Friday, June 28, 2013

It's a Koala Kind of Day!!!

28 June 2013

We drove from Belmont to Newcastle - not a far distance.  We wanted to see what there is in Newcastle, besides the coal shipping industry.  Seriously, Newcastle Australia is a big coal port, similar to Newcastle England.  Coals to Newcastle and all that.

Newcastle has a great info center, and we gathered all sorts of information, figured out a nice place to stay (with a freedom camping option if the weather improved, or a paid-camping-with-power option if it remains rainy and chilly).  Also obtained directions to the animal reserve I wanted to visit.

Newcastle is, as I said, a coal shipping port.  It's a very industrial town.  But they also have an art gallery, musical performances by international stars (although Englebert Humperdink was the headliner at the theatre, so I'm not sure what that says about the taste of Novocastrians - which is what citizens of Newcastle are called).  All that.

So, we found this silly photo opp board - I don't know why I'm so fascinated by these crazy things, we rarely use them they're so funny and ridiculous and tacky.  But they just make me laugh in their tackiness, so I always take a photo without anyone in the photo.

At the same time, we also found a delightful patisserie for lunch, complete with tea lattes and quiche for me, strong coffee and sausage rolls for Richard.  With classic French design.

Okay, the koalas - we drove west to Blackbutt Reserve - and yes, that's the name of the area, it does not refer to sloppy koalas.  This is a wonderful little animal reserve on a hill out in the middle of, well, I guess Blackbutt, but it seems like the middle of nowhere.  The reserve has 10 km of trail, although the animals are mostly in one area.  

I walked through the animal section, while Richard stayed in the parking lot, reading and having the occasional cigarette.  (He said he met an echidna in the parking lot, which is pretty much an Australian porcupine.  It kind of followed him around the parking lot a bit, then went under a car and up the hill into the forest.  And I found out that, while baby marsupials are all called joeys, a baby echidna is called a puggle.  Doesn't that sound very Harry Potter-ish?  Muggles and puggles!  Anyway, it made me laugh when the reserve keeper told us that.) 

I know - I digress.  So - I walked through the animal section - the path is an elevated boardwalk, and most of the animal enclosures are somewhat underneath but going uphill, so that you can look down or straight across at the animals. There were enclosures for wombats (who were indoors, hiding from the rain), wallabies (sheltering under rocky overhangs), various birds including gorgeous red parrots or lorikeets or something, and my friendly little koalas, snuggled in their trees. 

The koalas, a few wallabies, and the birds were in the same enclosure.  And the koalas are fed every day at about 2 PM.  So I arrived just before 2, and walked back and forth along the boardwalk, between the two trees, each with a koala.  The koalas were sound asleep, trying to stay warm and dry.  The trees were under a canvas canopy, and most of the birds were staying under the canopy as well.  The koalas just ignored everything - the birds, the wallabies, me trying to get them to look up. 

And then the animal keepers came in, with fresh branches of yummy leafy eucalyptus and gum trees.  Suddenly, as if they smelled fresh coffee wafting up to their bedrooms, both koalas woke up and looked around.  The male stretched, yawned, and moved around, looking for the best way to get to the fresh leaves.  The female climbed up a branch and looked around, as if trying to judge whether it was safe to climb down to the new food.  Turns out she has a joey, who was born some time last January or February - it takes a few months before a baby koala first emerges from the pouch, so it can be difficult for zoos and reserves to judge when the joey is born.  Anyway, the keepers try to put her into the mama koala house each afternoon, to keep her and the baby nice and warm on these chilly nights.  But she prefers to stay outside in her tree, so she isn't very cooperative about it.  And she knows that food time also means get-put-into-the-house-time.  So Mama Koala goes up the tree to try to avoid the keepers. 

It made for a few great photos for me, but she kept looking around so I also ended up with a bunch of photos of her back. 

The animal keepers came back into the enclosure and told me they had a few people coming for a koala encounter, and said I could come down too.  So I joined them - I didn't know where to buy the ticket for the koala encounter, and they were running behind the koala's schedule, so we compromised by having me just put my donation into the box.  Anyway - Daddy Koala is named Jack, and he was very friendly - it took a while for the keeper to get him out of his tree (the keeper climbed up a ladder and coaxed him over with his favorite gum leaves) - but once he was settled down in the encounter area, he was comfortable enough to look at the four people visiting him, and waited patiently until he was given a special treat of some kind of eucalyptus (not his usual favorite - he apparently was in the mood for something else today, and kept refusing all the branches offered to him until they hit on the right one - he was very funny, like a baby who refuses to open their mouth until they get exactly what they want in the first place). 

So Jack sat in his low viewing tree, munching on gum leaves, letting us pet his back and haunches, and take photos of him and with him.  The animal keeper offered to take my photo with Jack, but I declined - he said that Jack was a very photogenic koala - I said that I wasn't very photogenic myself - we compromised with me taking a lot of photos of Jack.  Which isn't easy - koalas move slowly, except when food is around!  Jack would be all positioned and focused, and then suddenly he'd turn and reach in the other direction, or pull leaves to his mouth and rip a few tasty morsels off in one bite.

I have to say, Jack was very soft and woolly, with a short but dense coat - and now it makes sense that they don't mind too much sitting high in a tree in the chilly and wet weather of the east coast.  Koalas are found primarily in the east and SE part of Australia, not way up north or way out west.  They like this weather, and they've adapted to eating the trees that grow in this region.  Well, they only eat maybe 10 or 15 kinds of gum and eucalyptus leaves, while there are literally hundreds of different kinds of gum/eucalyptus trees.  But with their heavy coats and round little bodies, they're perfect for this kind of weather.  (Think Seattle-to-San Francisco weather.  Not snowy, but chilly wet fall and winter.  Warm but not super hot summer.  Rarely freezing cold, rarely boiling hot.  And wet.)

The koalas in NSW are kind of middle in size, usually weighing about 8 to 12 kg for a full grown male.  In Queensland, they'll be a bit smaller.  And down south in Victoria, they'll be a bit larger.  Females are smaller than the males, which makes them quicker to run away.  Mama Koala here is about 5 kg, Jack was about 9 or 10 kg.  Quite an armful for the animal keeper!  And koalas are so used to holding onto trees, when they are held by people they look like they're hugging but actually the koala is just holding on.

All too soon, it was time for Jack to go back to his tree, to finish eating his leaves and go back to sleep.  And the keepers would try one last time to get Mama Koala and Joey to go into the house for the night.

And I left with the biggest smile on my face.

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