Little Penguins, Long Coastal Drives, and the Largest Sand Dune Island in the World

My time in Melbourne was MAXIMIZED. I did a couple of day tours with a great little company, Go West, which specializes in just two tours: 1) the Great Ocean Road which leads from Melbourne to Adelaide along Australia’s gorgeous southern coast, and 2) Phillip Island where one can witness the nightly parade of the world’s smallest penguins when they come ashore to return to their nests from a hard day out at sea. I thoroughly enjoyed both of these trips. We packed in two full days of sights and adventure, including a helicopter trip over the famous 12 Apostles (rock formations just off the Great Ocean Road coastline). From the air, we spotted a humpback whale and its blows near the 12 Apostles — quite a sight from the sky — and I managed to capture this on video. On one section of the Great Ocean Road, we drove through a grove of eucalyptus trees from which wild koalas hung like ornaments. It was a bit sureal. And stopping in one neighborhood, we watched as a little koala climbed down a fence and then up a nearby eucalyptus tree. A kookaburra looked on, watching for insects from its perch, and some colorful rosella birds fluttered from one tree to the next above us. It was an amazing scene. Sunset on the Great Ocean Road was phenomenal as well and the clouds created a radiant opalescent effect, enhancing the sun’s colors against the sky and ocean.

My trip to Phillip Island to see the Little Penguins parade up the beach and back to their burrows was equally thrilling. I did the Private Penguin Experience in which you go in a small group of 10 or less with a knowledgable ranger out to a private viewing area away from the crowds of visitors to watch as the penguins come ashore. The “show” starts just after sunset as the penguins first begin the rather treacherous journey back to their burrows. It is at this time that they are most vulnerable to predators such as larger sea birds and birds of prey, dingoes, and foxes. Watching these pint-size penguins waddle ashore, you can sense their trepidation and anxiety. At first, a scout emerges from the waves, looks to see if the coast is relatively clear, and then calls to other penguins. Next, a small group of penguins ventures beyond the waves and up the beach, led by one bold member. However, at the slightest noise or disturbance, they quickly retreat into the waves for safety. After a few cautious attempts, the little group continues all the way up the beach and past the point of return to a well-worn trail in the sand that leads back to their burrows. In one night, we counted over 300 little penguins coming ashore, but this number increases significantly during summer months to a few thousand birds on any given night. Although we were not permitted to photograph the little penguins after dark using flash (as it frightens them), I was able to take some photos (without flash) of penguins who stayed in their burrows during the day at a nearby location on the island. I audio-taped our ranger’s narration throughout the evening as she gave us the blow-by-blow on the penguins’ behaviors during their nocturnal “parade”, and I recorded the penguins’ vocalizations as they attempted to find friends and mates once ashore.

After departing Melbourne, I flew on to my final stop on this trip, Brisbane. At the airport, I picked up my hired car and drove about 45 min. up the Sunshine Coast’s M1 highway to Beerwah, home of the Australia Zoo and Steve Irwin, Crocodile Hunter. Crikey! Irwin’s memory is ever-present at that zoo and pictures of him are everywhere. A large memorial area still exhibits various gifts and messages from well-wishers in honor of the beloved Wildlife Warrior. Animal Planet has built a Crocoseum at the zoo where performances involving birds and crocs take place a couple times each day. While a strong entertainment factor is used to hook people, these shows do stress educational and conservation messages about the animals they feature. In addition, Australia Zoo now has a “Tiger Temple” for Bengal tigers and does a similar daily show there to teach folks about tigers. I saw both Crocoseum and Tiger Temple shows and walked the whole zoo in only about 4 hours. So, Australia Zoo is a managable size and not overwhelming. One of the most enjoyable areas is their free-roaming habitat for kangaroos and wallabies where you can just hang out with the critters in their “Roo Heaven”.

