I am one of the late Steve Irwin’s greatest fans, although at first I was unsure that his larger-than-life-persona was not just that; a persona. Something he took off like a hat when he got home. I soon learned my mistake by watching one episode of his program where his wife and he came across a large pod of whales that had beached themselves and lay dying in the sun. Steve was heartbroken and it was very clear to me that he was genuinely upset. Steve Irwin, I realised, was the real deal.
So when, on the coach on way to the zoo, they showed parts of a movie about Steve I had to bite back the tears one sheds when a personal hero and icon speaks to you from beyond the grave. Luckily I was wearing my sunglasses. The coach in question was the free transfer from the towns surrounding the zoo and had picked us up from outside our hostel in Caloundra north of Brisbane. That hostel was called City Backpackers alike a motel and had a real (shock!) bed. It was also clinically clean, however the reception left a little to be desired and we had a hard yomp from the coach stop to the front door.
We arrived at the zoo.
In my country, zoos are places with cages and animals are let out once or twice a day. At Australia Zoo the animals have a lot of space to run around in and all look very fit and healthy. The experience is very well managed and highly branded, which if you don’t feel the same about the Irwin’s as I, will probably start to grate very quickly. There are lots of “crikey!” slogans on things and all the staff are wearing the “traditional” Crocodile Hunter shirts. This all pays homage to Steve, but I must admit to being a little “freaked” by the marketing of his daughter Bindi, who apparently has her own TV show together with a boy band of dancers called “The Croc Men”. They performed (a rare treat) live on stage for the crowd and she certainly has a lot of talent for a little girl and the younger members of the large half-term-holidays audience got up and danced along with her.
I don’t think that it is financial reward that drives these people to run this zoo. Buried in every song, every demonstration and every information board was a very hard hitting pro-environmental message. The Australia Zoo machine may turn to the cha-ching of cash tills, but this is cash being used not to line shareholders pockets. Rather it is being plowed into the zoo itself so that it may expand and also to the law suit the company are fighting against a gang of strip-miners threatening the “reserve” given to the zoo as a honour from the government after Steve’s death.
Each section has a feeding on schedule together with the keeper giving a talk about the animal and you can plan your trip around the zoo by simply following one from one show to another. The highlight comes when you make it to the massive “Crocoseum” for the big show.
There were simply too many fantastic moments here to do a full list, but here are my personal highlights:
These two little chaps raced around their pond constantly playing with each other and enjoying all the attention they were getting.
The Kimodo Dragon – a personal highlight of my life! I have long been in love with this massive monster from the past since I was only a boy watching David Attenborough. It was as big as me! Dragons are really dangerous not just because or their size or aggressive temperament, but also because their mouths are so foul that their saliva acts as a poison.
We all like a cuddle but these Giant Tortoises love to have their shells rubbed by their keepers. One of the longest living creatures they certainly moved fast enough to munch down their breakfast of lettuces and cabbages.
Normally if you are this close to a Salt Water Croc you are in serious trouble. These two were thankfully relaxing behind the mesh wall of their large enclosure. The big one on the right was so big and so still that many people thought he was a model. Massive jaws slowly opened and a reptilian eye affixed itself on the doubters. This was the real live Aggro the Salt Water Crocodile all right and he looked hungry!
Any time spent in the presence of Australia’s most famous animal is time well spent. They are a pure delight and actually quite nimble. One awoke while we photographed it and accidentally stood on his bed fellow. A large screech sounded and the accused Koala leapt 4 feet from one tree to another! Like little furry Yodas they are always either snoozing or munching on the leaves being constantly fed to them.
The animal that made Steve famous didn’t disappoint. Even the keepers, who deal with these monsters every day, were wary of this massive Salty’ Croc who was the highlight of the main show in the Crocoseum. The show had started with snakes and then onto an amazing bird show before the elephants arrived. Finally, after a dangerous music had started, they let in a croc. He swam confidently up the small and shallow fake lake towards the keepers who were thrashing the water to egg him on. It was like sharing the show with a true Dinosaur. To me crocodiles are one of the most amazing creatures on this planet. Natural predators and undisputed kings of their domains. Eventually this Salty got bored with the team and swam back into his lair. A royal snub for the crowd, but I was enthralled with his majesty anyway.
There are two types of people in the world; those who love Elephants and those who REALLY love Elephants. Cesca is defiantly the latter. The level of intelligence in these massive creatures eyes is incredible. The level of dexterity in their trunks is even more thrilling to watch. These two had a long history and had retired to their big domain that dominates the north end of Australia zoo. While it took a while to get to here it was worth every minute we spent with two of the world’s most prized assets.
The serpents of Australia are as varied as the country itself. From the deadly, such as the aptly named “Death Adder”, to the simply huge, like the fabulously large Reticulated Python (I have seen a photo of one of these that was 28ft long and had a head as big as Labrador!). All are best viewed like this: behind glass. I am not afraid of snakes and they don’t cause the same reaction in me as spiders do, but even I wouldn’t like to get too close to these as the descriptions all alluded to nightmare visions of being stuck in the outback with one of them attached to your toe. For some of them that would be all that was said of you, “and then he trod on a snake…” Still while you were convulsing your last gasps of breath you would get to admire some of natures most beautiful creatures. Snakes are canny looking monsters and I enjoyed peering at them for a good hour.
So those were my personal highlights. There were so many more I could have gone on and on. Such as the super cool Wombats being led around on leashes, or the Water Dragons that roamed the Crocodile areas. Or my first encounter with a Tasmanian Devil, which wouldn’t stand still, and learning why they are rightly feared. Or even coming face to face with my first Cassowary, which is the largest and most dangerous looking bird I have ever seen. Not to mentions the Tiger or the hordes of Kangaroos.
Suffice to say that up until this point Australia zoo was the highlight of my trip to Australia and I strongly suggest that you make it a highlight of yours too. Steve would have been very proud that although this sanctuary and its inhabitants continue to thrive without him his presence, boundless energy, can-do spirit and personality is written large all over the place. The Crocodile Hunters legend lives on.