Where to See Australian Wildlife in the Wild

During a recent family holiday to Australia, a key goal of mine was to see some of Australia's most enigmatic wildlife in the wild. Yet with a tight itinerary and very little time spent away from major cities, I knew this might be a difficult task. I spent the weeks preceding the trip searching online for hotspots and places where I could try to get sightings during short stops along the routes we had already planned to travel.

I found information to be disappointingly scarce. Google searches about seeing Australian wildlife became constantly diluted with articles about zoos and sanctuaries where the animals could be seen in captivity. We already had several trips to sanctuaries planned, and besides I'd seen Koalas, Echidnas and Wombats in zoos in the UK. In my mind, nothing would compare to spotting a Koala in the wild, in its natural habitat.

I haven't written on this blog in a long time. But the complete lack of online information on where to find Australian animals in the wild, along the major tourist routes, inspired me to write an article of my own, in the hope that this helps another traveller heading down under in search of native wildlife. Information on seeing these animals in the wild always seems to refer to specific known hotspots, often many hours from the major cities. In a country as massive as Australia, people often have very specific itineraries and want to know where they can see wildlife close to the places they've already planned to travel to. This information, however, doesn't really appear to be available online.

During our holiday in Australia, we visited Cairns, Brisbane and Sydney - a classic trio of destinations for first-time visitors. We also spent two days in Perth on arrival, having taken the 17-hour direct flight from London. 

Birding and wildlife-watching in general in Australia was remarkable, and I was astonished by the relative ease of finding some of my most-wanted species. In general, I couldn't recommend Australia highly enough for a family holiday as a birder - birding opportunities will be baked right into a classic itinerary, even those visiting only the major cities. Classic Australian scenery and wildlife can be seen without having to drive for miles off the beaten path, despite what appeared to be the case while researching the trip before I went. Below, I have summarised my experience with each of the classic Australian animals available near to these 3 cities (i.e. essentially everything except Tasmanian Devil!).

Wallabies:

Surprisingly, wallabies were probably one of the hardest groups of animals to find any information on online. I suppose this is because for most Australians it's like asking us where you can see Rabbits in the UK. The answer would be most places, yet there would also be no need to specify hotspots and such places might not spring to mind. As a result, very few locations are really mentioned online. I thought this meant that they weren't easy to find. I wondered whether I would travel to Australia and not even see one enigmatic animal! 

I needn't have worried, because wallabies are reasonably be easy to find near to all three of the cities above, Cairns especially. 

On the first day in Cairns, we saw an Agile Wallaby next to a roundabout on Highway 1 just East of the Skyrail Cableway. This didn't appear to be a rare occurrence and we saw another the next day in a similar area.

If you don't happen to see one while driving around, you need to go no further than Kewarra Beach, a suburb just a few miles North of Cairns. Here, in Centenary Park, you can see Agile Wallabies throughout the day, sprawled out under the shade. Dropping a pin on google maps on Marmion Close you can literally see the Wallabies on street view!

The town of Mareeba around an hour west of Cairns makes a nice day trip to get out into the drier bush-like scenery of inland Australia. Granite Gorge, just SW of the town, is home to a group of tame Mareeba Rock-Wallabies (as the name suggests, incredibly range restricted!) these come to food offered by tourists, so offer an easy way to get close to (technically) wild wallabies.

For those not travelling to Cairns, we also saw Wallabies in the Brisbane area. Taking the Lamington National Park Road towards O'Reilly's Lodge from Canungra (an hour South of Brisbane and half an hour from the Gold Coast) Wallabies are quite literally everywhere and can become a hazard on the road. The species we saw here are Whip-tailed Wallaby and Red-necked Wallaby. The former is colloquially known as the Pretty-faced Wallaby due to its distinctive facial markings and the latter can be so large we thought at first they were Kangaroos. Both are very nice species to see. 

Incidentally, O'Reilly's lodge at the end of this (very long) road is a fantastic place to stay for all nature lovers, especially birders - and is also home to many Red-necked Pademelons that come out onto the grassy areas after sunset.

We didn't try to find Wallabies in Sydney but if the other cities are representative, they should not be hard to stumble across, as soon as you drive out of the city limits into more rural areas. Indeed, in the areas we stayed in North of Sydney they were allegedly regular garden visitors.

