Nina Karnikowski decides it’s high time to get cuddly with an Aussie favourite.
I’ve never touched a koala. As an Australian, I’m almost ashamed to admit it. It seems on par with never having eaten a Vegemite sandwich, never having been sunburnt, or never having played two-up on Anzac Day. It seems, well, downright un- Australian. So when the opportunity to head to Port Macquarie – a renowned koala hotspot on the NSW mid-north coast – recently arose, I jumped at it. Now would be my chance to assert my status as a fair-dinkum Aussie*.
My day of ‘‘bear’’ hunting starts early at Port Macquarie’s Koala Hospital. It’s 8am and volunteers are bustling around the open-air enclosures, replacing bunches of eucalyptus leaves, feeding selected patients by hand and cleaning up after the night’s activities.
Port Macquarie’s Koala Hospital in action
Barry, a koala who suffers from scoliosis, gets hand-fed at the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital.
Photo: Ben Rushton
This hospital, the only one of its kind in the world dedicated solely to the care of wild koalas as well as being the world’s leading koala research centre, attracts up to 300 visitors a day. I immediately understand why, as volunteer Helen Meers starts introducing me to some of the patients. In the flesh, the furry little critters are even cuter than Blinky Bill.
There’s sleepy-eyed Barry, his back bent from scoliosis, snuggled in the crook of a eucalypt branch; Alison in one of the private intensive care rooms, who’s recovering from two minor operations on her chlamydia-infected eyes (about half the koala population has this bacterial disease, which affects the urogenital tract and eyes); and Kaylee in one of the open-air enclosures, who’s had a leg amputated and an eye removed.
As we weave our way through the eucalypt-lined avenues between the enclosures, I’m desperately tempted to reach up and cuddle the furry little guys, but Meers warns me off.
‘‘All the koalas here are wild and we want to return them back into the wild,’’ she says. ‘‘So we don’t handle them unless we have to, because we don’t want them to become reliant on human help.’’
Before they’re returned to the bush, the koalas are tagged and micro chipped, so there’s a growing body of research that will become crucial to managing their survival.
About 300 koalas a year are treated here, Meers says, but thousands more benefit from the information gathered by the hospital and its research partners.
We make our way to the treatment room viewing window, where visitors can watch minor surgeries and ultrasounds taking place. Inside, hospital supervisor Cheyne Flanagan is doing an ultrasound on an older female koala named Karly, who was admitted by the hospital’s 24-hour rescue service overnight.
She also has chlamydia.
‘‘One of the main reasons urban koalas are in trouble is because koalas and people like the same real estate,’’ Flanagan says as she gently probes the koala’s belly. ‘‘And when humans come in and remove all the trees for their housing developments, immense pressure is put on the koalas and then diseases become expressed, or they get hit by cars or killed by dogs.’’ Flanagan’s passion for the furry faced eucalyptus-loving creatures is clear. ‘‘This just started out as a job, but along the way I fell in love with the chilled-out little dudes. We call them little Buddhas.’’ After bidding adieu to my Zen friends, I pop my Nikes on and set off to my next destination, Sea Acres Rainforest Centre. It’s three blocks to Flynns Beach ,where I join the stunning nine-kilometre coastal walk that stretches south along the wild, windswept coast.
I pass through a string of white sandy beaches punctuated by rocky outcrops that since 2009 have been linked by wooden walkways and staircases. It takes about an hour but the scenery is so breathtaking I hardly notice any time has passed as I arrive at Sea Acres, the second largest coastal rainforest reserve in the state.
I’m met at the entrance by Dennis Sinclair, who’s volunteered as a guide at Sea Acres for the past eight years and who, unsurprisingly, has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the sub-tropical rainforest.
He says there is usually a chance of spotting koalas, along with flying foxes, ospreys and other creatures in the rainforest, but that the overcast weather might hinder our chances.
Unfortunately, he’s right. But as he leads me along the 1.3-kilometre wooden boardwalk that sits up to seven metres above the forest understorey, past strangler figs, ghostly white flooded gums and stately Bangalow palms reaching up to the canopy, he finds more than enough to entertain me with.
‘‘See this?’’ he asks, using a leaf to sandpaper a nearby wooden post.
‘‘The Aboriginals used this leaf of the sandpaper fig to shape their tools and sharpen their spears.
Nature provides everything!’’ There are tiny figs to munch on, lemon and cinnamon scented python tree leaves to crush and sniff, humming cicadas and the soft crash of waves to listen to, and skinks and birds to marvel at along the way.
Then, there’s the arrival of a sudden and violent thunderstorm that heralds tea time at the conservatory style Rainforest Cafe before I head off to my final destination of the day.
I arrive at Billabong Koala and Wildlife Park just as the last of three daily koala talks is starting, where visitors get a chance to have their photos taken with – and pat! – the cuddly marsupials.
The park, which in recent years has expanded its menagerie to include spider monkeys, a crocodile, reptiles, albino kangaroos, snow leopards and more, also functions as a koala breeding centre. Owner Mark Stone holds 20 koalas at any given time, passing them on to zoos throughout NSW, Victoria and Queensland to enhance their breeding programs.
I join the throng of cooing tourists huddled around a sturdy koala named Stoney and, among a chorus of ‘‘so cute!’’, finally get to sink my fingers into that thick, woolly hair.
The interaction makes me feel just like the creature I’m patting –warm, fuzzy and, most importantly, like a true-blue Aussie.
*Unpronounceable surname notwithstanding.
The writer was a guest of Greater Port Macquarie Tourism and The Waves apartments.
Port Macquarie is 385 kilometres north of Sydney. Virgin (13 67 89) and Qantas (13 13 13) fly daily to and from Sydney.
For boutique, self-contained apartments close to the koala action, check out The Waves. 0459 130 119, wavesportmacquarie.com.au.
Seeing wildlife there
Walk & Talk tours at the Koala Hospital are free, 3pm daily. Macquarie Nature Reserve, Lord Street, (02) 6584 1522, koalahospital.org.au.
Guided tours at Sea Acres Rainforest Centre are included in the boardwalk entry price: adults $8, children $4, open 9am-4.30pm daily. Pacific Drive, (02) 6582 3355, nationalparks.nsw.gov.au.
Koala shows at Billabong Koala and Wildlife Park are included in the entry price: adults $22.50, children $13, daily at 10.30am, 1.30pm and 3.30pm. The park is open 9am-5pm daily. 61 Billabong Drive, (02) 6585 1060, billabongkoala.com.au.