Australia has some amazing animals not found anywhere else in the world. At the Featherdale Wildlife Park outside Sydney, I was able to get up close and personal with some of them.
Koalas are not really bears, they’re marsupials. Some koala fossils have been found that are 50 million years old. They have two opposable thumbs on each hand, and are one of the few mammals that have fingerprints. The male koala has a bifurcated penis. I’m not sure what that is, but I don’t think I want to know. It must be related to the fact that the female koala has two vaginas and two uterii. Two times the fun. The koalas are the only animals on earth whose brains have shrunk over millions of years to the size of two walnuts, and the rest of their skulls are filled with fluid.
The kangaroo is the national symbol of Australia. There are over 50 different kinds of kangaroos. They are the only large animal that use hopping as a method of transportation. Of course the female kangaroo has a pouch to hold her baby, called a joey. Joeys live in the pouch for up to nine months after birth. Male kangaroos are known for fighting. They usually fight over females and drinks, just like humans.
A common myth about the kangaroo’s English name is that “kangaroo” was an Aboriginal phrase for “I don’t understand you.” According to this legend, Captain Cook and naturalist Sir Joseph Banks were exploring the area near Cooktown when they happened upon the animal. They asked a nearby local what the creatures were called. The local responded “Kangaroo”, meaning “I don’t understand you”, which Cook took to be the name of the creature. Alas, linguists have proven that this is not a true story…
The kangaroo has adapted very well to the arrival of Western settlers. Today there are more kangaroos than ever before, and more kangaroos than people in Australia. They’re shot for meat and hides, and to protect grazing land. I had a kangaroo steak in a restaurant in Port Douglas. It was excellent and tasted similar to venison.
A wallaby is any one of the thirty species of small kangaroo.
The wombat is a four-legged marsupial that digs lengthy burrows in the ground with its rodent-like teeth and powerful claws. Since the wombat is on all four legs close to the ground (unlike the kangaroo hopping on two big rear legs), it’s pouch is backward facing. This means that while digging, the mother wombat doesn’t gather dirt in its pouch on top of the joey. Ingenious!
Wombats are the prey of dingoes and Tasmanian devils. Their main defense mechanism is a hard butt. When threatened, they dive into a tunnel head first. Their butt consists of a toughened hide overlaying cartilage. This might help them withstand the dingo’s bite.
Startled wombats have been known to charge humans and bowl them over. Watch out!
Kookaburras are best known for their unmistakable call, which sounds uncannily like loud, echoing human laughter. This sound is used in jungle settings in many TV shows and movies, even when the show isn’t set in Australia. Maybe the sound editor should learn some zoology. As we all learned as children, the kookaburra sits in the old gum tree. And those trees (eucalyptus) are mostly found in Australia.
I don’t know what kind of bird this is, but it has a personal attendant to take care of its tail.
The little penguin is the smallest species of penguin. They are about one foot tall. They spend their days fishing in the Southern Ocean. At dusk they go back to their colony on shore and tell their wives stories about the big ones that got away. They don’t mention how much beer they drank.
“Would you like to buy an entry in the race tonight, mate?”
A man plopped down into the booth next to me. He was crowding me, inside my personal bubble, and I could smell the beer on his breath. His hair was long, blond and dirty. His face was tanned and lined. He was rushing forward with his sales pitch. With the noise of the other diners, the music in the background, and his strong accent and slang, I could hardly understand a word he was saying. I’m pretty sure it was English (after all I was in Australia), but maybe they speak a different dialect up here in the FNQ – Far North Queensland. He didn’t have a leather vest on, had no hat, and wasn’t sporting a large knife. Instead, he wore a bush shirt that looked like part of a Boy Scout uniform. Yet, he reminded me of someone. Someone I had seen about twenty years ago.
Crocodile Dundee. In the flesh. Crowding me in this booth and trying to sell me something.
“It’s only five dollars. You could win two tickets for Hartley’s Crocodile River Cruises,” he said. “That’s where I work. I’m a river guide.”
“Is it a raffle?” I asked.
“No, mate. It’s a race.” He then said a couple of sentences I found unintelligible.
