Enjoying the wildlife, in and out of the water, on a private tour of Australia

By Marcia Brandes
This article appears on page 6 of the March 2018 issue.

Remarkable Rocks at Flinders Chase National Park.

In all my travels, I had never been to Australia, but it was all my husband, Steve, and I needed to gain ITN’s “7 Continents” award.

Australia is almost as large as the continental United States, so planning our 3-week trip (Sept. 18-Oct. 9, 2017) required hard choices about what to include and what to leave for another time. 

After studying several travel books, I decided on these five areas: Sydney, the Atherton Tablelands, the Great Barrier Reef, the Top End and Kangaroo Island. Yes, we would miss Uluru and Tasmania, but we couldn’t have it all. With the help of Darin Hendry from About Australia (San Antonio, TX; 888/359-2877, www.aboutaustralia.com), we put together an ambitious itinerary.

The plan

A friendly rock wallaby seen in Granite Gorge Nature Park.

We flew to Los Angeles on our own from Atlanta, then Darin’s itinerary kicked in. We took a business-class flight on Virgin Australia from LA to Sydney, spending three nights in Sydney at the Mantra on Kent. A day tour to the Blue Mountains and a tour of the Sydney Opera House were included. 

Continuing to Cairns, we would pick up a rental car for the next six days, driving to the Rose Gums Wilderness Retreat in the Atherton Tablelands for two nights and to Port Douglas on the coast for three nights at the Meridian. All three of our accommodations were full-size apartments, each with a bedroom, living room, kitchen and bath. We even had laundry facilities at the Meridian, which mattered to me because I pack light. 

A day tour of snorkeling on the reef was included in our plan.

We would then fly to Darwin for a stay at the DoubleTree hotel before being picked up the next morning for a 4-day Top End tour, which included Kakadu National Park, Katherine Gorge and Litchfield National Park. 

Our next flight would take us south to Adelaide, where we would pick up another rental car and take the car ferry to Kangaroo Island. I specifically asked for a stay at the Hanson Bay Cabins at the western end of the island. Once again we had a full apartment, this one with a breathtaking view. There were laundry facilities there as well.

Leaving Kangaroo Island, we would end with two nights in Adelaide before an early-morning flight to Sydney for our business-class return to LA. (We made our own arrangements to get back to Atlanta.) 

The cost from About Australia for the two of us was $20,430, which included a number of breakfasts and an occasional lunch but no dinners. We also were responsible for covering the cost of gas, insurance and the airport fees for the car rentals.

Whew! I get tired just reading this jam-packed itinerary, but, for the most part, everything went smoothly.

Starting in Sydney

Our accommodations in Sydney were only a 20-minute walk from the waterfront. We enjoyed the botanical gardens and the iconic Opera House and took the ferry across the harbor so we could walk back over the famous Harbour Bridge. The views from the bridge were spectacular. 

We can especially recommend the Spice Room (2 Phillip St.) near the waterfront. This Indian restaurant was elegant and reasonable in price (AUD10-AUD30, or $8-$24). 

It took me a while to get used to the pricing for meals in Australian restaurants. It seemed very expensive until I took into consideration that the prices on the menus included all taxes and service. We were repeatedly reminded that Australians do not expect tips.

Our day trip to the Blue Mountains started with a stop at the Feath­erdale Wildlife Park — really a small zoo for Australian wildlife but a nice introduction to what we would later see in the wild. Unfortunately, due to forest fires, the Blue Mountains turned out to be gray mountains, as the air was quite hazy. 

We made a brief stop at The Blue Mountains Botanic Garden Mount Tomah, which I loved. If I had it to do over, I would skip the mountain tour and just go to the gardens, which had an amazing assortment of unique Australian flora.

On to Cairns

Steve, getting a little more than his feet wet, on our tour of Litchfield National Park.

Our flight to Cairns took a little over three hours. We picked up our rental car, and Steve set his brain to relearning how to drive on the left side of the road. Fortunately, everywhere we went, the streets were well signed and the petrol stations were plentiful. 

We stopped at a grocery store to pick up picnic supplies, beer and wine before driving to Rose Gums Wilderness Retreat. Our hosts had left a breakfast basket that provided more than enough for our 2-day stay, not only for breakfast but for snacks as well. 

The little house in the trees was beautiful.

The Atherton Tablelands is a rural area of rolling hills, farms, flatlands, grasses and giant termite mounds. Our hostess had an area map with attractions, and I was especially interested in seeing the tree kangaroos. (We were told there are over 50 species related to the kangaroo family in Australia, including 12 species of tree dwellers, wallabies and even a tiny rat kangaroo.) 

We drove a few kilometers to the Nerada Tea Factory and, sure enough, outside the café there were several families of kangaroos high up in the trees. As we speculated about how they managed up there, one of them obligingly climbed down, rooted around in the leaves and then climbed back up the tree, showing us just how he did it!

