I’d been on Kangaroo Island for less than an hour when I spotted my first bit of wildlife: a koala perched high in the branches of a blue-gum eucalyptus tree. It wasn’t an easy sighting: the large-eared marsupial sat camouflaged among the tree’s slender leaves, and only caught my eye when he reached an arm out for feeding. Of course, I’d already known he was there, thanks to my skillful guide, who had spotted him early that morning. Over the next two days, my guide’s expertise would come in even more handy as we traversed the island together, seeking out playful New Zealand fur seals beneath the cover of the weather-sculpted Admirals Arch, watching for ‘roos and wallabies in the vast grasslands of Flinders Chase National Park, and encountering Australian sea lions resting lazily on the sand dunes of Seal Bay Conservation Park. Still, when it came to local wildlife we’d only just scratched the surface.
With 1,701 square miles of rugged wilderness, Australia’s Kangaroo Island—or “KI” as the locals call it—is a sight to behold. It’s the country’s third largest island, with 300 miles of coastline, landscapes that range from native bushland to rolling sand dunes, and surrounded by waters that are unbelievably blue. In many ways, KI is like Australia in miniature, a place where natural scenery abounds and wildlife thrives, the latter in part because the island is void of natural predators, like foxes, dingoes, and rabbits. In fact, some of Australia’s most storied animals call Kangaroo Island home—Tammar wallabies, koala bears, and of course, the island’s namesake marsupial—along with a few of the country’s more elusive species, including the quill-covered, short-beaked echidna and platypus, known for their webbed feet and duck-like bills. At night, Fairy Penguins (so-named for their small size) make their way onto locals shore after spending the day feeding in nearby waters, and marsupials known as southern brown bandicoots forage for insects and fungi under the cover of darkness. Although located less than 10 miles off the coast of South Australia, Kangaroo Island feels worlds away from the bustle of any big city, as well as being compact enough to not overwhelm. Both of these traits appealed to me immediately.
Let’s face it: Australia is a large country, with a ton of things to see, do, delight, and amaze. From the cassowary-filled tropical rainforests of its Queensland state to Western Australia’s Rottnest Island, home to furry and friendly quokkas—dubbed the “happiest animal on earth,” and the legendary Great Barrier Reef, one of the world’s Seven Natural Wonders, Oz can feel formidable if you try and tackle it all at once. In fact, Australia’s national parks and conservation areas number in the thousands. Government agencies in each of Australia’s eight states and territories individually manage the bulk of them, since overseeing them at a national level would be a colossal task. As would attempting to visit too many of them in a single trip. That’s why Nat Hab’s 12-day Australia South: Tasmania, Kangaroo Island, and the Great Ocean Road focuses on a dedicated swath of Australia’s southern portion and its most alluring natural spaces, giving participants the most bang for their buck.
This diverse ‘Safari Down Under’ covers sections of three Australian states—South Australia, Victoria, and Tasmania, which also happens to be Oz’s largest island—experiencing some of their most breathtaking parks and landscapes en route. We’re talking spectacular coastal cliffs, darkened carves that transform into stellar bioluminescent light shows, and fern-filled forests where incredible wildlife resides. Throughout the expedition, participants replenish in some of southern Australia’s most fabled cities: Adelaide, South Australia’s welcoming, easy-going capital, known for its entertaining street buskers and endless festivities; Melbourne, the country’s “cultural capital” replete with art galleries, coffee houses, and top-notch eateries; and Hobart, a vibrant harbor town with a burgeoning craft beer scene. The excursion also highlights the historic homelands of indigenous Australians such as the Kaurna and the Gadubanud peoples.
But while Kangaroo Island is awe-inspiring in its own right, it’s only the beginning of an incredible journey across southern Australia.
Occupying a coastal section of southeastern Australia, Victoria may be the country’s second-smallest state, but it’s also one sporting a topography that’s both eye-catching and diverse. Here you’ll find mountains that are often snow capped, beaches ripe for surfing, and wine-producing valleys. In addition, Victoria is home to one of Australia’s most epic drives, the Great Ocean Road. This nearly 150-mile-long epic stretch winds through verdant rainforests and eucalypt woodlands where koalas can often be spotted nestling in the trees; passes along tucked-away beaches with names like ‘Loch and Gorge’ and ‘Apollo Bay;’ and offers striking views of both the Bass Strait—separating the Australian mainland and Tasmania, and the Southern Ocean.