“Ok. I’ll buy an entry.” I forked over a fiver, he gave me a ticket with number 92 on it, and he moved on to the next table.
My wife Lisa and I were sitting in the back of the Ironbar Saloon in Port Douglas, Queensland, Australia. As we ate our dinner, a crowd of about 50 people slowly filled up the room. As soon as I finished my dinner, the race was about to begin. There were a lot of Australian families staying in this beach town for spring break. Crocodile took the small stage. The school age children were excited for the race.
“Welcome ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls. It’s time for the nightly Cane Toad Race. Has anyone never seen a cane toad?” A few people raised their hands.
“This is a cane toad!” He put his hand into a bucket and pulled out a large, slimy toad. Its body was as big as my fist, with long muscular legs hanging below.
“The cane toad is not indigenous to Australia, mates. Back in 1935, the sugar cane farmers were in trouble. An insect called the cane beetle was attacking the sugar cane crop. Somebody learned that in Venezuela, home to the cane toad, they didn’t have problems with cane beetles. Therefore, it must be because they had cane toads to eat the cane beetles. So some bright agricultural scientist convinced the farmers to import 60,000 cane toads and release them into the wilds of Queensland.”
“Unfortunately, there was a big problem with this brilliant logic. The cane toad is a TOAD and not a FROG. Toads are terrestrial. They don’t climb trees like frogs; they hop along on the ground. And the cane beetle eats the sugar cane at the top of the stalk, which is about six feet off the ground. So this strategy failed miserably. The toads reproduced like rabbits (another non-indigenous animal problem in Australia) and now they’re a nuisance across the land. You may have seen cane toad road kill on our roads.”
“First thing to do before starting the race is to properly outfit our cane toads. They must wear the proper uniform per the Queensland Cane Toad Racing Association regulations. Here is the racing uniform.”
He pulled a half dozen colored hair ties from his pocket.
“A ring goes around the toad’s neck. According to the rules, it is the jockey’s responsibility to make sure the ring is properly affixed to the toad. In the race there will be six cane toads. Each cane toad will wear a different color, and will be coordinated to this chart.”
He pointed to his right, where a white board listed six names, each name associated with a color. The names were fanciful and descriptive – The Big Hopper, Whopper, Ozzy, Liberace’s Lad, Lulubelle, and Mrs. Amazing.
“It’s time to pick our cane toad jockeys. The jockey is a very important role in cane toad racing. A good jockey means the difference between winning and losing. For those of you out there who bought an entry in tonight’s race, please look at the number on your ticket.”
My ticket number was 92.
He stuck his hand into a bucket, swirled it around, and pulled out a ticket.
“Nummmmmm-bbbbbbber 58! Who’s got number 58?” he asked.
A surprised and uncomfortable middle-aged Australian mum in a bright orange sun dress cautiously took the small stage. Crocodile handed her a cane toad, this one called the Big Hopper. She looked like she was ready to freak out. Her face was pulled into a squeamish grimace. She kept moving the cane toad from one hand to the other, while dancing on her feet.
Crocodile pulled four more tickets out of the bucket. The four new jockeys took the stage and took possession of their racing cane toads. Three of the four new jockeys were young boys who enjoyed handling the amphibians. The fourth was a young woman who was as uncomfortable as the mum. She had just gotten engaged and Crocodile needled her about deciding to get married. The cane toads were assigned in turn – Whopper, Ozzy, Liberace’s Lad, and Lulubelle.
When getting the names of the jockeys and the names of their hometowns, Crocodile proceeded to crack jokes about the places. He used this opportunity to do some improvisational comedy in a typical Aussie style. The crowd roared.
I never win anything at raffles, auctions, or the like. Certainly nothing important or valuable. I started to calculate the odds of my ticket being picked for the last spot. There were about 40 tickets sold for the race, five of which were already picked. That left a chance of one in 35, about 2.857% (but who’s counting).
“There is one more jockey to be picked. The winning number is 93!” said Crocodile.
Bummer. I missed it by one. See? I never win anything.
“No, wait. The number is 92!” yelled Crocodile over the noise. “Number 92, come on down!”
