The kangaroo is as symbolically Australian as Uluru, though it comes in about 39 flavours (counting wallabies). Fortunately, it seems to have so baffled the earliest settlers it finished up with a nomenclature that makes species simple to identify: if you see a kangaroo that is red in colour, it will be a red kangaroo; if you see a wallaby with yellowish feet in a rocky gorge, it will be a yellow-footed rock wallaby.
The most majestic roo is the red kangaroo, which can stand up to 1.8m tall is restricted to the arid inland and around the Flinders Ranges. A more common sight is the eastern grey kangaroo, marginally smaller (and a lot greyer) than big red and found throughout eastern Australia. The western grey kangaroo, which looks very much like the eastern grey, isn’t limited by its name, ranging across southern Australia.
Wallabies are classified as kangaroo species weighing less than 25kg, and there are several you might see on your wanders. The red-necked wallaby, with its characteristic reddish nape, is the most commonly seen along the east coast and Tasmania, while the dark swamp wallaby is also a frequent sight. Rock wallabies can be more reclusive than Ken Kesey, but early mornings and dusk in the gorges along the Larapinta Trail will reveal the endangered black-footed rock wallaby. On the Heysen Highlight, watch for yellow-footed rock wallabies, the icon of the Flinders Ranges.
The euro, or common wallaroo, is found on rocky hillsides across the country. It is more solidly built and has a rougher, shaggier coat than red or grey kangaroos. The males’ colouring varies from grey-black to reddish-brown to fawn, while the females are usually smaller and paler.
If you are going to reliably see any one mammal, it will be the brushtail possum, the largest and most boisterous of Australia’s possums. Renowned for making a racket on suburban roofs, brushtails are no less bold in the bush, and on many walks, especially in Tasmania, you will need to guard your food against these bushy thieves. More reticent is the ringtail possum, with its white-ringed prehensile tail used for climbing.
The koala is atop everybody’s list of wildlife darlings, at least until you have slept anywhere near a randy male koala grunting like a wild boar. With tufted ears and a hard black nose, it is among the easiest marsupials to spot during the day, often resting in a low fork of a eucalypt; manna gums are a favourite. You will find koalas along much of the east coast and also in South Australia, where they have been reintroduced after becoming extinct.
The common wombat is another bit of bush cuddliness that resides in New South Wales, Victoria and Tassie. With its vaguely bear-like shape and amble, it looks cumbersome but can hit speeds of up to 40km/h. Those large burrows beside the track and the cube-shaped scat uncannily balanced atop rocks are the wombat’s handiwork.
One creature you won’t want to cuddle is the short-beaked echidna. It has a coat of long spines on its back and an elongated, beak-like snout perfect for catching ants and termites, its main food. It is often seen during the day in cooler climates, usually nosing about or ploughing open termite mounds and logs with its huge claws. If an echidna notices you, it will generally burrow frantically, leaving only its spines exposed. Echidnas are found throughout Australia.
Along with the echidna, the platypus is the world’s last remaining monotreme, or egg-laying mammal. It is something of a jigsaw, with a softish, duck-like bill, short legs, webbed feet and a short, beaver-like tail. It is confined to the eastern mainland and Tasmania, and you are not going to see a platypus on many walks, though the two ends of the Overland Track – Lake St Clair and Dove Lake – offer hope.
As the name suggests, you will find the Tasmanian devil only in Tasmania. As stocky as a small pig, with white stripes across its black chest, its ferocious name gives it a largely undeserved notoriety, though watch a group of devils arguing over roadkill and you will wonder. It has solitary and nocturnal habits, either scavenging or hunting vertebrates. If you hear a banshee scream in the night, it is likely to be a Tassie devil but it is not about to come charging through your tent.
It is true that Australia has a few reptiles, but work under the assumption that they are at least as frightened of you as you are of them.
Australia has 130 species of snake and, despite the negative press, the majority are harmless (though it is always wise to assume otherwise). Warm, sunny conditions, such as the start of spring, are best for seeing snakes. It is difficult at a glance to tell one snake from another – most come in fetching shades of brown or black – though walkers in Lamington National Park might be treated to an array of rainforest pythons and tree snakes.
One reptile you will want to see is the goanna, or monitor lizard, a primordial reptile with the swagger of a cowboy. Australia has around 25 species of goanna, which can stretch to 2.5m. Gould’s goanna, with cream or yellow spots, and the lace monitor, with white, cream or yellow scales forming a lace-like pattern, are often seen ambling through camps.
The saltwater (or estuarine) crocodile is the one that causes all the fuss and can be found in large numbers throughout the northern tropical areas of Australia. Growing to 7m, saltwater crocs will attack and kill humans. When visiting these areas never stray off walking routes and always check for safety signs before swimming.
The freshwater crocodile is smaller, not so interested in the taste of humans, and can be distinguished from ‘salties’ by its narrow snout (salties have wide, box-like snouts).