Great Otway National Park
Beginning at the Great Ocean Road and reaching up through Victoria’s Otways hinterland, the 398-square-mile Great Otway National Park is home to giant tree ferns, gushing waterfalls, ancient forests, and dramatic sea cliffs that descend toward sandy beaches. Along with plenty of beachside walks and nature trails, the park even has some towering California Redwoods hiding in its midst. Climb to the top of its 19th century Cape Otway Lightstation, mainland Australia’s oldest surviving lighthouse, to look for migrating whales, or seek out ‘roos, wallabies, and echidnas from the park’s paths and roadways.
Port Campbell National Park
One of the most famous sites along Australia’s Great Ocean Road is the 12 Apostles, a collection of massive ocean-carved limestone stacks that rise upwards, nearly 160-feet-high from the sea, within close proximity to each other. Their name is a misnomer, since there were only eight stacks to begin with (one fell in 2005), but it doesn’t make them any less grand. Keep an eye out for Fairy Penguins that feed in the surrounding marine park—one abundant with kelp forests, sponge gardens, and soft corals where sealife like lobsters and reef fish reside. Some of Port Campbell’s other notable features include The Grotto, a rock formation that’s both blow-hole and cave, and the London Arch.
Australia’s only island-state boasts an incredible array of wildlife, including the almost-mythical Tasmanian devil—an endangered carnivorous marsupial that looks nothing like its Looney Tunes caricature—wombats, bettongs (often referred to as “rat-kangaroos”), and a dozen endemic bird species. It’s Australia’s most mountainous state, as well as its wildest. In fact, close to half of Tasmania’s more-than 26,000 square miles are protected as national parks and World Heritage Sites.
Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair National Park
Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair National Park is part of the Tasmanian World Heritage Wilderness Area, which covers nearly twenty-five percent of the state. It’s home to glacier-carved lakes, deep river gorges, and ancient rainforests covered in rich green moss, not to mention a ton of other incredible landscapes and wildlife to boot. Keep an eye out for Tasmanian devils and wombats, and spotted-tail quolls, which nest in the park’s rocky outcroppings.
One of the park’s most prominent features is Cradle Mountain, which rises 5,069 feet above sea level at its northern boundary. It’s also where you’ll find Australia’s deepest freshwater lake, Lake St Clair, located at the park’s southern end. This delightful 17-square-mile body of water sits amid dense pine forests and rising mountains that create a picture-perfect backdrop. ‘Roo cousins known as pademelons are frequent lakeside visitors, but some of the area’s rarer wildlife, such as egg-laying echidnas and platypus, reside here too.
Mole Creek Karst National Park
Situated on the edge of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area in the island-state’s north, Mole Creek Karst National Park is renowned for its ancient ‘karst’ landscape. In fact, it’s Tasmania’s only national park created specifically to protect karst formations and houses more than 300 known caves. Marakoopa Cave, an underground limestone landscape of hanging stalactites, underground streams, and a huge cavern known as the Great Cathedral, is one of its most famous. The cave also hosts an abundance of glowworms: insect larvae that emit light like millions of tiny stars, creating one of the most illuminating shows on the planet.
Freycinet National Park
Wild and dramatic beauty is par for the course at Freycinet National Park, located along Tasmania’s rugged east coast. Along with its long, white sand beaches and rocky coves, visitors flock here to soak in the pristine views of Wineglass Bay, one of the island-state’s most picturesque spots, and take in the natural beauty of The Hazards, a low-slung mountain range made up of pink granite peaks that rise above the bay’s clear waters. The park itself is teeming with bird life, including Cape Barren geese and black swans, a red-billed water bird that’s synonymous with southern Australia.
Maria Island National Park
Another popular spot among bird watchers, mountainous Maria Island (approximately 42 miles from Tasmania’s coast) is a natural wildlife sanctuary and historic area known for its diverse wildlife, including one of Australia’s rarest birds—the forty-spotted pardalote—as well as eastern bettongs, Tasmanian devils, and forester kangaroos (a Tasmanian-only subspecies). It’s also home to a long convict and industrial history, some of the ruins of which still stand today. The island’s aptly named Fossil Cliffs are made up of thousands of ancient corals, scallop shells, sea fans and other marine life, while its Painted Cliffs swirl with colorful sandstone patterns that are continuously changed by waves. Seals, dolphins, and whales are regular visitors to the waters surrounding the island.