I looked at Lisa and smiled. She looked at me with surprise. The crowd was looking around to see who had the last ticket. I felt like Charlie in the Chocolate Factory, getting the chocolate bar with the golden ticket.
“You go do it!” I yelled at Lisa. I don’t like being the center of attention. I don’t want to be on stage in front of 50 screaming Aussies.
She hesitated, but then committed. She joined the other jockeys on stage.
I must point out that earlier in the day we were shopping on the main street of Port Douglas. We darted in and out of the boutiques and souvenir shops. I would spend my usual 30 seconds in each store and then retreat to the sidewalk. Lisa was looking for a new sun dress. She eventually found a brightly colored one that she liked. She decided to wear it out to dinner.
“What’s your name beautiful, and where are you from?” asked Crocodile.
“My name is Lisa and I’m from the US,” replied my adventurous wife.
“America! Land of the free and home of the brave. Do you know how to stop two crocodiles from making luuuuuvvvvvv? Huh, do ya? ….. Give’em a Yank!”
The crowd squealed in delight. Crocodile reached into the toad bucket and gave Lisa the last cane toad. He looked at the white board for the name of the last cane toad. Its name was Mrs. Amazing.
“Mrs. Amazing! Whoooaa! Is that your husband back there?” asked Crocodile. He pointed at me and waved. Of course he knew I was. He sold me that ticket 20 minutes ago.
“Is she really Mrs. Amazing? Come on, give us the details!” shouted Crocodile over the din of the crowd.
I just smiled.
“OK, jockeys. Your job is to drive these cane toads to glorious victory. Just like horse jockeys have a whip to prod their horses to go faster, you will have a whip. And here they are.”
He pulled six party favors out of his pocket. They were the kind of noisemakers that one blows on New Year’s Eve, where the paper unrolls and shoots out while the noise is made. He gave each jockey a noisemaker.
“Test your whips! You must hit your cane toads on the butt with your whip to get them to jump off of this table. When they jump off, pick them up and put them into this bucket. The first one in wins.”
While he was explaining the rules in his FNQ accent, the jockeys were testing their noisemakers, some blokes were cheering about a score in the Australian Football League championship game on the telly, the overhead speakers were blasting 70’s rock and roll, and the crowd was jostling for position to see the big race. Lisa didn’t hear the rules.
“Before we start the race, kiss your toads for good luck! Come on, kiss’em!”
The mum pulled a face and pretended to kiss her cane toad on the lips. She was about an inch away.
“That’s an air kiss! You can’t do an air kiss in this competition. We’re sanctioned by the Queensland Cane Toad Racing Association. Come on. You can do better than that!”
The embarrassed mum succumbed to peer pressure and meekly kissed her cane toad. I was now surely glad I pushed Lisa into being the jockey on my winning ticket.
One by one three of the other four jockeys kissed their cane toads. The young boys did it for fun and hammed it up for the crowd. The young fiancée’s turn was next.
“Come on luv, give that toad a nice big wet one. He might turn into a handsome prince, surely much better than that bloke over there!” he yelled as he gestured to her fiancé standing by the bar. She complied and pecked the toad.
It was now Lisa’s turn. Crocodile looked at her. The crowd stared. I was waiting for her to kiss the cane toad in front of this crowd. Unfortunately, I had left my camera at the hotel.
“Instead of giving it a good luck kiss, I’m going to give it a yank!” she said, playing off the earlier joke. She quickly pulled on one of the cane toad’s legs.
The toad promptly peed all over the front of her new sun dress.
Lisa screamed. The crowd went into a frenzy of laughter. For once Crocodile was speechless.
After the crowd died down and Crocodile found his voice again, it was time to start the race. He had the jockeys put their cane toads into a bucket. Then he dumped the bucket upside down in the middle of a table and yelled “Go!”
The jockeys blew their noisemakers. The adept and skilled jockeys made the ends of their noisemakers hit the butts of their cane toads. The cane toads then hopped. The jockeys repeated this while the crowd screamed for their favorite cane toads. Little by little some cane toads moved towards the edge of the table.
Mrs. Amazing, however, remained in place. She was resting, and didn’t want to hop. Then she decided to move, but after a couple of hops towards the edge she hopped back towards the center. Perhaps she was afraid of heights. They are terrestrial after all.
