We awoke the next day and travelled about thirty minutes down the road to a place called the Billabong Sanctuary. Less of a zoo and more of an intimate reserve for local fauna we’d had the place recommended and while the weather was perfect it seemed like the ideal way to spend a day – and it was also reasonably priced so if it turned out to be a dud we could wander away without feeling to out of pocket.
Thankfully it was anything but a dud. The place is a gem. Each day for the animals follows the same routine with up close and personal meet & greets with some of the more prominent characters and enough time in between to get around and see all the other wildlife.
First up was Cassowary feeding and we arrived just in time to get over and see most of that. Given the few folks about in what was effectively low season everyone got to hand over huge chunks of fruit that disappeared the moment the big birds latched onto them. They’re easiest to liken to ostriches but are much more colourful and have huge casques on their heads giving the effect of a permanent Mohican.
Done with the birds it was over to meet Tonka the wombat. This little chief was more than happy to sit flopped on the knee of the keeper while we were all given the 101 on what makes wombats tick. They’re literally hard-arses, with a kind of built in bone shield over their lower back that protects them from would-be predators by allowing them to wedge themselves in their burrows and take all manner of punishment without feeling a thing. The occasional crushed skull found in wombat holes has led to suggestions that a miffed combat wombat can end the afore-mentioned engagement with a swift ass in the air too. Tonka was in full health when we met him having recovered from a spate of depression and weight-loss when the park was closed after a cyclone and he wasn’t able to get his daily dose of hugs and attention.
After swinging by Jacko the cockatoo we were over to meet the Koalas. They were typically cute and relatively docile given the lack of nutrition a eucalyptus leaf provides. Then it was over to have a boa constrictor wrapped around us and meet a blue-tongued lizard and a little croc with Selotape over his snoz.
So far despite having covered a great deal of ground in the month or so that we’d been in country kangaroo sightings had been few and far between and fleeting to boot. This place certainly made up for that as they free-roamed the whole sanctuary – grabbing a bag of food from the front desk meant instant marsupial friends of all sizes. They’re wonderful animals and I have to say fairly tasty as steaks too.
We grabbed our usual van-lunch and then fed a few turtles who were surprisingly nippy and only too happy to wolf down a little fish. During this little session a few of us noticed a rogue crocodile sneaking around in the unfenced lake amongst the turtles close by. Had it been a full size chap there may have been cause for concern but he wasn’t much bigger than the taped up fella we’d met earlier and seemed content to watch from a distance as the park team chewed over what to do about the new arrival.
Dingo’s were next – you’d be forgiven for thinking them pedigree pooches they were so well looked after. They were beautiful. At the end of the day they’re wild animals but I guess the fact that they look so similar to domesticated dogs seems to run against them. Farmers are only too happy to cull them to protect their livestock and conservation efforts are compromised by public backlash whenever anyone fails to take the appropriate care and gets injured or even killed. As the human population grows there’s going to be less and less unoccupied land for wild pack animals to roam freely and continue to live as they always have so they’ll be confined to smaller and smaller areas until they’re gone altogether.
We moved on to the alligator and crocodile pens. As we arrived at a seemingly empty pen (not uncommon – some others had been) the handler started tossing pieces of wood over the fence to no effect. The third such throw landed just at the water’s edge at which point a huge croc called Psycho launched himself out of the murky depths with lightning speed smashing his jaws into his absent pray before disappearing again almost as quickly. A few seconds later it was as if nothing had happened. A glimpse of how silent and then instant these predators can be.
It was shortly after this that I was subject to the most horrific and violent crocodile attack. Had the perpetrator been any bigger than the 12 inches he was I’d surely have lost the finger. As it was I was just left with a few puncture wounds from the bugger. It’ll teach me to put my finger in his mouth when prompted though I suppose. Another baby alligator was fed and demonstrated the barrel-roll approach to ripping one’s dinner apart – thankful my attacker was adequately constrained or given the power demonstrated by the spinning one it may well have been the whole arm gone.
We made our way over to see a bird show involving Owls and a Kite before the final session of the day saw us introduced to the planet’s 3 deadliest snakes – king brown, eastern brown snake and coastal taipan – which are all native to Australia. Snakes don’t tend to stick around when they feel the vibrations of anything approaching so you have to be pretty unlucky and usually inadvertently corner one for any real threat to materialise. Should the fangs land we were informed that a compression bandage can do wonders in terms of limiting the spread of the venom and buy you priceless time to get proper medical attention.
We had a great day at the Billabong Sanctuary; such day trips are not normally my cup of tea but the way the place is run and the variety of animals on show just made it a nice way to spend a day.
We hopped back in the vans and rolled to Home Hill for a free campsite that Rob had once again diligently located. We weren’t expecting much but got facilities in excess of a significant number of paid for sites including fully equipped kitchen and hot showers. We went to sleep after food relatively early as we had an early start for more Scuba diving around the SS Yongala wreck.