Next on my wildlife list was the elusive platypus. The Australian Platypus Park, really just a small lake on private property, promised a guaranteed view of these strange creatures. 

We paid $8 each and were led down a path to the lake, where we watched brown blobs briefly surface and disappear. Even with my 400mm lens, I could not get a clear picture. We had been warned that they are difficult to spot, as they feed all day in murky waters. 

I was disappointed in the so-called Platypus Park, but, thanks to the map provided by Rose Gums, we lucked out. On our way to see the Curtain Fig Tree, a huge fig tree with hundreds of dangling roots, we drove through the small town of Yungaburra. On the side of the road by a small bridge was a sign saying “Platypus viewing area.” 

We turned into a small dirt area that we hoped was a parking spot and got out to look. As we approached the bridge, a young couple told us that if we walked under the bridge and along the creek, we would see the creatures. 

After about 10 minutes, there they were, right in front of us. They would surface for about 15 seconds before diving down into the murk, but we were so close that we could study them easily.

Port Douglas

After two nights at Rose Gums, we drove overland to Port Douglas, stopping on the way at Granite Gorge Nature Park near Mareeba. What fun this was! 

The area is home to a troop of wild rock wallabies, but they are so used to people that visitors can purchase appropriate food and hand-feed them. The tiny, curious creatures made for great photo ops.

Of course, we couldn’t visit Australia without seeing one of its most famous attractions, the Great Barrier Reef. Our day trip from Port Douglas was with Quicksilver Cruises on the Silversonic. We visited three separate diving/snorkeling locations, each different from the other. 

This was really one of the highlights of the trip. The rainbow colors of the coral and fish were mesmerizing, and I could have spent hours floating serenely in the water admiring them. 

The crew provided Lycra suits to protect us from both sunburn and the possibility of jellyfish stings. I chose to snorkel with a life vest for an effortless experience as I snapped away with my Olympus waterproof camera.

The next day we drove up to Daintree National Park. If I had to leave something out of the trip, this would be it. The beach was beautiful, but no swimming was allowed because of crocodiles.

Top End tour

We had to drive back to Cairns to return the car before taking our 2½-hour flight to Darwin. About Australia supplied transfers for all our flights. By the time we arrived at our hotel in Darwin, it was 10 p.m. We had a 7 a.m. call for our Top End tour the next morning, so there was no time to actually see the city.

The first three days of our Top End tour, booked by Darin through AAT Kings, were a delight. Of the 36 passengers on the bus, we were the only Americans. We were joined by a few travelers from England, but most of the group were Aussies from all over the country. 

Kakadu National Park, in the tropics, has two seasons: wet and dry. During the wet season, much of the area is flooded and the roads can become impassable. During the dry season, which is when we visited, the wildlife, especially the bird population, crowds around the remaining lakes and rivers. 

During our three days there, we went on a riverboat ride to see crocodiles, drove through the rainforest, took a cruise through Katherine Gorge and hiked to a number of sites with stunning Aboriginal rock art. Steve and I also took the opportunity to add in a sightseeing flight over Kakadu with Kakadu Air in a 6-seat Cessna. 

I would love to go back to see the park during the wet season; it would be a completely different experience.

For any bird or wildlife fancier, this is a great tour. I photographed the huge black-backed stork that Aussies call a jabiru, as well as several species of herons and cockatoos, ibis, kites and an eagle, among others. We also saw trees loaded with the fruit bat locals call the flying fox. I even got a photo of a momma bat with her baby. 

At the end of our three days, we returned to Darwin and the DoubleTree hotel. We had not realized that the trip to Litchfield National Park would be a separate tour, so when the front desk called us at 7:00 the next morning to tell us the bus was there, we were totally unprepared. We hastily dressed and ran downstairs to join a completely different group of people. 

Litchfield is known for its giant termite mounds. There are two kinds of mounds there: the so-called magnetic mounds, which are all aligned on a north-south axis, and the tall, red, cathedral mounds. The magnetic mounds were gray, wedge-shaped slabs about 8 feet high that together looked like a field of tombstones. The cathedral mounds were fluted cones, some reaching almost 20 feet high. These termites eat grass, fortunately, not people’s homes.

Litchfield also has a number of beautiful waterfalls with natural pools for swimming. Our tour stopped at several, but because we were caught unaware, we didn’t know to take our swimsuits. We had to settle for dangling our feet in the water while others swam. 

Some of the sealife seen while snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef.

A slight detour

We left the hotel in Darwin at 5 a.m. to get to the airport for our flight to Adelaide. Once there, we learned that the flight had been canceled and Virgin Australia (VA) didn’t have another direct flight that day. 

