Hopping Around Down Under

Visiting the Rotorua Hot Springs in New Zealand with my parents

Following my excursions in South America and Antarctica, it was time to head onward to new continents.  This started with a short layover of a couple of days in New Zealand.  My parents had been planning a vacation so we worked out timings so that we could spend a few days together in the area around Auckland.  We went to Hobbiton, the glow warm caves, and the hot springs of Rotorua.  After that short family visit, I continued on to Australia while my parents spent another week touring New Zealand.

I arrived in Brisbane, Australia far too late on a Sunday night.  It turned out I had not looked closely enough at my hostel booking and it closed at 10:00 PM.  Which was unfortunate since I arrived there at 11:30 PM.  Luckily, I was able to find a hotel not too far away, so other than spending a little more than I had planned, it was a minor inconvenience.  My first task the next morning was going to the Chinese consulate to get my paperwork started on my Chinese visa.  After the usual bureaucratic annoyances involved in that exercise, I was soon on my way to a small shopping center on the outskirts of Brisbane.

Dinner Time in the Transition Pen

My goal in Australia was to work with wildlife in some way.  During the course of my multiple searches and travel planning, I came across Oceans 2 Earth volunteers.  They are an organization focused on wildlife, based in Australia, and run multiple programs for visiting volunteers.  Now, I was going to be spending a week working with wallabies and kangaroos.  Brian found me in the parking lot of the shopping center and soon we were on our way.  We stopped at a grocery store so I could stock up for the week.  The one restriction that was going to be a bit a little different for me was that they asked me to maintain a vegetarian diet while on the refuge.  So, not surprising to anyone that truly knows me, peanut butter was going to be even more of my staple diet that week.

I want the couch not the pouch…

On the way Brian explained a bit of their history.  He and Lexie used to live in Brisbane, but as they got more involved in taking care of animals, living in the city was obviously not well suited.  They bought some bushland about 45 minutes outside of the city and have spent the past 20 years or so taking care of wallabies, kangaroos, and possums.  The common circumstance is that a kangaroo or wallaby female is hit by a car with a baby in pouch.  The mother is killed, but the pouch protects the baby and it survives.  These are the patients that get brought to Lexie and Brian.  Brian has maintained his normal “9 to 5” while Lexie cares for the animals full-time.  In addition to the wallabies and kangaroos, they also take care of a variety of local possums.

That’s a funny hat…

Soon enough, we had arrived at the Coomalong Care Center, and Brian gave me a brief lay of the land, and showed me to the little cottage where I would be staying.  He told me to go ahead and rest as it would be a couple of hours until the next feeding, and then we could go through more details.  After a brief nap, I was right into the thick of it.  Helping to bottle feed, cutting up fruit for the possums, holding some of the younger wallabies so they got some attention.  There was a surreal moment standing in the kitchen at one point as a small group of wallabies and kangaroos went hopping down the long hallway and past me when I realized this is a completely different scenario than I’ve ever been in before.  It was almost as if I were in a parody of Australia, it was too cliché.  To add to the overly cute aspect, the animals would sleep in woven bags that served as “pouches.”  Sometimes the “pouches” were hanging off of wooden frames, and sometimes cuddled up in baskets with each other.

Substitute pouch

It was easy enough to fall into the pleasant routine of the lifestyle.  I would wake up early to help with the morning feeding and then begin to help clean the house.  You can imagine what a dozen or so wallabies and kangaroos being in a house can do (they aren’t exactly house-broken).  Sometime would be spent taking the joeys outside to begin to transition them.  There was a small enclosure that is used for the really young, and in only small groups at a time.  It is maybe 15 ft x 15 ft, and is basically just an outdoor playpen for them.  But then up on the hill, is the large enclosure, about the size of a residential lot, where older wallabies and kangaroos spend most of their time as they begin to transition to the wild.  Usually, they will go out for a time, and then return to the safety (and ready food supply) of the enclosure.

Bottle feedings happened 6 times a day around the clock

I was able to witness the incredible amount of love that Lexie puts into this calling.  I began regularly feeding two wallabies that shared a basket and often spent time together.   They were named Indy and Lolly.  One day, after we had been up in the enclosure, Lexie found Lolly kind of a daze.  Lexie put her back in her pouch and into the basket to rest.  Later that evening, when time for feeding, I couldn’t get Lolly to drink anything at all.  Lexie tried as well, but also with no luck.  In fact, she noticed that Lolly seemed to be almost paralytic on one side. Over the next few hours, the focus was on Lolly.  Lexie’s theory was that somehow, she may have taken a tumble and had a severe head or neck injury.  Her breathing seemed to weaken and struggle as well.  Phone calls were made, along with efforts to medicate.  The decision was made that, if she survived the night, we would take her to the Australia Zoo and its wildlife hospital the next day.  However, it did not look promising.  Lexie sat next to me on the couch, cradling Lolly, while Brian was on the phone.  Lexie’s eyes began to well up as she quietly cursed.  As many animals as had come in and out of this woman’s life, this one she held meant the world to her.  Just like each and every one of the others did as well.  It was humbling to witness.  I awkwardly tried to comfort her with a hand on her shoulder, not really know what to do or say.

