There are plenty of zoos and wildlife parks in Queensland where you can be sure to see the unusual fauna up close – and maybe even cuddle a koala – but it’s not quite the same as spotting creatures in their natural habitat. So take a trip along back-roads, visit an offshore island, or hike into the cloud forest and you’ll be rewarded with wild encounters with the Australia's unique wildlife.
Magnetic Island is a great place to spot koalas © Warmlight / Getty Images
A keen eye can spot koalas in eucalyptus forests even when zooming along the Bruce Highway (the coast’s main artery) but for closer and more leisurely viewing the best place to go is Magnetic Island. The near-sure-bet spot to see these lethargic marsupials is the 2.8km forts walk that leads through eucalyptus forest to WWII vestiges and gorgeous views of the Coral Sea. Walk slowly and look in tree crooks. Once you’ve found one koala and know what to look for, the others become easier to spot.
The worst time to see a kangaroo is when it’s leaping in front of your vehicle so, while you’re pretty much guaranteed to see the country’s most famous animal around sunrise or sunset along roadways, hope it’s not while you’re driving! These are the best times of day for strolling the mainland’s farmlands and open outback where kangaroos are often even more common than humans.
Every day around sunset at Geoffrey Bay on Magnetic Island, local rock wallabies descend from the rocks to the waterfront. A small smattering of locals and tourists meet them and although you really should not feed the animals, unfortunately some do. This is not a zoo however and seeing these gentle and extremely cute animals up close is unforgettable.
Long Island in the Whitsunday Islands has a less tame population of wallabies and you’re likely to see them all over the island in the bush and off of the many forested walking trails.
About 30km north of Mackay, a long, curvy road leads west out of the flatlands and to the high cloud forests of Eungella National Park. Here, just off the road between the tiny towns of Eungella and Broken River, is one of the best places in the world to view platypus, the notoriously reclusive but famous monotreme (egg-laying mammal). You can spy platypus from a viewing platform where you’re most likely to see several, or try your luck on nearby streams. The best viewing times are near dawn and dusk, and around the breeding season in August, but it’s possible to see them at any time.
Every year from July to early November thousands of humpback whales cruise into sheltered Hervey Bay on their migration to the Antarctic. Young calves often accompany their mothers and the whales tend to visit the bay in groups of two to up to a dozen. This all means that the conditions for whale watching are spectacular – expect to get quite close, see spouting and possibly even breaching. It’s a not-to-be-missed experience of a lifetime.
For seabirds head straight to Lady Elliot Island where you’ll be surrounded with an impressive variety and quantity of nesting birds including oystercatchers and wedge-tailed shearwaters. On the islands to the outback throughout Queensland, keep an eye and ear out for sulphur-crested cockatoos. The grouchy-old-smoker-sounding screech of this snow white, stunning bird, is one of the regions best cosmic jokes.
Real bird nerds will find so many exotic species we can hardly list them here. Check out Birds Queensland (birdsqueensland.org.au) for a more detailed guide on what to expect.
The road to Mission Beach raises expectations of cassowary (a flightless bird that grows up to 1.9m tall) sightings with road crossing signs, but in fact the birds are endangered and few visitors are lucky enough to see one. Like kangaroos however, the worst place to see this exotic creature is when it’s crashing into your windshield, so take it slow. Most people tend to see the birds in jungle fringes along the beaches around the north coast. Good bets are anywhere from Etty Bay to Mission Beach.
Fraser Island dingoes are said to be the most genetically pure in the world thanks to their protected status here, and this makes this mystical, sandy island one of the best places to see them in the wild. Some people get lucky enough to see the dogs on day trips but in general, your chances are better if you stay overnight near the beaches (they love to swim and fish). Even if you don’t get a chance to see a dingo, listen sharply when sightseeing planes on the island take off – the dogs will often howl at these times.
As well as dingoes, Fraser Island is a great place to spot manta rays and dugongs from coastal viewpoints or from the side of a boat. The Whitsundays are another marine paradise teeming with sea life.
Of course the ultimate place to view extraordinary sea creatures in abundance is the Great Barrier Reef, the largest coral reef in the world renowned for its fragile diversity. It’s most easily accessed from Cairns but other jumping off points include the Whitsundays.