The young boy who had Ozzy successfully whipped his cane toad off the table. He grabbed it off the floor and ran for the bucket. He narrowly beat another young boy who had Liberace’s Lad for the win.
One by one the others finished. Except for Mrs. Amazing, who was still peering over the edge of the table at the abyss below. Crocodile bumped the cane toad with the side of his hand and sent Mrs. Amazing flying downward.
“Go! Pick up your cane toad and put her in the bucket!”
My non-winning streak continues. My entry finished in sixth place out of six entrants. But my jockey really is Mrs. Amazing.
Sydney is best known for one thing: the Opera House. This iconic building gets most of the attention for the city. Its image is on postcards, calendars, shirts, caps, shot glasses, and key chains (of course, all of these souvenirs are made in China). It certainly is stunning and a “must see” while in Sydney. However there are other things to experience in Australia’s first city.
Sydney sprawls across countless bays and the entire metropolitan area is enormous. The highlights are mainly in or near the city center, called the Central Business District (CBD). Four days are the right amount of time to see these sights.
Head straight to the Opera House. Tours are available for those interested in the architectural design details or the inner workings of an opera house or a symphony hall. If you’re like me and that’s too much information, simply walk around the building and stare at its magnificence. How did the architect come up with this?
From the Opera House, watch the sailboats go under the Harbour Bridge. If you’re adventurous, tackle the bridge climb that sends people walking over the top of the bridge. For a more sedate experience, go next door to the Royal Botanical Garden. It’s a large park with excellent views across Botany Bay. See the old eucalyptus trees and Mrs. Macquarie’s chair. Mrs. Macquarie was the wife of an early governor of Australia. She used to sit on a chair on a point overlooking the bay and watch the ships sail in.
Stroll back into the CBD and head to the shopping district. Take a ride up the Sydney Tower for a nice meal, a drink, or just to enjoy the view over the city from a revolving restaurant. Before the chain stores and well-known brands took over, there were two distinctive shopping buildings in old Sydney. The Strand Arcade is Victorian style shopping building built in 1891. The Queen Victory Building is Romanesque style building completed in 1898. Don’t ask me to tell you the difference…. Each building is filled with interesting shops. My favorite was the Bon Bon Chocolate store in the Strand.
For dinner choose from two very different but adjoining areas. If you like Asian food, go to Chinatown. Sydney’s Chinatown is small compared to San Francisco or New York, yet it has every kind of Asian food. I saw Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, and Malaysian restaurants in the neighborhood clustered around Dixon Street. If you like seafood, go to Darling Harbour. The harbor front is a nice place to walk in the evening. It’s full of seafood restaurants and upscale wine bars. A nearby stretch of Liverpool Street is the home of a half dozen Spanish restaurants, if tapas and paella is more your style. Then go back your hotel and rest your aching feet.
Go to Circular Quai in the CBD and catch the ferry to the Taronga Zoo. Circular Quai is the place in the CBD where the ferries leave for other parts of Botany Bay. I think the Taronga Zoo is the best zoo in the world. The Zoo is built on a hill overlooking the bay and the city of Sydney. The views are spectacular.
Ride the cable car to the top of the hill to the Zoo’s entrance, and take your time walking downhill through all of the animal exhibits. The animals in most of the zoos I have been to are usually sleeping. Not at this zoo! There was a lot of activity. In one instance I saw a large, irate gorilla launch himself in a body slam against a Plexiglas wall right in front of a visitor. I was glad the Plexiglas was strong!
When back at Circular Quai, walk over to the Rocks. The Rocks is the oldest part of Sydney. Explore the narrow lanes and back alleys, and have dinner at a traditional Australian pub.
If the weather is good, go to one of the nearby beach towns, either Manly or Bondi. For Manly, take a ferry from Circular Quai for the thirty minute ride across the scenic bay. For Bondi, a bus across the city will get you to the world famous Bondi Beach. Find a spot to soak up the sun and walk along the shoreline trails.
