LIVE IT UP, DOWN UNDER
Kylie Minogue’s choreographed stage moves, Crocodile Dundee shows off cutlery, Pat Cash is climbing into the Wimbledon stands with his checkered sweatband in the eighties, the Kiwi rugby team unsettling their opponents with the ‘haka’’ – yes, there is all of this, but for the safari-goer that doesn’t mind a red-eye flight in the direction of Down Under, the spoils are abundant. Let’s take you on an Australian safari! ENDEMIC WILDLIFE HEAVEN A rich biodiversity? Check. Endemic animals roam freely in the Australian wild. Some of them have even been elevated to be the country's cultural icons like the kangaroo, the koala, and the emu. You’re spoilt for choice, what with a weird and wonderful collection of native animals, marsupials, elusive monotremes (more on these later), native birdlife and native reptiles, with equally weird and wonderful names. Amongst the mammals, there are dingoes or wild dogs, numbats, quolls, and Tasmanian devils. Dingoes = large = carnivorous. They roam the wilds of mainland Australia. Termite-eating numbats and Tasmanian devils are smaller, about the size of Bruce the average house cat, and can be found in wildlife parks and in the wilds of Tasmania. T-devils are stocky, with a muscular build, have black fur, an olfactory-challenging odor, are incredibly loud with a disturbing Hitchcockian screech, have a keen sense of smell, and go absolutely nuts when feeding. Even small kangaroos have been known to be a feeding favorite of theirs. The critically endangered quolls are quite tough to spot. But with a safari guide that knows his stuff, you’ll find them in the rainforests of southeastern Australia. They are nocturnal and enjoy a kip in hollowed-out logs or rocky dens. Watch out all you tiny mammals, small birds, lizards, and insects – you feature quite heavily in a quoll’s diet. WHAT’RE YOU HIDING IN THAT POUCH? The marsupials – also known as pouched animals – have inhabited Australia for thousands and thousands of years. There are over 140 species! Kangaroos, wallabies, koalas, and wombats take pride of place. Wallabies… wallaroos… kangaroos… the smaller, intermediate and largest, respectively. Let’s not forget No. 4, the tree kangaroo – to be found in the tropical rainforests of New Guinea, far northeastern Queensland and a handful of islands. HOP-ALONG CASSIDY Kangaroos are the only large animals to hop as a means of locomotion. They clock in at about 20 to25 km/h (12 to 16 mph), but Roo can crank it up to 70 km/h (43 mph) over short distances. What’s more, it can sustain a speed of 40 km/h (25 mph) for nearly 2 km (1.2 mi). Nice going. Let’s dissect their hop: very strong gastrocnemius muscles lift their body off terra firma while a smaller muscle, located near the large fourth toe, is used for push-off. An incredible 70% of their potential energy is stored in the elastic tendons. Should they want to slow the pace, they hit their ‘pentapedal locomotion button’ – using their tail to form a type of tripod with two of the forelimbs and bringing their hind feet forward. You bet, both pentapedal walking and fast hopping take up a great deal of energy. So, hopping at a moderate speed saves energy – a kangaroo moving above 15 km/h (9.3 mph) can maintain a consistent level of energy, more so than similarly-sized animals running at the same speed. And can they swim! Watch out Michael Phelps, and they’re in your slipstream. Cleverly, they flee into waterways if threatened by a predator. Once in the water, a kangaroo may use its forepaws to hold the predator underwater – to drown it, of course. ON THE PROWL With the arrival of humans in Australia almost 50 000 years ago and the introduction of the dingo about 5 000 years ago, kangaroos have had to adapt, and they’ve done it quite well. Up above, wedge-tailed eagles and other Raptors feast on kangaroo carrion. Goannas and other carnivorous reptiles will attack smaller kangaroo species when food sources are in short supply. Foxes, feral cats, and a combo of domestic and feral dogs pose a threat to kangaroo numbers. Another defense tactic they’ve got ‘in their pouch’ is catching said attacking dog with their forepaws and disemboweling it with their back legs. Ouch! OVER TO THE LAID-BACK AND CUDDLY KOALAS These guys are to be found in coastal areas of the mainland's eastern and southern regions – should your safari head for Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and/or South Australia. With its stout, tailless body and large head with round, fluffy ears, and large, spoon-shaped nose, it