WARRNAMBOOL, AUSTRALIA – We had started to wonder if we’d have to see Australia’s most iconic creatures at a zoo. But we didn’t.
We’d booked a guided nature walk at Tower Hill Reserve, between Warrnambool and Port Fairy. It’s in the crater of a volcano that erupted about 32,000 years ago, and it’s a strange sight even today: A sunken bowl with two shallow lakes and conical hills created by subsequent eruptions, ringed by rock in the middle of flat dairy land.
Our guide was a young man named Karl. We hadn’t gone far before an emu walked up to snack on an elderberry tree and a kangaroo apple, whose leaves contain a steroid used to make contraceptives. The emu is second in size only to the ostrich, which it resembles, and aborginals loved to eat it. “It knows it’s tasty, so it’ll run away if you get too close,” Karl said.
Just down the trail, we spotted a koala in a manna gum, a eucalyptus that is its sole food source. The koala blinked at us sleepily.
“Eucalyptus oil has a sedative affect on them,” Karl said with a giggle. “I think they’re a little out of their heads most of the time, actually.”
On a boardwalk through wetlands, he was pleased to be able to show us three venomous copperhead snakes, including a baby: “They’re the most dangerous because they can’t regulate their payload like adults can,” he said.
We saw another koala in a tree just above our heads, close enough to see the sharp claws it uses to climb anything it wants. “People say, oh, can I hug it?” Karl said. “Sure, if you want scratches all over your face and arms.”
We looked for spiky echidnas, one of only two mammals that lay eggs (the platypus is the other), but saw only the holes it makes, looking for ants and termites.
Before we left Tower Hill, Karl showed Torsten how to throw a boomerang. Torsten was worried about hitting the emus grazing on the lawn, but he turned out to be a natural: When he threw it, the boomerang made a sharp hook in the air and came part way back.
We went for lunch in Port Fairy, which seemed unusually busy for a small town. It turned out to be the first day of the 41st Port Fairy Folk Festival, and despite the cheerful throngs, we were able to get a table and have a sandwich and quiche at A Farmer’s Wife.
Port Fairy was started in the 1830s as a whaling station, because whales frequented a nearby reef to rub barnacles off their sides. Just off the harbor, we walked around Griffith Island to the 1859 lighthouse. The island is the home of a large colony of shearwaters, a burrowing seabird, but we saw only chattering magpies and two white-faced herons.
From Port Fairy, we headed north to Grampians National Park. In Dunkeld, a visitor center employee named Karen gave us a rapid-fire synopsis of what we could do in the short time we had, which we appreciated.
You could tell she talked to a lot of tourists: “You want to take your picture with kangaroos, is that right?” she asked at one point. We stared at her for a moment, until Torsten gamely said, “Well, we wouldn’t object.” We could in Halls Gap, she said, where there’s a campground with tame kangaroos.
But we saw a wild kangaroo peering at us from the side of the lovely, eucalyptus-lined road through the valley that Karen told us to take. It was across the road from the wallaby we stopped to see. The wallaby was just sitting there, and it stayed put as we slowly drove right up to it. Later, we debated: Was it really a kangaroo? They’re so much alike, but this one was smaller and had the compact ears of a wallaby.
We found our cottage on the edge of Halls Gap and loved its front deck so much that we bought some ravioli and sauce and had dinner there. At the grocery store, a sunbleached young clerk spotted the koru that Torsten’s been wearing every day and shouted, “Dude! Is that greenstone?” Turns out he’s a Kiwi fan, as is the store owner, who said goodbye in Maori after he checked us out.
We made it to Boroko Lookout on Mount Difficult in time to see a spectacular panorama edged in pink (see photo at top of post). As Torsten took photos, Beth walked the first part of a 6km trail back to Halls Gap, lined with rounded sandstone boulders that looked like gray Play-Doh squashed by a toddler’s fist.
It was a beautiful evening, so we prowled around downtown Halls Gap in search of ice cream and heard rocking blues music coming from Livefast Cafe. Guitarist James Bennett was playing, so we got a slice of marzipan-chocolate cake and sat down to listen. Nightlife in little Halls Gap — who knew? You never do, until you get there.
Two kangaroos were grazing on the lawn near the cafe, and when one drew itself up to full height, we knew we’d seen a wallaby on the valley road; Beth thought it looked as tall as she is.
There was just one after we left the cafe, and it seemed skittish. When a young woman approached and sat on a picnic table near the kangaroo, it stood stock still for several minutes, then took two very deliberate steps sideways, and finally started grazing again.
Most people just kept going on their way out of the cafe. In Halls Gap, kangaroos are a common sight.