On the last day, catch a tour to the Blue Mountains. This is a world heritage site about two hours west of Sydney. The tour I took was a full day affair that made several stops. First, after fighting our way through the horrendous Sydney traffic, we had tea and a snack in the picturesque mountain village of Leura. Then we rode the steepest railway in the world (a 52 degree incline) down to a forest walkway at Scenic World, followed by a ride back up in a cable car. After lunch at an eco-lodge, we visited Featherdale Wildlife Park for up close looks at koalas, kangaroos, wallabies, wombats, and other animals. The tour finished with a drive through the 2000 Olympic site and a cruise on the Parrametta River back to Sydney.
The reef in front of the Octopus Resort on Waya Island in Fiji starts five yards from the shore. It has the most amazing snorkeling I have ever seen. The reef is full of healthy and vibrant hard corals. There are giant brain corals 20 feet in diameter, staghorn, elkhorn; more species than I can identify. I have been to several Caribbean reefs and they look wrecked compared to this reef. Perhaps this is what the Caribbean looked like 100 years ago, before the overfishing, clumsy tourists, and coral bleaching.
There are many different kinds of fish weaving in and out of the coral. I see bright yellow butterfly fish calmly grazing in pairs. There are Picasso triggerfish cruising the shallows. Bright blue damsels protect their territory from attack. I catch a glimpse of an octopus as it slides under a ledge fifteen feet down. As I glide over a wall I see a large moray eel ducking in and out of a cavity at the base of the wall, ready to catch any tang foolish enough to swim by too close.
I see a dark cloud up ahead. It is a gigantic school of fish. They are small, maybe six inches long, but there are thousands of them. I find out later that they are sardines. They form an ever changing mass about 20 yards long by 10 yards wide by 15 feet deep. There must be ten thousand fish in the school. I slowly glide into the school and it parts around me. I try to be as still as possible. The school envelopes me like I am the eye of the hurricane. The fish circle me and from time to time I extend my hand to the moving wall of fish. This causes a panic and the fish reverse direction and flee from the threat. No one wants to be the fish on the outside of the school, to be eaten by a predator in the great circle of life.
In the afternoon I take a refresher course in scuba diving. I think it’s a good idea since I haven’t been diving in ten years. The instructor is a big, burly islander named Kuki. Another guest at the dive shop is considering taking a Discover Scuba Diving class. She asks Kuki how experienced he is at diving. He tells her he’s been diving every day for 19 years! Kuki runs through the skills with me in the shallow waters a few feet off shore. I am ready for diving again.
The next day Kuki takes me out into the bay off Likuliku Beach. The first dive is at a site called Three Sisters. We get our gear on and fall over the side. Kuki doesn’t wear a wetsuit. He looks like he has enough insulation as it is. We slowly descend about 30 feet. The assortment of hard corals is amazing. Near one table coral is a cloud of tiny bright blue fish. A school of tangs glide past us.
I follow Kuki as he winds his way along the reef. I try to relax and use only my feet, while keeping my arms folded across my chest. My breathing slows and I achieve neutral buoyancy. Kuki stops by a bramble of coral. He points with his underwater pen at a lionfish. We count five lionfish in this spot. A lionfish has sharp spines to deter predators and gulps his unsuspecting dinner whole.
I see an anemone about two feet across. It is home to two large orange clownfish nestling in the tentacles of the anemone. These fish are not quite like Nemo but a different species. A clam about one foot long slowly flaps its lips at me as I stare at its electric green color.
After 45 minutes of fabulous exploration it is time for our three minute safety stop. We hover fifteen feet below the surface and watch the timer tick down. As I rise to the surface I’m happy with the dive. The visibility was very good, the corals were excellent and we saw many varieties of fish.
After a break we head over to another dive site. This one is called Octopus Garden. I see many of the same things at this site, but because it’s so good I don’t notice until the dive is over. The most memorable thing of this dive was seeing a large Hawksbill turtle. I was at about 50 feet in depth and the turtle was grazing near a wall about 20 feet below me. It hovered there for a few moments and then slowly moved away to deeper water.
Kuki gave me a high five and a fist bump once we were back to shore. It was a great way to spend a morning in Fiji.
Travel Stories from Around the World by Steve Skabrat