“You don’t want to miss Nature World,” said everyone we surveyed. We were told it was brimming with fauna unique to this part of the world. Molly, our chauffeur and guide for the excursion, stuffed us and six other enthusiasts into the Nature World van.
The grounds we entered reminded me of a farmyard, with not much focus on trimming shrubs and grasses along the dirt paths, and mismatched sections of wire fencing. The enclosures, however, were large and provided with shade and amenities specific to each resident species.
Molly walked us over to the first enclosure, and in her jolly mien began very aptly to fill us in on the two large ginger-yellow dingos that stared back at us with gleaming eyes.
“This is the dominant colour of these wild dogs, but some are black and tan or all black. Dingos don’t bark, they yelp or howl—though dingos kept with domestic dogs learn to bark. Unlike domestic dogs, they have long canine teeth to kill for food. Feral rabbits, feral goats, feral pigs, and kangaroo are their mainstay, with a tasty sheep if they can manage it.” Molly told us that these avid carnivores (though herbivorous when in a pinch) have been roaming the Australian landscape for a long time. A study of dingo mitochondrial DNA published in 2004 placed their arrival circa 3000 BC.
I thought of a small friend back home as we approached the next enclosure. Before leaving Canada, ten-year-old Riley had said he was in “total envy” of our visit to Australia, where we would see his favourite marsupial—the kangaroo. The kangaroo and the cuddly koala were the only two animals I knew for sure to be marsupials. I was flabbergasted to find out that there are 150 varieties in Australia, with a dozen of them living in the zoo’s enclosures. Most surprising were the teensy marsupial mice, bounding about like miniature kangaroos.
“Hopping, as opposed to running, saves energy and reduces the amount of water needed to survive,” said Molly.
Next, a bunch of bilbys twitched their noses at us, looking like rabbits with their long ears until they stood on their hind legs, revealing the common denominator of the Marsupialia order of mammals—the tummy pouch for carrying and suckling their young. What a long and perilous journey for the minuscule fetuses of marsupials, to climb immediately from the birth canal up into the pouch for nourishment and completion of their development!
On we went to a super-sized enclosure. Dirt sprayed three feet into the air as a large ball of tawny fur dug with gusto. A fully grown wombat, resembling a 41-kilogram (90-lb) guinea pig, was working up a sweat. His rest breaks didn’t last long enough to let the dust settle. A new burrow was his objective. He must have been behind schedule, as it’s rare to see a wombat that active in the daytime.
“What’s different in marsupials that dig?” our guide asked in her strong Aussie accent, eyeing me directly.
“I dunno.” I hate quizzes, I thought.
“Their pouches are backwards, so’s when digging they don’t fill with dirt.”
Now why didn’t I think of that?
We moved on to the gum leaf gourmet compound.
“Get closer,” Rick said, aiming the camera at us (the “us” being a koala and me).
“I can’t. Ow! I think this mama (whap) is trying to tell me (whap) she doesn’t want her picture taken.” I was being thrashed with a eucalyptus branch. The koala caregiver had placed a mother koala in the branches of a small gum tree and invited spectators to stand beside her for a photo. In my peripheral vision I saw her round fuzzy ears, black patch of nose, and shiny orbs lean my way, with a paw stretched out toward me. I scrunched my shoulders, expecting another swat, only to find her pushing the branch gently toward my mouth. I had to refuse this kind gesture. As the old Irish proverb says, “One man’s meat is another man’s poison.” The koala is the only species to find eucalyptus leaves yummy. The koalas have microorganisms in their bodies that render the toxins in the leaves harmless. Not born with this capability, the babies lap up the “pap,” a watery diarrhea passed by the mother when her baby is ready to go off her milk, which then enables the baby to produce the microorganisms on his or her own—an amazing adaptation technique, but probably too much information for a weak stomach.
With dishevelled hair and a reddening cheek from the walloping but some great photos, I waved goodbye to the koalas and to Nature World, feeling it had been very worthwhile.