Wildlife wonders and far-out flora on a nature trip through Australia’s eastern states
All along this coast the atmosphere from wildlife (not to mention humans) is appealingly untamed
March 14, 2014 | By:
On a journey across New South Wales and Queensland, Robin Barton finds awe-inspiring scenery and wildlife. It’s a nature lover's treat round these parts, he says
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Make like a turtle and dive in: the Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef

Everywhere I went along the eastern side of Australia I kept my eyes open for wildlife. More than 900 plant species, 200 bird species and 60 mammal species thrive here. Not forgetting the 100 species of reptiles and amphibians.

At first my encounters with birdlife tended to be in audio rather than visual. This, paradoxically, makes the birds easier to identify. Does it sound like the crack of a whip? That’s a whipbird. Does it sound like a mewling cat? That’s a catbird. A rifleshot? That’s a riflebird.

You get the idea. And if you hear a car alarm or mobile phone, that’ll be an Albert’s Lyrebird, an elusive but accomplished mimic.


My journey started in New South Wales. From Sydney’s coastal headlands I watched for migrating humpback whales, which spend much of the year (May to November) travelling up or down the coast.Byron Bay, far north of Sydney, is also a popular spot for whale watching.

Many of the famous beaches here are bordered by national parks and forests, which means that world-class wildlife watching can be combined with a day or two in the surf.

Inland from Sydney, at the incomparable Blue Mountains – so gargantuan in scale that one expects to see a T-Rex crashing through the undergrowth – I took a base in Katoomba, and set forth on bushwalks. My companion and I found ourselves alone with the sounds of nature and this World Heritage-listed site’s landscape of canyons, cliffs and gullies.

Ancient natural wonders

One minute we were beneath a canopy of fragrant eucalyptus; the next on an outcrop heroically surveying a valley. Stay on track and you’ll have a great time, and don’t forget the more tame nature, either. At the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden, Mount Tomah, not far from Katoomba, I saw one of the world’s rarest and most ancient plants, the enigmatic Wollemi Pine.

There are about 900 national parks, forests and reserves in New South Wales, once part of the ancient continent of Gondwana, before Australia broke apart from Antartica and South America. The result is that you’ll find ancient species here such as cycads, Antarctic beech and hoop pine which, we can safely assume, was once dinosaur food.

One of the most compellingly beautiful landscapes is at Lord Howe Island, off the north coast of the state and a short flight away from Sydney or Brisbane. Some come here for the beach life and the astonishing coral but, for me, the birds and plants matched those attractions, with 64 species of flowering plants as well as colonies of woodhen and seabirds. It has its own atmosphere, as if a Madagascar of Australia.

'The Three Sisters' look out over the Blue Mountains

Legend says these unusual rocks formed when three sisters were turned to stone. Photo by James Horan

Weird and wonderful wildlife

The further north you go, towards Cairns, the weirder the wildlife gets. Everybody knows about Australia’s koalas and the platypus, one of just two egg-laying mammals. But up here kangaroos can live in trees and the forest floor is patrolled by the Southern Cassowary, a five-foot-tall dome-headed throwback to the age of dinosaurs.

These remarkable birds can even be seen in the towns, such as Mission Beach. All along this coast the atmosphere from wildlife (not to mention humans) is appealingly untamed, with flocks of raucous cockatoos a daily sight.

Continuing north, the Atherton Tablelands, inland from Cairns, have more than 300 bird species, with more migrants arriving from October to April. The Daintree Rainforest, a vast World Heritage Site in the far north of Queensland, draws wildlife lovers from all over the world.

Uniquely, it’s here that 130 million-year-old forests meet the Great Barrier Reef, another Unesco-protected site, the size of the UK, Switzerland and Holland combined.

Both are extraordinarily diverse. The forest is home to 430 bird species, while the reef, from its estuary shallows to its oceanic depths, boasts 1,500 types of fish, six species of turtle, numerous whales and dolphins, more than 100 sharks and rays and one of earth’s most vital colonies of dugong.

So vast is Australia’s natural offering that it’s often the small finds that really make your day. In Queensland my guide spied a small brown bird that others might miss, and was in rapture. “It’s a Spotted Pardalote,” he whispered. “I haven’t seen one of those for 20 years. Now that is special.”

Five great nature experiences

The Great Barrier Reef is a wonder, the largest coral reef in the world. Simply a must-do, it’s all here: snorkelling, diving and sailing.

Cape Tribulation is the only place in the world where two World Heritage Sites – the Daintree Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef – meet. Stay in luxury at Silky Oaks Lodge on the Mossman River.

The Lyrebird Track in Wollumbin National Park is home to a bounty of wildlife, from the treetops to the forest floor.

The Blue Mountains, close to Sydney, are New South Wales’ busiest, biggest nature experience. They have astonishing vistas, with blue shimmer over the eucalyptus canopy.

Neds Beach on Lord Howe Island Wade into the sparkling water here to hand-feed the fish. There’s a veritable feeding frenzy of mullet, wrasse, garfish, silver drummer, spangled emperor and king fish.