From Australia Zoo, I continued driving north on the Sunshine Highway to Noosa Heads, a lovely and tranquil town with a rather chic and ritzy edge. Noosa has great accommodations, restaurants, and beaches, and Noosa National Park is a fantastic place to hike or surf near any number of sprawling white-sand beaches. I did the park’s Coastal Track hike (only about 6 km roundtrip) out to Alexandria Bay beach which, unbeknowst to me at the time, is a casual nudist beach. So, while I’m standing there on the beach, enjoying the soft sand and ocean views, along walks an older man (why do nudists always seem to be over the age of 50?), au naturale, wearing nothing but his hat. Fortunately, he was far enough away to minimize the “details”. During my coastal hike, I spotted several small pods of dolphins from the aptly named Dolphin Point. They came quite close to the cliffs where I was walking. That day, the dolphins were accompanied by a number of surfers seeking the “perfect wave”, and they provided entertainment for me along the trail — radical wipe-outs and all, duuuuude. When I finished my hike, I walked along the shady boardwalk leading from the park back to trendy Hastings St. (in town) and searched for any wildlife present. Although there were no koalas here, I did see a kookaburra, rosellas, lorakeets, sulfur-crested cockatoos, a galah, and two plump little tawny frogmouths seated side by side, blending in everso cryptically with their gum tree perch. 

From Noosa, I drove north to Rainbow Beach to meet up with a two-day tour out to Fraser Island the following morning. The weather was beautiful and we set off on the ferry early in the day to begin exploration of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Fraser Island is the largest sand dune island in the world and home to several freshwater lakes. In particular, Lake McKenzie is not to be missed. Its water scores a 5.3 on the PH scale and is quite conditioning for the skin and hair. After swimming in it you feel like you just spent a day at the spa. The lake is a lovely aqua blue-green and has a fine white silica beach. After lunch, in our picnic area we saw a three-foot lace monitor scavenging for food. It must have been pretty hungry because it was not scared off by the paparazzi of travelers (including me) photographing it. In Australia these monitor lizards are called goannas, but they are varanids with forked tongues and are rather striking, their black bodies spotted with yellow-green markings.

I should mention here that Fraser Island was one of the primary reasons I decided to visit Australia in the very beginning. The island not only has some unique ecosystems, including a jurassic rainforest with ancient species of cycads, king ferns, and staghorns, but it is still home to a dwindling population of Australia’s purest dingoes. In most all other parts of Australia, the dingoes have crossbred with domestic dogs. However, domestic dogs are banned from Fraser Island, so no crossbreeding has occurred. There are about 160-230 dingoes on the island (depending on the season). Shortly after we arrived on the island by ferry, we came upon a dingo sitting quietly on the 75-mile beach which serves as the island’s main highway for 4WD vehicles. The dingo actually rolled around in the sand near our car and then ran along side it as we drove for a short distance. The following morning, we saw another dingo as it strolled down the mainstreet near our island resort. Visitors are strongly urged not to feed or approach the dingoes. This helps to keep them wild and reduce possible attacks when dingoes feel threatened or territorial.

Driving all the way to the end of Fraser Island’s 75-mile beach, the longest natural sand airstrip in Australia (and perhaps the world), we came to Indian Head, a high rocky lookout which we climbed for fantastic views of the coast, ocean, and (drumroll, please…) humpback whales and eagle rays swimming in the waters below! We saw several humpback calves accompanying their mothers on their way north from Antarctica and the Great Southern Ocean. It was quite a sight.

However, perhaps I will remember most Fraser Island’s incredibly bumpy sand tracks leading all over the island. Our driver/guide attacked the roads with a vengeance and anyone sitting in the back seat got the ride of his/her life! Even sitting in a middle seat, I had to buckle up and hold on. I’m certainly glad I went to Fraser Island with a small tour group (there were just 7 of us from Germany, France, Canada, and the U.S.) instead of hiring my own 4WD and attempting to drive the island on my own. Cars frequently get stuck in the sand inland on the island or in the surf on 75-mile beach when the tides come in. Still, our treacherous off-roading only invigorated my whole experience of Fraser Island and this adventure was a great way to end my stay in Australia.

After returning to the mainland yesterday evening, I drove back down to Brisbane for my final night down under. On the way, I saw a mob of eastern grey kangaroos feeding in a meadow by the side of the road. You have to be careful when driving in Australia — not only because you may not at first be comfortable driving on the LEFT side of the road, but also because wildlife (e.g., kangaroos, wallabies, and koalas) sometimes cross the road spontaneously… especially at dusk and after dark. However, I arrived safely and without incident back in Brisbane in time to repack my bag and get a good night’s sleep before my flight home to the States. Mission accomplished.

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One Comment on “Little Penguins, Long Coastal Drives, and the Largest Sand Dune Island in the World”

  1. Caroline Says:

    What an adventure! Looking forward to the photos and presentation…


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