Agile Wallaby - Kewarra Beach

Whip-tail Wallaby - Lamington NP Road

 Red-necked Wallaby - Lamington NP Road

Kangaroos:

While Wallabies are easy to happen across in the 3 major cities, Kangaroos are a very different story. We saw Grey Kangaroos in one place only - the Wacol suburb of Western Brisbane. We counted ourselves very lucky to find a location near to our itinerary where Kangaroos could be seen, and I don't know of any other locations in any of the 3 cities where they can reliably be found, preferring instead the drier interior and generally avoiding the coast. 

The Wacol area was a bit of a punt, having seen conflicting information about how reliable they were here. In the end, we found them to be very easy! The strategy is to drive up and down Wacol Station Road until the group is found. Apparently, they like the open lawns of the correctional facility but they can be seen anywhere along this road and we found them right on the Northern end, close to the road by the Centenary Archers Club. We didn't even have to drive the road multiple times. 

While this group of Grey Kangaroos can be seen relatively easily close to Brisbane, Red Kangaroos are not a realistic target if only these 3 cities are being visited, unless you are prepared to drive for many, many hours inland.





 Grey Kangaroo - Wacol Station Rd

Koala:

For us, this was the big one. The entire family was massively invested in finding a Koala in the wild. This felt like a rite of passage on a visit to Australia, yet with a packed itinerary, and only 1 day free in Brisbane (the Koala capital!), this felt like an unrealistic goal. There are no Koalas in Cairns and they might as well be absent from Sydney too, so all hopes rested on our very short stay in Brisbane.

There is actually a reasonable amount of information online about finding Koalas in the wild. However, most of this information points you in the direction of well-known Koala hotspots like Magnetic Island, Gunnedah or the Great Ocean Road. If, like us, you don't have days free in your itinerary to seek out the hotspots it can be hard to find a reliable location. 

It was looking like we might have to spend our free afternoon in a mad rush to Stradbroke Island, east of Brisbane, where Koalas appeared to be reliable. Yet being a massive island with lots of eucalyptus trees, it still didn't fill me with confidence of a sighting.

Everything I read pointed out locations in Brisbane itself such as Daisy Hill, Koala Bushlands and Mount Gravatt, though the captive Koalas at the former made it harder to ascertain how reliable wild ones were. 

We only had a short time to look for them so needed to pick one of these places and hope for the best. It wasn't clear which would be most productive but we had selected Koala Bushlands because it was closest to our route. It would be a case of walking for an hour and scanning as many trees as we could in the time we had!

That was the plan, until a friend of mine told me about iNaturalist. This is a free website where people can report wildlife sightings. This discovery was truly ground-breaking. The location pins on the website were unbelievably accurate and littered right across Brisbane. We chose Edwards Park, a spot that had a lot of recent sightings and went there instead. When we arrived in an assuming suburb of Brisbane, with residential houses all around, we weren't entirely convinced. Yet, literally in the tree above our parked car, there was a sleeping Koala! The exact tree that had been pinned by the iNaturalist sighting.

For those looking for Koalas in the wild, I cannot recommend iNaturalist highly enough.

Side note: apparently, there is also a celebrity Koala that has become quite approachable in Bondi Beach area!

 Koala - Edwards Park, Brisbane

Wombat:

Wombats are tricky. Away from the known locations such as Cradle Mountain on Tasmania they can be incredibly hard. The nearest location to our itinerary was Bendeela Camspite in Kangaroo Valley (incidentally also a good area for Kangaroos and Echidna). If we had more time on our itinerary we would have definitely incorporated a visit to this spot where Wombats are common and quite tame. Instead, we prioritised a visit to the Blue Mountains. They are best approaching dusk but can be seen all day long. Being 2 hours from Sydney, it is probably the closest reliable spot to the classic tourist route but simply wasn't possible in our tight schedule.

I tried the same iNaturalist strategy for Wombats, however sightings are few and far between away from the well-documented hotspots, and the sad fact is that many of these iNaturalist sightings refer to roadkill rather than live animals. If Wombats are your target in the Sydney area, a trip to Kangaroo Valley will likely be the only option.

Echidna:

Personally, seeing an Echidna was almost as high up on my wishlist as a Koala! However, more than any other animal, information on where to see them is incredibly scarce. Echidnas are one of Australias most abundant and widespread animals, yet very hard to pin down. They are simply I suppose to Hedgehogs in the UK - incredibly widespread yet it's very hard to identify reliable locations. If someone asked me where they should go in UK to see a Hedgehog I would struggle to name a good spot. Echidnas, it seems, are the same. 