stands at 60 to 85 cm (24 to 33 in) tall and weighs in at 4 to 15 kg (9 to 33 lbs). They come in silver-gray and chocolate brown colors. They are a family of the stout wombats. These guys are short-legged all right, with a small, stubby tail, standing tall (or short) at 1 m (40 in) in length. The forest is their playground, also the mountainous and heathland areas of southeastern Australia, including Tasmania. If you want to zoom right in, there is a patch of earth set apart – about 300 ha (740 acres) – in Epping Forest National Park in central Queensland for wombat & Co. PLAYING WITH PLATYPUSES Okay, back to monotremes or rather, egg-laying mammals that you cannot find in any other place on earth except Down Under. The platypus, carrying the badge of ‘most elusive mammal species in the world,’ lives along waterways and lakes. It has a bill much like a duck’s and a furry waterproofed body with accompanying webbed feet. When on safari, see if you can spot them digging burrows in the riverbanks. Here’s a photo op of note – spiny anteaters with a coat like that of a porcupine — Head for Southern Australia, specifically, Kangaroo Island. LOOKING UP The beautiful thing about safari is also exploring who occupies the air above you. A splendid 800 species of native birds – from mini Honeyeaters to gigantic emus – fill the skies and lands. Emus you’ll find grazing in the wilds, woodlands, and grasslands; the shy, southern cassowaries are synonymous with tropical rainforests. If you haven’t heard of them, they’re the 3rd tallest and 2nd heaviest living bird, smaller only than the ostrich and their neighbors up the road, the emus. The wonderfully-named kookaburra opts for open woodlands. Lyrebirds, especially the male when it fans out its huge tail during courtship hour, have a fantastic ability to mimic natural and artificial sounds from their immediate environment. Apparently, they can sing for hours on end – nearly half the hours of daylight. It just goes to show, you can’t hold back a diva in southeast Queensland! Flocks of little penguins are the gems on Phillip Island. The island is also the natural habitat of the endemic flying foxes a.k.a. megabats. Parrots are as common in Australia as Vegemite sandwiches. Amongst the 55 species, you’ll find cockatoos, Rosellas, Lorikeets, cockatiels, parakeets, and budgerigars in the woodlands. GET LOST IN FREYCINET NATIONAL PARK IN TASMANIA Bordered by the finest beaches and rising into spectacular low mountains, Freycinet incorporates the southern end of the Freycinet Peninsula, people-absent Schouten Island and the Friendly Beaches north of Coles Bay. Expect pink granite mountains, sky-colored bays, and white, sandy beaches (including Tasmania's top beach, Wineglass Bay). Go on a bushwalk to catch sight of white-bellied sea eagles, dolphins and even whales when approaching the ocean. KICKING BACK IN KAKADU Welcome to one of the planet's most magnificent national parks – Kakadu. Its wetlands and escarpments are home to a ridiculous amount of wildlife. Intriguing rock art dating back 20 000 years, is to be found here. The park’s indigenous guides are extraordinary and will amaze you with their local knowledge when you set out on a walking trail, a tour or to visit waterholes during 4WD explorations. LOSE YOURSELF IN THE GREAT AUSTRALIAN OUTBACK Prepare to be mesmerized as you set out on a 4WD tour on one of the many dirt roads leading to sacred Uluru. Ayers Rock… a gigantic Australian geological icon in a sea of remoteness. It rises from the plains of the Northern Territories, 462 km from Alice Springs. Prepare for a heightened sense of color perception. Several hues of terracotta and crimson appear at sunset over the tribal lands of the Pitjantjatjara. At dawn, the ‘light switch clicks on’ as the grand Outback sun illuminates Uluru. All four million tons of sandstone of it. Of course, it’s a World Heritage site. HERE’S YOUR WEATHER FOR THE DAY Australia is gigantic. You can, therefore, expect a wide range of climates. In short, its northern states are typically warm all year round; the southern states have cooler winters. December to February is summer (how does snorkeling in the calm waters of the Great Barrier Reef sound?); March to May is autumn; June to August is winter, and September to November is springtime. Safari all year round, anyone? There’s this classic saying Down Under that goes as follows, “Ah, Australian animals. If it isn't venomous, carnivorous, or has foot-long claws, it's a tourist.” Don’t worry mate; you’re a safari-goer.