An astonishing 87 percent of mammals, 93 percent of reptiles and 45 percent of birds are only found in Australia. This mega-diverse nation is, in fact, home to more species than any other developed country in the world, including egg-laying mammals, hopping kangaroos and eucalyptus-munching koalas.
There’s a lot more to Australia as well, of course — from stunning Sydney Harbour with its man-made marvels, to the natural grandeur of the Great Barrier Reef and vast outback, to world-class surfing at amazing beaches. But a true Australia experience demands a focus on its extraordinary and, yes, often adorable animals.
Here’s how you can check out some of the continent’s most amazing native wildlife, up close and personal.
Wombats in Gippsland
Australia is home to an abundance of cute native animals, but wombats are undeniably some of the cutest. Square, squat and hairy, they’re related to koalas and look a little like walking furry foot stools.
Like all marsupials, wombats have a pouch, but because they dig burrows, their pouch faces backwards so as not to get dirt on their young. They also have a reinforced backside, which they use to fend of potential attacks by running into their burrow and blocking the entrance with their butt. What’s not to love?
Wombats are nocturnal, as sadly so many Australian animals are, but active in the hours of sunset and early mornings. They can most readily found in Gippsland, a short (1.5 to 2 hours) drive from Melbourne, where they often treated as precious campsite pests — like little tanks, they like to barge straight through careful tent arrangements.
Punk Turtles in the Mary River
Australia boasts a freshwater turtle that not only sports a punk-styled green-algae hairstyle, cat-fish-like protrusions under its chin and an exceptionally long tail, but also breathes through its genitals.
This incredible creature is dubbed the Mary River turtle, and its name is a clue: It can only be found in the vast spread of the Mary River system in southern Queensland. And unfortunately, due to its popularity as a pet in the 1960s and 1970s and habitat deprivation, it is now facing extinction.
Spotting the Mary River turtle is a bit of a challenge, not only due to its severely dwindling numbers, but because of the vastness of the river system, which covers 3,705 square miles and features countless creeks and arms. Plus, these reclusive reptiles can stay underwater for up to three days.
However, the region is accessible to hikers and campers, and those with true patience and luck may spot one of these rare and truly unique turtles.
Quokkas on Rottnest Island
Off the coast of Perth in Western Australia lies Rottnest Island, home to probably the friendliest and cutest animals of them all: quokkas. These relatives of the wallaby are the size of housecats and are enormously photogenic, thanks to their hind-leg stance, permanent smile and inquisitive nature.
Even though they are nocturnal, quokkas can be seen in the mornings and afternoons as well, and are found throughout the island. Just don’t feed or cuddle them, however much they beg. They are protected, and park wardens hand out severe penalties.
Koalas in Otway
Driving along the Otway Coast section of Great Ocean Road in southern Victoria is a must when visiting Australia. The area boasts sensational surfing beaches, the iconic 12 Apostles rock formations and, most importantly, koalas.
There are two standout places to see these fluffy-eared, flat-nosed, cuddly animals — which, incidentally, are not related to bears, but to wombats.
Near the aptly named Kafe Koala in the seaside town of Kennett River, walk up the winding road and train your eyes to look for the round fluffy rear ends of koalas. The animals can typically be found resting between the crook of two tree branches.
Even better is to head about an hour south to the lovely Otway Lighthouse. I kid you not: Nearly every tree here has a koala in it.
Kangaroos on Kangaroo Island
If you have the time, you can keep following Great Ocean Road past Adelaide, then ferry to Kangaroo Island. The name is accurate: This beautiful island is hopping with kangaroos and their smaller cousins, wallabies. And it touts plenty of amenities for travelers, including a range of hotels, camps and even a luxury resort.
If you can’t make it to the island, just leave any Australian city at dawn or dusk to see kangaroos hanging by the side of the road, roaming fields and lounging under trees (the animals are most active at night). There are some 45 million kangaroos in Australia, nearly double the continent’s human population.
If you happen to fly into Melbourne Tullamarine Airport, look out the window: Lots of kangaroos live nearby, and sometimes they even make their way to the airport.
