Animal parks offer walks on wilder side of Australia

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A hand-raised emu can be an awful pest. Visitors may see the amusing evidence of that when visiting the Australian Reptile Park, located about 90 minutes from Sydney. That is to say, it's amusing if it is not your lunch the emus are after.

Although there are warm-blooded animals about, the park's original focus was reptiles; hence, the name. It is Australia's sole source of venom from poisonous snakes and the funnel-web spider; the venom used to create serums to treat bites from these most dangerous of animals.

Park visitors are treated to daily sessions with snakes, in which a handler demonstrates how he extracts venom. In a private demonstration, I watched a minder milk one for venom.

The snake did not seem to TW.com photo by Nadine Godwingive much venom that day, but our host said that, despite appearances, he'd in fact extracted enough to kill all of four of us adults in the room.

Visitors also can watch the experts milk spiders, but no one ever touches those critters.

In a warm and fuzzy counterpoint to all the snake- and spider-handling, hand-raised kangaroos and koalas live at the park, as well.

Visitors can feed the kangaroos, which roam the grounds freely -- as do those cheeky emus. The koalas are brought out for guests and can be petted, but not on the head; their fur feels like lamb's wool.

Sex sells

The U.S. is the second-largest FIT market for the park, after the U.K., according to Mary Rayner, general manager, and these are mostly self-drive customers. For groups, she said, one park program is called Sex in the Zoo.

Visitors "learn what the animals get up to in the park," she said, adding this is a hit with the U.S. market.

Traveling through gorgeous, green countryside to pet koalas, feed kangaroos and watch someone else handle poisonous snakes makes a unique morning, but it is a relatively tame choice for Australia.

Options can include swimming with dolphins and sea lions, at Baird Bay, for example, or swimming with the world's largest fish, the whale shark, at Coral Bay.

Adventurous tourists don't even have to go to a seashore for a daring encounter with underwater creatures of some magnitude. The Melbourne Aquarium offers its Diving With Sharks experience, a guided tour that brings travelers face-to-face with grey nurse sharks, seven gill sharks and giant stingrays, plus lots of exotic fish.

Other wildlife-oriented choices were equally appealing to the animal lover in me but didn't require knowing how to dive.

Sydney's Taronga Park Zoo has a unique gimmick for luring and educating visitors. Called Roar 'n' Snore, it is a Saturday-night sleep-over at the zoo and includes close contact with selected animals -- a few reptiles, plus the de rigeur kangaroos and koalas -- a night tour of the zoo, winding up at just the right spot for great evening views of the Sydney Harbour Bridge; a morning giraffe feeding; and a behind-the-scenes tour of the zoo kitchens, to learn a few secrets of gourmet dining, wildlife-park-style.

My group of roarers and snorers learned that zoo buyers get first dibs on fresh fruits and vegetables, followed by restaurants, then exporters, then the average consumer. We also tasted a sweet and grainy syrup, a nectar mix created for birds and others, made with wheat, honey and eggs.

We also had a look at other meals in waiting: frozen rats, mice and male chicks plus live worms. In this case, there was no sampling.

I participated in Roar 'n' Snore with about two dozen visitors, mostly Australians, of all ages. We slept in tents on the ground inside the zoo's education center, earning me, I believe, the title of first person in history to sleep on the ground while her luggage resided in a room at a luxury hotel.

Plans are afoot to upgrade the accommodations to make the program more attractive in the overseas market. After the revamping, the program will be promoted abroad.

Penguin paradise

The Taronga Zoo also has a colony of little penguins -- the world's smallest, at about 12 inches tall and 2.2 pounds.

But I had already seen the best show these creatures put on, called the Penguin Parade by its marketers at Phillip Island Nature Park, about 90 minutes from Melbourne.

These penguins live on Australia's coast year-round, spending their days at sea, with some number returning to their nests each evening, like clockwork, at dusk. For safety, they come ashore in groups.

Even in the dim sunset, visitors -- on viewing stands and raised, wooden walkways -- can see these tiny, white-breasted birds emerge from the water and cross the sand in "rafts" of 20 or more. (No photography is allowed, but park managers have added low-wattage lighting that the animals ignore.)

Once safely off the exposed beach, penguins noisily peel off one by one to find their nests, tucked away under trees or on hillsides.

In mating season, up to 2,000 can show up on the beach. At other times, the number is as low as 400, but there's still plenty of entertainment.

Overseas visitors arrive with tours, take day trips from Melbourne or drive in rental cars.

For more, see Australian Reptile Park, www.reptilepark.com.au; Melbourne Aquarium, www.melbourneaquarium.com.au; Taronga Park Zoo, www.zoo.nsw.gov.au; and Phillip Island Nature Park, www.penguins.org.au.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to Nadine Godwin at [email protected].

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