When he was about 12 years old, my son Paul wrote a letter to Steve Irwin in the far away country of Oz, asking if he could work at Australia Zoo when he was older. Several months later Paul received a big fat letter from Australia Zoo telling him that they normally give preference to Australian kids but that he should visit when he’s older. Steve probably never saw Paul’s letter and neither did he write back himself but someone did and it was a huge moment for the whole D-B clan. That was before Steve died. When he was killed by the Stingray, the whole family was upset. A lot of years have passed since then but fond memories remain. In 2010, during my first road trip with Roddy from Port Hedland to Perth, I saw a Steve doll strapped to the front of a ute in Denham at Shark Bay. When you pressed its breast pocket it said “Crocs Rule” and “Crikey”, “We work hard protecting endangered animals” and so on. Roddy being the romantic he is, later bought me one of these dolls on eBay and Steve has been riding on the dashboard during our trip from the start. Unfortunately he now has a sun-bleached, yellow face but he still talks!
Australia Zoo is just an hour north of Brisbane and so it was a no-brainer to take the turn-off at Steve Irwin Way!! I had to go. Roddy wasn’t that bothered as he doesn’t have the animal nut gene but he was happy spending a quiet day in the van in the car park under the shade of a coolabah tree (the advantage of having a motorhome – everywhere is home).
I can’t even begin to tell you how excited I was, skipping along like a kid. Australia Zoo is big and designed more like a park than a zoo. There are no real enclosures in the traditional sense. Animals are grouped into either compatible groups or into continental groups.
There is Africa and Asia and then there is Bindi’s Island, which is surrounded by a moat because the animals on the island don’t like water – no other fence necessary.
Visitors can wander around freely, mingling with the animals where they are not dangerous. Tigers, snakes and crocs are safely away from people though but the habitat is kept as natural as possible. Everywhere there are staff, dressed in the typical Steve Irwin gear, holding animals that can be stroked or seen close up like koalas, dingos, eagles and owls.
Others hold educational talks about specific species like the koala and the tiger ones I attended.
I learned that koalas spend a lot of time sleeping, not because they are lazy but because they need all this time digesting the nutrient poor eucalypt leaves that they eat, making the most of whatever calories they can get from them. Baby Koalas don’t have the strong enzymes yet that they need in order to digest these slightly toxic leaves so their mothers produce a bacteria laden slimy poo called pap at the baby’s six months stage, when they first emerge from the pouch, for the babies to eat. Lovely! Normally they produce the usual dry marsupial nugget poos – just so you know! Once the babies have had their dose of pap they are good to go, eating their gum leaves. Not the best evolutionary development I think. Their restricted diet makes koalas very vulnerable, especially as they only eat 50 varieties of gum leaves from over 1000 different ones available. Fussy eaters! What else did I learn? Like wombats, koalas have cartilage bottoms to allow them to sit on branches for hours on end, digesting. Their fur, though, is the softest thing imaginable and incredibly thick, like sticking your fingers into the most luxurious, soft carpet pile. I could have stroked my koala forever.
The Crocoseum is where the croc show takes place – you have seen it before on telly no doubt.
The funny thing was that the chosen croc was a bit sluggish that day and didn’t perform the way the handlers wanted him to. He still jumped out of the water to get his chicken but he was apparently harder to engage than usual. His name was Alan – the croc’s that is. Snigger. Before Alan was brought out, the handlers let various parrots and cockatoos fly across the Crocoseum and over the audience. They let some Australian storks loose, and walked dingos passed the audience! The dingos were being trained and behaved just like dogs as you can imagine but with a certain fierceness in their eyes.
In the afternoon I was lucky enough to see some croc feeding in an enclosure and found that actually even more interesting than the show in the Crocoseum as it had been a bit too hyper with audience interaction and animation, whereas the feeding was more raw and I was closer to the action. Anyway, I loved everything about Australia Zoo and am so glad I visited, as it had been a wish for a long time. I feel I went there also as a representative of the D-B clan who are all infected with the animal virus. Altogether now! CROCS RULE!
After the zoo we drove on to Nambour on the Sunshine Coast, which is the coastline north of Brisbane. We installed ourselves in the rainforest campsite and got ready for the evening, as we had arranged to meet old friends of Roddy’s.
Bill and his New Zealander wife Carolyn lived nearby. Bill emigrated way back in 1988, around the same time as Roddy but he has only been back in Scotland once since! Roddy and Bill, and later Roddy’s brother Colin, were flatmates in Gibson Street in Glasgow from 1974 till 1977 when Roddy was at Uni. I have heard many stories from those wild days over the years, stories about matrasses being thrown out of top floor windows in the middle of the night, destroying telephone cables on the way down. Best friend and flatmate Alfie’s girlfriend stories; Bunjamin the Kurd’s early German lessons for Roddy (all about sex);when Roddy saw Genesis in the Apollo https://youtu.be/pNa6WKdZ9Ls at 0:45
and Queen in the Queen Margaret Union, both before they were famous (spot Roddy here YouTube clip ); Roddy and Alfie being accused by another flatmate of only being weekend hippies as they would stop their bad habits when exams approached, buckling down, spending time in the Glasgow Uni library; romantic successes in the students’ union, etc…so here was a real life old friend from Roddy’s backpages for me to explore! Unfortunately, though, Bill remained tight-lipped and did not add to my repertoire but then, Roddy is very open about his past and I guess I know most things. Still!
