoist themselves up on rocks which would seem impossible to climb with nothing but flippers.
A short drive from here, past the brilliant white Cape du Couedic lighthouse, is Remarkable Rocks, a surprising granite formation pushed up from beneath the sea in some bygone century and weathered into intriguing curved formations. This is the "last hunting ground" of the South Australian aboriginal people, the place where the souls of the departed congregate before leaving the earth.
Staying for a moment with the subject of remarkable geology, also well worth a visit are Kelly Hill Caves, an underground network of caverns and corridors full of stalactites and stalagmites.
On the way there, Terry pulls over at the roadside because he has spotted an echidna, which looks like a larger, spikier version of the hedgehog, with a pointed nose, but is actually part of a primitive animal family which has been on earth since the Jurassic age. Alarmed by our approach, it buries its head and front paws in the earth, leaving us facing a battery of spines.
A couple of days later, I'm watching another echidna, this time in Adelaide Zoo. As well as a collection of animals from all over the world, the zoo has a good native section, including creatures you won't see in the wild, such as the bilby, a small marsupial no longer native to South Australia, and the rare tree kangaroo. By the end of 2009, they hope to be the first zoo in Australia with a pair of giant pandas.
My final wildlife-watching trip is aboard a 57ft catamaran, sailing out of Glenelg, which can be reached by tram from Adelaide. Guides at tour company Temptation Sailing are so confident of their ability to locate dolphins that sightings are guaranteed or your money back. You can either travel as a passenger or, kitted out in a wet suit and snorkel, hold on to a rope behind the boat and let the dolphins swim around you in the (mercifully warm) water.
Whether the dolphins swim with you, however, is another matter. They are not lured by food, the guide explains, so whether or not they choose to join swimmers depends on how interesting we are to them. We must have been a boring bunch because although we encountered several pods, they quickly moved away, sleek grey shapes looping and twisting in the water with great agility.
I'm reminded of what Douglas Adams said about dolphins in his Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, that they're smarter than us, just don't care to show it. It's worth being reminded that no wild animal will appear on demand. And it left me wondering who was watching whom - and whether we're worth the scrutiny. smFactfile SOUTH AUSTRALIA
Fact file South Australia
Austravel (tel: 0844 412 4620, www.austravel.com) organises bespoke itineraries to Australia. The price for one week in South Australia starts from GBP 1,819 and includes flights from Edinburgh or Glasgow to Adelaide with Qantas, five nights at the Hyatt Regency Adelaide and a two-day "Highlights of Kangaroo Island" small-group 4WD tour with return flights, accommodation and touring. Prices are based on two sharing.
AND THERE'S MORE
A two-day tour of the island with Kangaroo Island Odysseys (www.kiodysseys.com.au) costs from GBP 470 per person.
Temptation Sailing (www. dolphinboat.com.au) runs dolphin cruises from Glenelg; GBP 47 to swim, GBP 28 to watch.
Warrawong Wildlife Sanctuary (www.warrawong.com).
Hog Bay Hill (www.hogbayhill.com).
Visit www.southaustralia.com and www.tourkangarooisland.com.au
Scotsman Reader Holidays has a 21-day trip to Australia, New Zealand and the Far East from GBP 2,799, www.holidays.scotsman.com
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