With Indy and Lolly

A few hours later, as luck would happen, Lolly seemed to perk up.  She still did not seem to be quite right, but she was definitely more active.  Lexie and Brian began to think that maybe she had just been slightly stunned or had a small concussion.  But at least things looked more promising than they had only a short time earlier.  The next morning, I went with Lexie and Judy, one of the permanent volunteers, to the Australia Zoo to get Lolly checked out.  It was such an awe-inspiring opportunity to be in this place.  This was the home zoo of Steve Irwin, and I was able to get a behind the scenes look at the wildlife hospital as Lolly was getting checked out.  It was a testament to investment in conservation, with a state of the art facility dedicated to Australia’s wildlife.  Lexie also told me they occasionally due work on the zoo’s animals there as well, and one time she saw a tiger under anesthesia there.  I simply was able to see a koala with a small green cast on its arm.   Quotes from biologists and conservationists adorned the walls, including one that stood out to me, attributed to the Audubon society: “A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his father, but borrowed from his children.”

The prognosis of Lolly was about as expected, wait and observe.  She seemed much better, but they would need to keep an eye on her.  We headed back, and the atmosphere was much lighter than it had been the evening before.  Unfortunately, my time there was drawing to a close.  In a few days, we did one last night out in Brisbane with some of the permanent volunteers, and then Brian and Lexie dropped me off at my hostel.  I was about to continue on with my Australian adventure.

In the Daintree Rainforest

I spent a few days exploring more around Brisbane, including a trip to nearby Stradbrook Island, which Brian had recommended, and the Lone-Pine Koala sanctuary, the oldest such sanctuary in Australia.  After my short time around Brisbane, I took a flight north to Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef.  My first day in Cairns was a day tour up to the Daintree Rainforest to see that ecosystem, as well as learn a little bit about the aboriginal culture there.  The symbiotic relationship between the people and the environment was breathtaking.  I was most taken by the fact that in pre-colonial times, they would bury their dead in the hollowed trunks of certain trees so that they would become one with the forest.  This is why, before entering, we actually took part in a welcoming ceremony, walking through smoke as part of purification as we entered such a sacred place.  What was also interesting was some of the similar adaptations that these rainforest aboriginal people had made when compared to what I learned in the Amazon region about the indigenous people there.  Unfortunately, much as is true with indigenous peoples around the world, the aboriginal people of Australia are among the poorest in the country.  Luckily, Mossman Gorge Center where I visited, is actually run by and helps to train the local indigenous people.

Diving in the Great Barrier Reef

My next week was spent getting my SCUBA certification and diving on the Great Barrier Reef.  I was a little nervous at first about how I would act underwater, but I found it to be such an amazing and calming experience.  Then being able to spend four days and three nights staying on a boat, hopping around spots on the Great Barrier Reef was thrilling.  Just the expansive sight of the reef from the surface was breathtaking.  Seeing such a diverse array of wildlife in such an alien environment is a life experience that cannot be taken for granted.  I actually learned that many of the professional dive excursions actually don’t take the majority of divers to the truly pristine places on the reef in order to better protect them (and with my clumsy efforts in the water, that is definitely a smart decision.)  There is special concern now especially given the reports of recent years about the growing expanses of bleached coral due to rising water temperatures.  The experiences I had in those depths, from witnessing a sting ray burrow into the sand to a moray eel popping out of its cave to look around.  From finding myself surrounded by tropical fish, to diving at night with a UV flashlight to witness the bioluminescent life of the reef.  These experiences just add to the belief of how critical it is for us to protect such wonders of creation.

Glowing Coral during a UV Fluorescent Dive


More Information and How You Can Help

Australian Wildlife:

Oceans2Earth Volunteers: The organization I organized my travel with and my placement at Coomalong.  They are based in Australia but have projects around the world.

RSPCA Queensland: Supports many animal welfare programs including wildlife carers such as Lexie and Brian

Queensland Wildlife Rehabilitation Council: A group that represents the different wildlife care organizations around Queensland.  They also have ways you can help and links to other organizations.

Australia Zoo: The home zoo of Steve Irwin and where I got to see an amazing wildlife hospital in action.  Here is a link to their “How you can make a difference” page

Aboriginal Peoples:

Mossman Gorge Center: The organization I visited in the Daintree Rainforest.  It is run by the local community and works to help train aboriginal youth for careers

A list of Australian charities that works with the aboriginal population

Great Barrier Reef:

Eye on the Reef: A project sponsored by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority of the Australian Government that allows visitors from around the world to help with monitoring the Great Barrier Reef

Fight for our Reef: A campaign run by the Australian Marine Conservation Society.  They have different issues they are working all in order to help the GBR.