As a result, it really does just appear to be a case of keeping your eyes peeled. There are plenty of Echidna sightings on iNaturalist, and on a couple of occasions I tried these. However, unlike a Koala sleeping in a tree or a Kangaroo sprawled out under a tree, Echidnas are unlikely to be seen in the exact place they were reported. Following the iNaturalist sightings resulted in no luck.

In the end, we had an incredible encounter with an Echidna for which I still count myself unbelievably lucky. On the final day of the holiday, walking around the Shelly Beach walking track in Manly (a bustling suburb of Sydney) I felt some dirt flick onto my shoe as I walked along the path. Looking down I spotted, to my amazement, an Echidna literally centimetres from my shoe snuffling in the dirt along the path! We watched it for 10 minutes as it moved deeper into the bushes. A remarkable encounter and one that just shows it's important to always keep your eyes peeled even in unlikely situations!

Unfortunately, I imagine Echidna sightings like these aren't that common. However, a combination of using iNautralist sightings to spot areas where there are regular sightings (and therefore lots of Echidnas) and then lots of walking and looking, seems likely to be the best strategy for finding one.

 Echidna, Shelly Beach Walking Track, Manly


Platypus:

If Wombats are hard, then Platypuses are impossible. This is one animal where the locations that they can be seen are well-documented online. I don't believe there is a simple hack to finding Platypuses other than going to a known hotspot and putting in the hours. Yungaburra, for example, in the Atherton Tablelands appears to be one of the most reliable spots.

Cairns, in general, is probably the best area if you'e hoping to see one. There are several locations under 2 hours from the city where they can be seen. These are well-documented online. However, you have to be prepared to put in the hours. Platypuses are mostly nocturnal, highly elusive and skittish, not an easy combination. Unlike Kangaroo or Koala locations you are unlikely to be able to turn up and see them within five minutes of stopping the car. This makes them hard on a family holiday or on an itinerary with a strict schedule.

We tried the Canungra Valley Vineyard on our way to O'Reilly's, with no luck. Though this could be worth a try if in the area, as others online seem to have seen them here.

Quokka:

During our two days in Perth, we chose to spend one on Rottnest Island. Here, the endemic and adorable Quokka roams the island. There was a small doubt in my mind before we visited about how easy they would be to see here. After all, it's quite a big island and although there are many thousands of Quokkas, they could easily hide and are theoretically crepuscular/nocturnal. 

It turns out I needn't have worried. We saw 6 within the first 100m of walking onto the island. The Quokkas gather around the settlement (where the boat docks) and are therefore found in an enormous concentration here and are easy to see throughout the day. You need only walk about 200m to satisfy your Quokka-selfie needs.

On the boat trip to Rottnest Island, we also saw two amazing Humpback Whales, including one breaching. This seems to be quite a regular occurrence on the boat trip.

Quokka - Rottnest Island

Other Animals:

Those visiting O'Reilly's won't miss the Mountain Brush-tailed Possums that visit the feeders while you're having dinner.

Flying-foxes are common throughout Australia and are easily seen on any visit to Cairns. Driving around Australia's cities and suburbs you will likely come across a day roost in which the tree is full of these enormous bats.

Cassowary:

Although birds will be saved for another post, Cassowaries feel so far removed from the category of "birds" that they feel worth mentioning here. As a birder, these prehistoric creatures were incredibly high up on my wishlist but without any special trips to the typical hotspots near to Cairns e.g. Etty Beach or Kuranda (eBird is a great way to find these spots) I was concerned we wouldn't find one.

We were incredibly lucky to see not one but two Cassowaries during our time in Cairns! The first was at Mount Hypipamee. While driving out of the parking area, an adult fed happily by the roadside, oblivious to the car right beside it.

The second, much to the relief of my mum and sister who weren't present for the first one, came on our drive down through the Daintree Rainforest on our way back from Cape Tribulation. Cars pulled over on the main Cape Tribulation Road alerted us to something interesting. We stopped to find an adult bird in a roadside ditch!

If you are really keen to see a Cassowary but don't have the time to go to feeding sites such as Etty Beach, not all hope is lost. You stand a good chance on any visit to the Daintree Rainforest and Cape Tribulation (a typical tourist day trip) and could do worse than driving slowly along the Cape Tribulation Road keeping your eyes on the roadside vegetation. People pulled over with cameras is also a good sign!

 Cassowary - Cape Tribulation Road

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