You can't dislike a koala. Fluffy, woolly, slow and friendly. The koala has been my favorite animal ever since I first set foot on the red soil of Australia. We had encountered several koalas on previous trips, at various zoos and in parks that care for injured animals, but meeting a wild koala was high on my bucket list. I love the feeling of quietly watching wild animals from a distance. Try to be invisible and barely breathe, just watch. Get to see part of their everyday life for a little while. But where would I see a koala? Perhaps the chance would be given in Kennett River, along the Great Ocean Road in Victoria. We headed there.
In Kennett River, along the Gray River Road there is an area with hundreds of wild koalas that live both in the thick eucalyptus forest and near the town. You have to be careful when driving in the area, because the koalas often think that the eucalyptus leaves look better on the other side of the road. It's not just the grass that looks greener on the other side, simply…
Although the koala has no natural enemy in Australia, today there are only an estimated 100.000 wild koalas left in Australia. The settlers hunted the koalas for their fur, but today it is rather shrinking wilderness, dogs, cars, forest fires and disease that are the koalas' biggest threats.
We park the car at Kafe Koala & General Store, right at the gate to Gray River Road. Traveling to Australia in winter has its advantages. We are almost alone. The sound level is nevertheless very high. A large flock of cockatoos sits in a eucalyptus tree and screams. Some are probably yelling at each other. Others surely yell at us. Regardless, they lead a gentleman's life.
It really is a perfect day to search for koalas along the Gray River Road. The sun is shining from a clear blue sky and it is around 15 degrees. The sun was even so warm that we could sit outside and have lunch. Winter in South Australia isn't too bad after all.
We spy all the eucalyptus trees we pass. Not a single little sleeping koala is stuck in the clutch of a tree branch. To break down the toxic eucalyptus leaves, the koalas sleep 18 hours a day. Their waking hours are usually at night. That we would see anything other than a sleeping koala was almost unlikely on a day like this.
We think we see koalas in almost every tree. Old eucalyptus bark with the same color as a koala fools us time and time again. We turn around towards the car and go back. It just wasn't our day today.
I don't remember which of us saw it first. Or maybe all three of us saw it at the same time. In a tree we passed once already. Suddenly it was just there. The little furry koala butt.
In a tree right next to the road, the little koala sits and sleeps. Huddled together like a little ball in a clump of trees. It is said that koalas hug eucalyptus trees for coolness in the summer and warmth in the winter. The sleeping koala doesn't seem to be in any trouble. The winter cold does not bite into the bones and marrow here in Australia.
We stop and look at it for several minutes. Maybe longer than that. It looks so fragile where it sits, high up in the tree. How come it doesn't fall down? Do koalas never have nightmares or sleepwalk?
Something is happening. One leg moves slightly to the side. The back straightens. We stand completely silent and hardly dare to think a thought. The koala stretches its head. It looks like it's yawning. Our friend has woken up. I blame the squawking cockatoos, who can sleep in that noise?
Koalas are one of the few animals that basically do not drink water. The koalas extract all the water they need from the eucalyptus leaves, but this also means that they need to eat large amounts of leaves every day. Our friend in the tree barely has time to finish yawning, before it starts climbing out onto one of the branches with fine, green leaves. The koala climbs further and further out on the branch. Suddenly the koala jumps over to another branch. I think my heart stopped. No one can call that hope graceful, rather death-defying. My goodness little friend, that doesn't feel stable at all!
The koala goes further and further out on the branch. The branch bends more and more. It approaches the leaves at the far end of the branch, but suddenly seems completely disinterested. When the koala has almost reached the end of the narrow branch, to the point where I find myself silently counting the strength of the branch, the koala quickly stands up on its hind legs! What are you doing little friend? Don't fall down now!
The koala grabs the branch above and sits down and begins to eat. My heartbeat calms down. Who would have thought that encountering a wild koala would be so nerve-wracking? This was action I hadn't expected!
We sneak away, leaving the koala to enjoy his lunch break in peace. A little closer to the parking lot, there is rustling in the foliage. Is there another koala that has woken up? It turns out to be a flock of king parrots, eagerly waiting to be fed. They quickly realize that I am not an ordinary bus tourist. Wild animals get no food from me.
What day! Koalas really are real rock stars. They are not only fluffy, woolly, slow and friendly - but also daring daredevils. Another reason to love koalas, quite simply.
Where can I see wild koalas?
Wild koalas are now found almost exclusively in eastern Australia, from Victoria to Queensland. Kennett River, 16 miles south-west of Melbourne, is home to hundreds of wild koalas.
Gray River Road
Kennett River VIC 3234
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