Bill picked us up from the campsite and we drove to an easy-going outdoorsy tavern restaurant where we met Carolyn too and spent interesting and enjoyable hours together. Now retired, Bill plays in a band CopyRyte https://youtu.be/gKecaAYkuZc and goes fishing in his tinnie. Carolyn works part-time in a rose and succulents nursery.
The next morning Bill picked us up again and gave us a guided tour of the Glasshouse Mountains, the Blackall Range and the Sunshine Coast at Mooloolahbar.
We had first spotted the Glasshouse Mountains after leaving Australia Zoo. This is the thing in Australia: you get lots of flat land and then suddenly a rock or several appear from the earth, rocks of the most outlandish shapes. No wonder the traditional owners saw magic in them. They are mesmerising to look at. Most of Australia was once covered by ocean, which explains the flatness as it was a seabed and volcanic eruptions did the rest.
The Glasshouse Mountains are a range of volcanic peaks that were formed when lava erupted through fissures in the earth, shooting upwards. As the mountains arise from level ground, they are visible from far away. The Glasshouse Mountains were named by James Cook as most places are in Australia or so it seems! The mountains apparently reminded him of glass smelters in his native Yorkshire. Roddy and I talked about the funny thought that Cook would have had a Yorkshire accent as in, “Eh ‘up lad, them hompy mountains ‘mind me of glass smelters back hom’. Let’s call ‘em Glasshouse Mountains.” (My apologies to all inhabitants of Yorkshire.)
How strange that we don’t think of these famous historical people as having ordinary roots. Or is that just me? Their humanity somehow gets lost when we encase them in bronze. Seeing them as the humans that they were is healthy and does not take away from their achievements but might make them more inspiring as they and their legacy seem accessible and something to aspire to. Not the conquering, killing and oppressing of course, but the adventuring definitely!
One of the Glasshouse Mountains, Mount Tibrogargan appears to have a human face as mountains often do. Here in Australia, appearances like this are virtually always referenced in an Aboriginal legend and it was no different here. In the legend it is the father of the whole range while Beerwah, the tallest, is the mother. Tibrogargan is the second steepest mountain in the world after Mount Everest.
So onward we drove north to Bundaberg, famous for its rum and ginger beer and for Bert Hinkler, a pioneer of flight.
Hatching turtles – David Attenborough calling!
To many people Bundaberg is famous for its turtles that hatch at nearby Mon Repos beach. https://parks.des.qld.gov.au/parks/mon-repos/turtle-centre.html
Loggerhead turtles, Green turtles and Flatback turtles hatch here between January and the end of March. Eggs are laid in deep nests dug into the sand between November and January and take 6-8 weeks to hatch. The eggs lie 60cm deep because that’s how long the females flippers are which dig the hole. When the turtles are ready to hatch they break out of their soft shells and spend a day eating the yolk as a reward and celebration of being born, I guess. Then, as a group, they make their way to the top, digging upwards in turns for a day or two. Just before they reach the top layer of sand they stop and wait until they feel a drop in temperature, which tells them it’s nighttime. As this is the best time to escape lurking birds, they choose the cover of the night sky to scramble to the beach, attracted by the faint glow of the horizon. Turtles have abandoned most beaches due to humans – who else? They need dark beaches without light interference from towns and even houses. Mon Repos is one of the very few beaches with a black backdrop and therefore plays a significant role in the preservation of these turtle species.
The 50 metres scramble to the beach is enough to impress the beach’s geo-magnetic coordinates into the turtles’ tiny brains so that, ca. 30 years later, they find their way back to lay their first clutch of eggs. The turtles’ sex is determined by the temperature of the sand in which the eggs develop about two weeks before they emerge. Warmer sand creates females, cooler sand determines mainly males, which is why on islands more males hatch than on mainland beaches, which are warmer as the sand is darker and because a big landmass is hotter than a small island. I listened, see?! We had been told to come to the turtle centre at around 6.30 and to prepare for a long night as no one can tell if and when the babies decide that tonight’s the night. Eventually our small group was led to the beach where the rangers had marked nests. As they also do tours and monitor the laying of the eggs in November and December, they know where the nests are and how long they have had to mature. I guess you can imagine how special it was to see those tiny creatures dig their way out of that last layer of sand, to scramble around, orientating themselves and looking for the light of the surf. Any light distraction could send them into the wrong direction and kill them. Of course there were one or two people who had to have their phones out even although we had all been told repeatedly not to have anything on until we were told it was ok. When that happened, I managed to take a couple of blurry photos of the wee turtle and I was also allowed to touch its ruddering flipper. It was like a wind-up toy for the bath!
Touching the little turtle’s flipper I felt its strength that it will need to swim 60km in 2 days before reaching the East Australia Current, or EAC from Nemo fame https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J_7c2y04FtAin which it will drift towards South America, grow and return in 30 years’ time to lay its first clutch of eggs – seen as it was probably female. Of course its chances of surviving to adulthood are slim but I am keeping my flippers crossed for it.
Unfortunately our next stop, Yeppoon, couldn’t compete with the turtles or with what was to come afterwards, so we just vegged about, had a massive “chill” day overlooking the beach to catch up on washing and blogging and just being there. We saw lots of black cockatoos and the beach looked lovely, however we couldn’t swim, as here were those deadly jelly fish but, so what? Instead we managed to catch some sunburn whilst sitting in the shade all day, which was quite shocking after all this time.