Little Penguins on Phillip Island
About a 1.5 hour drive south-east of Melbourne, Phillip Island is a haven for migrating birds and the usual Australian suspects, including wallabies, echidnas and the odd koala. But the truly extraordinary must-see here is the little penguin (aka fairy penguin), a species found almost exclusively in Australia and New Zealand. This is the smallest penguin species on the planet, growing to a height of just 13 inches. Phillip Island is home to a large colony of these adorable creatures, who return each night from a day spent fishing during a Penguin Parade that's not to be missed.
Alternatively, if you are staying in Melbourne, head out to St. Kilda pier, where little penguins maintain nests and can be found resting after sunset.
Platypuses in Eungella National Park
The platypus is probably the weirdest animal in Australia, and maybe even the world: an egg-laying, furry mammal with a duck-like bill.
Platypuses are nocturnal, but can best be viewed early in the morning at Broken River, in stunning Eungella National Park. They flit around hunting in the shallows, careening past the freshwater turtles, and sometimes come to rest in sunny spots.
To make sure you get to see them, consider staying the night in a nearby lodge, as you will have to be up early: Platypuses are at their most active between 6 and 8 a.m.
Tasmanian Devils in Healesville Sanctuary
Made famous through the cantankerous Looney Tunes character, the tasmanian devil is sadly an endangered species. It is no longer on Australia’s mainland, and can only be seen in the wild on the Australian island-state of Tasmania.
The animals face extinction due to a facial tumor disease, but Healesville Sanctuary has a nurturing and breeding program in place to save them. The sanctuary also looks after other native wildlife and is a good place to see koalas, birds, dingo puppies and whatever else has been brought in from the surrounding countryside.
A visit makes for a lovely day out, especially as the surrounding trees are filled with colorful and very loud parrots.
Cassowaries near Mission Beach
The cassowary is a large flightless bird native to the forests of Papua New Guinea and northeastern Australia. With their blue and red necks, large bony protrusions atop their heads and feathers so soft, they seem like fur, these birds are unlike any other. They are also the second-heaviest birds in the world — and probably the ones with the foulest temper.
It’s the fathers who bring up the chicks, and when they have them in tow, they are very protective. Because they live deep in the forest, the best way to see Cassowaries is when they cross the road...which is also when they are at their most vulnerable.
The best place to spot these prehistoric birds is near Mission Beach, a small town in Queensland, roughly halfway between Townsville and Cairns.
Australian Possums in Any Park
Two types of possum are native to Australia: the smaller ring-tailed possum and the brushtail possum. Both are very cute — in contrast, many would argue, to their sharp-toothed American cousin, the opossum.
Go out at night to any park, or a side street with trees, and you will find these possums in abundance. Many call them a pest because they have a habit of not only being everywhere, but also of chewing through electric wires.
They are very inquisitive, and if you stand at the bottom of a tree looking up, you will often find them coming down from the tree, inspecting you.
Freshwater Crocodiles in the Northern Territory
Based on stories, you may think Australia is home exclusively to horrifying man-eating crocodiles. In fact, only Australia's large saltwater crocs have been known to (rarely) attack people.
The freshwater crocodile, also known as the Johnstone’s crocodile or “freshie,” is a smaller Australian native (measuring up to just three meters) that you can feel perfectly safe around.
These crocs are often found in habitats, including inland waterways, billabongs and estuaries, that saltwater crocodiles also frequent. But they thrive where they don’t often come in contact with their reptilian cousins, such as Kakadu National Park and, especially, stunning Katherine Gorge in the Northern Territory.
In the dry season, swimming is allowed at Katherine Gorge, since the saltwater crocs have no reach and the freshwater crocs are not interested in swimmers. Instead, you'll find them watching the action while sunning themselves on the shores.
All Sorts of Animals at Taronga Zoo
Normally, I would not call a zoo a wildlife experience, but I’ll make an exception for Taronga Zoo. Located in Sydney Harbour, opposite the city center, this zoo is one of the finest you'll find.
Not only does it feature a fabulous selection of animals from around the world, but it touts superb displays of native Australian species, including wombats, koalas, kangaroos and tasmanian devils.
The most stunning view of the city you’ll get is from the giraffe enclosure, and you can even stay the night right in the middle of the zoo.