Away from the hectic bustle of the big Gold Coast theme parks, Winston Aldworth finds a sanctuary for animals and travellers.
Of the many weird animals in Australia — home to the wombat, the kangaroo, the koala and the platypus — among the most endearing is that most charming of species: the Old Local Folk.
At Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, on Queensland's Gold Coast, we encountered most of these critters (there were no platypus around when we visited) and the Old Local Folk were in their element. Like most good things in Australia, the sanctuary — a vast rainforest reserve — was set up by a New Zealander. In the 1940s, Alex Griffiths had a farm nearby and started feeding the local lorikeets in the hope that they would stop damaging his flower plantations. Visitors to the area loved the spectacle and soon a tourist attraction was born.
In 1947, the sanctuary opened. Today, the lorikeets still swoop down at 4.30pm for a feed, but this place is not just a sanctuary for animals. The 40 hectares of Currumbin — all sighing trees, mooching kangaroos and howling birds — make a fabulous place to change pace on a Gold Coast visit; there's an adventure park tucked away in here somewhere with treetop rope courses, but Currumbin's prime offering is the chance to connect with, and learn about, the Australia you saw in the background of Crocodile Dundee.
It's far cooler under those Currumbin trees than on the beaches of the Gold Coast and though there are still many tourists here, they're respectful of the wildlife. So, like the wildlife, these peaceful enclaves make a great sanctuary for frazzled holidaymakers too.
The Old Local Folk also help to reduce stress levels. Currumbin chugs along due, in large part, to the goodwill of this army of yellow-shirted volunteers.
Kindly critters, they'll sidle up to you as you're having lunch, or tuck in behind you on the neat wee train that loops through the park. Mike's retired — he wouldn't tell me what he used to do — and spends his spare time these days pottering around Currumbin helping out the visitors. There's probably worse things I could be doing, he says. And there's definitely worse places I could be.
The passion for the place and the welfare of the animals is evident in all the staff and volunteers. We wouldn't be here if we didn't love it, says Mike.
Aside from the train, visitors to the park can join guided tours on foot or Segway. But the best bits are encountered on foot. Sauntering over a footbridge, we saw a saltwater crocodile snoozing in the sun. I'm not good at estimating the size of ferociously massive reptiles, but it's safe to say this fella was big enough to eat Jerome Kaino in one gulp. The bravest visitors can feed the crocs, offering vast hunks of meat on the end of a stick. The thought of it makes my knees wobble.
The salty isn't the only animal with striking physicality.
You don't really appreciate just how muscular a kangaroo is until you're standing next to one. In a specially fenced off area, guests have the opportunity to feed the roos; we gently stroke their backs and chill out with the quintessential weird Australian animal.
The roos are mostly flopped out in the shade — they're no mugs — the dense knots of their heavily muscled backs hinting at the power that launches them in their famed leaps. I'm in there with my 4-year-old boy, Baxter, feeding handfuls of pellets to the roos. The volunteers are ambling about giving quiet reminders about the need to move slowly.
You probably don't want to wind them up, eh, says one yellow-shirted volunteer with a nod and a smile.
Throughout the park there are feeding times for various animals and a heap of encounters — we bag the classic holding-a-koala photo. The humble koala also looks like he could do a bit of damage — a fact underlined by the presence of a gloved handler who (from out of shot) does the actual koala holding as we gather around the marsupial grinning like goofs.
You can hold a baby croc and watch as possums graze. During the shows and feeding times, the animals spring into life — the lorikeet feeding is spectacularly loud, as thousands of the beautiful little green-backed, blue-headed parrots descend squawking for tucker.
But you'll get plenty out of a Currumbin visit without sticking to the shows and feeding times. We rode the small train to explore the park's different areas as goanna and freaky, big birds wandered across our path.
There's more to this place than kids patting koalas. The park — home to the charmingly titled death adder, saltwater crocodiles so fearsome I could hardly bear to look at them, Tasmanian devils and the Southern Hemisphere's largest walk-through aviary — is the shopfront of a slick veterinary centre and hospital where injured animals are nursed to health.
Introducing us to the animals is just a small part of the business. Saving them is the cool bit.
The Currumbin Wildlife Hospital has been operating since 1989 and they've mended and released more than 50,000 native animals.
When you visit the park, your money fuels this noble project — they get no state or federal funding. Visitors can look into the Wildlife Hospital and see the veterinary staff at work.
Get there early. Currumbin Wildlife Reserve is at its best when it's cooler in the morning. Before the animals — and the guests — get baked in the afternoon sun. But whatever the time, the Old Local Folk will be there to help you along your way.
Getting there: Air NZ flies from Auckland to the Gold Coast.
Further information: See queensland.com