When I first came to Cairns on a working holiday visa in 2012, I was a study tour teacher for the then, Cairns College of English. I was fortunate enough to “work AND play,” teaching English to my adorable middle school Japanese students, all while sightseeing at places such as Green Island and Kuranda. One such place included the former Cairns Tropical Zoo in Palm Cove, which sadly closed in 2015. So here I am, in 2018, with my American mother visiting Oz for the very first time, and seemingly no place to caress a roo. Then I discover Wildlife Habitat in Cairns’ neighbouring city, Port Douglas where it turns out that you can get much more than a kangaroo cuddle.
Wildlife Habitat Port Douglas is a 50-minute picturesque drive from the Cairns CBD. The drive itself is considered to be one of the best in the tropical Far North, with a little less than 70 kilometres of breath-taking beaches on your right and lushly forested peaks on your left. On the way, be sure to pull over and snap a selfie at Rex’s Lookout, my favourite “Kodak moment” vista in all of FNQ.
Following our stunning trip along the Captain Cook Highway, we arrived at our destination to a park that encompasses wetland, rainforest, savannah, and woodland all in one locale. When Megan at the front desk kindly provided a map of the grounds our arrival, my mom and I were surprised to see such a variety of ecosystems housed in a single park. In fact, the parklands were erected on 8 acres of land, reimagined to create a portal to the Aussie natural world in 1988 by a local family, the Woodward Family, who also established Rainforestation and the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary in Kuranda.
Our adventure begins in the Woodland Habitat where you will be enthusiastically greeted by vividly-coloured feathered friends of northern Australia. I spotted a well-known Aussie fav, the Budgerigar, affectionately known as budgies. Being the English teacher that I am, I went on to teach mom the hilarious Aussie slang associated with this bird, smuggling, and Speedos. After having our laugh, we entered the Wetland Habitat where foraging birds are free to roam. Wandering around the Wetlands, I found myself being followed by a Red-tailed Black-cockatoo (he or she was intrigued by the metal on my sandals), greeted “Hello!” by a Pink cockatoo, and squawked at by Galahs.
After our stroll on Stork Walk, we joined the 10:45am presentation on one of Australia’s most iconic mammals where we met Courtney our wildlife expert, and Tia the koala. Did you know that this arboreal marsupial sleeps between 18 and 20 hours a day? We were lucky enough to see Tia wide awake, climbing and snacking on her favourite leaves: Eucalypt. Apparently, koalas are picky eaters with 25 varieties of Eucalypt but only eating around 7 of those species. When Tia time was up, we needed our daily dose of caffeine and headed to the charming Curlew Café where we watched dauntless Masked Lapwings hunting for crumbs. We were sipping our lattes and amusingly observing the birds when a wildlife keeper caught our attention with a shout of, “Follow me for the Savannah guided tour!” We hurriedly gulped down our liquid fuel and ran after the group to join the 11:15am presentation.
The Savannah Habitat is sure to please, housing the two animals on the Commonwealth coat of arms: the kangaroo and the emu. Enter kangaroo country ready with treats handy! There you will be able to feed the friendly mammals along the Wallaby Walk, ranging from the Eastern Grey Kangaroo to the Parma Wallaby. I really appreciated the park’s policy of visitors staying on the Walk and allowing these beauties to come to you, thereby giving the animals the freedom to withdraw when they’d had their fill. Also, beware of those adorable but sly little Magpie geese who love to pinch roo food directly from your hand!
One of the highlights of the Savannah tour is beholding the sight of massive Australian Pelicans finicking over their lunch. Jack, our wildlife tour guide, had his hands full with several pelicans impatiently gnawing away at his already-bandaged leg. He humorously informed us that pelicans do indeed have food preferences; the enormous birds proceeded to chuck the ‘broccoli-like’ fish to the side but greedily gobbled up the ‘chocolate-like’ varieties. But more significantly, Jack also divulged that the Savannah Habitat is a breeding refuge for over forty species and that many wild birds fly of their own free will into the park, making it their home. This fact indicates to me that Wildlife Habitat is more than a tourist attraction but a kind of sanctuary for animals seeking shelter and protection.
Ever onwards, once the pelicans appetite for fish was satisfied, we dashed off to the 11:45am North Queensland Reptile Experience. Without a doubt, the climax of mom’s day was definitely the crocodile feeding; she finally discovered the purpose of the “WARNING! ACHTUNG!” signs scattered throughout FNQ beaches. The elegant yet petrifying creature stealthily waited for Jack to lower the chicken feast within reach before showcasing his impressive jumping power. The estuarine croc named “Babinda,” weighs around a whopping 400kg, is approximately 4.2 meters long, and is in his 60’s! While intimidating, Babinda posed no threat. In actuality, Jack emphasized that crocs have a bad rep and as long as beach-goers heed the warning signs, crocs are unlikely to make a meal of humans.
After all that chomping and nibbling, we headed over to our final habitat of the day, the Rainforest Habitat. There, we were able to spot the graceful Black-necked Stork, locally known as the Jabiru. We read the noteworthy fact that Wildlife Habitat is the only place in the world that has successfully bred a captive pair, named James and Jabbie. But while admiring these lissom birds, we came across a very curious cassowary, the icing on the cake to a perfect day. “Airlie,” who was born on the 5th of September 1995 (the exact day as my little sister’s birthday) was quite the model and extremely photogenic. The Southern Cassowaries like Airlie play a fundamental part in rainforest redevelopment with their ability to scatter seeds long range. Unfortunately, there are only 4000 left in the wild due to habitat clearing, dog attacks and being struck by cars on roads. Happily, you can even partake in their conservation efforts by adopting an animal like Cassie the Southern Cassowary, at https://www.wildlifehabitat.com.au/adopt-an-animal/.
Corresponding with Wildlife Habitat’s conservation efforts, the park has Advanced Eco-Certification meaning it has proven its commitment to sustainable practices with minimal impact on the environment. For example, Jack pointed out that the park cultivates trees in order to feed its tree kangaroos. There are many opportunities to join in the parks efforts to foster sustainable tourism and promote animal welfare. For those who really want to get their hands dirty, there is even a volunteer program running between 4 and 8 weeks. For the rest of us, visiting and making a donation are great ways to make a difference.
At Wildlife Habitat Port Douglas, not only did mom and I get a taste of iconic Australian wildlife, but we also gained a greater appreciation of the efforts involved in conservation. If you are interested in finding out more about Wildlife Habitat Port Douglas, visit their site at https://www.wildlifehabitat.com.au/ and see CCEB Travel.
-Nina, CCEB Teacher