They refused to book us on a Qantas flight because they said they could get us to Adelaide by 10:30 that night. (I thought about just booking a flight with Qantas anyway, but it was a holiday weekend and the cost would have been $2,500!) So we stayed in the small Darwin airport from 6 a.m. until 2 p.m. when we boarded our reschedule VA flight to Sydney.

We were supposed to connect in Sydney with a flight to Adelaide, but the flight leaving Darwin was late, so we missed the connection and had to spend the night in Sydney. 

Before departing the Darwin airport, after I specifically asked for vouchers, Virgin handed us meal vouchers that were totally inadequate (AUD8 for breakfast, when a cup of coffee alone cost AUD6). When we missed the flight in Sydney, they did give us dinner vouchers and put us up in a nearby hotel. 

What made me really mad about all this was that VA knew the night before that the flight would be canceled but gave us no indication when we checked in online. We could at least have slept in had we known.

Fortunately, though we did not arrive in Adelaide until the next morning, we were able to pick up our car and make it down to Cape Jervis in time for our 2:30 check-in for the ferry to Kangaroo Island. Missing that would have been a real problem, as the ferries book up months in advance.

Kangaroo Island

I loved Kangaroo Island! We stayed in the western part, near Flinders Chase National Park. Our cabin at Hanson Bay was in a wildlife refuge and overlooked the Great Australian Bight (bay). The only drawback of staying there was that we had to pay for off-road car insurance, as the last 5 kilometers of the road to the cabin was dirt. However, it was worth it! 

Because the cabins are an hour’s drive from the nearest town, we ordered a take-away dinner from the refuge that we could pick up when we checked in. Although it seemed pricey (AUD$45 [$36] per person), it turned out to be more than enough food for both nights of our stay.

We had booked a nocturnal tour of the refuge for the first evening. I was glad I had a warm coat, as it was quite cold. After record-breaking heat in Sydney and the 40°C (104°F) temps at the Top End, it was a shock to be back to winter temperatures. 

It was too dark to photograph the kangaroos, wallabies and koalas, but the guide found several echidnas (aka spiny anteaters) and shined a light so we could see the shy creatures. The next morning we returned to the refuge and found koalas in the trees and kangaroos hopping through fields of wildflowers.

We had been warned that while driving on the island we needed to watch out for kangaroos and wallabies darting out across the road, and that turned out to be true. Several times, Steve had to hit the brakes to avoid a collision. Still, it was wonderful to have our own transportation and be able to stay as long as we wanted in any one place.

An Australian pelican seen on a stop in Kingscote.

Flinders Chase National Park showcases the aptly named Remarkable Rocks. We have been to many places in this world, but we had never before seen any geological formations like these. The granite boulders have been sculpted by millions of years of rain, wind and ocean waves into fantastic convoluted shapes. 

Another unusual natural feature, Admirals Arch, a rock bridge with a view to the sea, was also spectacular. 

On our last day on Kangaroo Island, we decided to take the guided tour of the Seal Bay sea lion colony. Having been able to walk freely among the creatures in both the Galápagos and Antarctica, I thought having to stay with a guide might spoil the experience, but the seals were curious and photogenic, and I am glad we decided to go. 

We had time to visit the wharf in Kingscote to see the huge Australian pelicans and a family of black swans. From there, it was less than an hour’s drive to Penneshaw to catch the afternoon ferry back to the mainland. A 1½-hour drive from there took us to Adelaide. 

Ending in Adelaide

Our one full day in Adelaide was a good way to rest up for the rigors of our long trek back to Atlanta. We took the free hop-on/hop-off tourist trolley that takes about an hour to drive around the city, giving visitors a nice overview. I spent the afternoon walking around town and checking out the stores while Steve just relaxed at our hotel, the Adelaide Rockford. At 4 the next morning, we dropped off our car at the airport, and 29 hours later we were back in our home in Atlanta. 

I have a few suggestions for others contemplating a similar trip. When we landed in Sydney, the first thing we did after getting our luggage was to get sim cards for our phones. Several telecom companies have shops at the airport that are open 24/7. A sim card with a good data plan cost only AUD40. Since many hotels charge for Internet service, the sim card with data plan can save you money.

Our travel agent had arranged for us to take the Redy2GO shuttle from the Sydney airport to our hotel. Because there were many other passengers, who needed to be dropped off at different hotels, it took us close to two hours to reach our stop. In the future, I would take the train into the city — a 15-minute ride — and then get an Uber to the hotel.

One of the things that made it easier for Steve to drive on this trip was that both of the cars we rented were the same model. It took a few times of turning on the windshield wipers instead of the turn signal to remember that everything on the steering wheel was “backwards” from what we were used to. It was helpful to have to go through this learning curve only once.

We saw a great deal of this fascinating country.