Dani Wright chips in to help nature flourish on a four-day wildlife tour through Gippsland, Victoria
It was with trepidation that my Echidna Walkabout Wildlife Journey guide Brett Howell showed me his favourite wildlife viewing spots. He'd been away from the region for a year.
"I'm a bit emotional, because I don't know how changed the places will be after drought, bushfires and coronavirus pandemic restrictions cut off travel," says Howell. "You fall in love with the spots, and want the wildlife and natural environment to be safe."
We're on the first of a four-day tour that begins with setting up a wild koala research project to tag the 250-odd wild koalas on Raymond island, a five-minute ferry ride from the small town boating haven of Paynesville and 300km east of Melbourne.
"A koala's nose is like a thumb print," explains Brett, pointing his super-zoom camera high up into a eucalyptus tree, where a young male koala is perched. "We can mark the koalas with photography from a respective distance, without them really noticing us."
A lighthouse keeper's son, Brett developed an understanding of the natural world from a young age. As we wander from tree to tree, he educates me about the fascinating lives of the koalas, as well as pointing out other things I would have missed: three parakeets hiding in a tiny tree hole and a butcher bird returning to its broken-up prey.
Later, as we travel further east towards the Snowy River, we spot trees dripping in noisy bats, cuddling themselves tightly as they sway in the wind; find "redneck" wallabies and kangaroos, which we see close up thanks to Brett's zig-zag approach technique; stop by watering holes to record duck species; and stalk farm fences for birds.
In a rainforest, we stop for a picnic lunch of ham and salad rolls and thick slices of hummingbird cake, while searching for lyrebirds in the leaf litter. A whip bird whistles in the wind. "He's a bachelor, otherwise his girlfriend would answer back right away when he calls," says Brett. "If you sit and listen, even areas that look like nothing is there will reveal there's plenty of life around you."
He shows me droppings on tree trunks banking up, which he says could be a sign of an owl roosting there, and explains how the satin bower bird creates a 'blue dance floor' to attract a mate - pinching everything from marbles and glass to feathers and ball-point pens, carefully curated in shades of blue, to add to its bower.
One evening, we don head-torches and head out into the bush below our Snowy Mountain Homestead accommodation in search of sugar gliders, a nocturnal gliding possum. Soon enough, one flies past my cheek, inches away. It lands on a branch to suck sap, then glides to another tree, before heading off on its night-time adventures.
In the morning, we're up early in search of the elusive platypus. We sit still, in silence, at the edge of the water, scanning the surface for moving air bubbles. We don't see any, but Brett tells me that if you find a seat somewhere in nature and wait, things will come and find you. Within minutes, a water dragon (known as the Gippsland crocodile) pops out from under a rock to sunbathe, and lizards appear in the sunshine.
"When you go slow," says Brett, "the world opens up to you."
Another day, we check on burnt coastal areas. It's heartening to see new fuzzy green growth covering many burnt-back trees from tip to toe. But, not everywhere shows signs of life.
At Sailors Grave, part of the stunning Cape Conran Coastal Park, the boardwalk Brett had planned for us to walk along has been lost to the flames and the blackened trees sit as a backdrop to the new wooden barbecue, picnic and toilet facilities, made possible by bushfire recovery grants.
We drive around to the other side of the beach, instead of walking, and search for ghost net to collect. This is discarded fishing net that floats around the ocean, sometimes for decades, until it snags on the coastline.
"Once, you could walk with a huge net on your shoulders carrying it all out," says Brett. "We've been cleaning it up for five years and now it's pretty much gone from here."
Our windswept hair and salty skin doesn't worry the people at the Marlo pub, a sprawling weatherboard hotel at the mouth of the Snowy River, as they welcome us in from the cold.
Giant portions replenish us from a hearty menu bursting with the freshest local produce and finished with unpretentious offerings, such as a Paddle Pop alongside the usual sticky date pudding and chocolate mousse.
The next day, we finish the tour in Bairnsdale at the Krowathunkooloong Keeping Place, where Gippsland's Indigenous culture can be seen close up. Rob Hudson, manager of cultural business at the Indigenous cultural centre, shows us carefully preserved artefacts, such as a scar tree with a mark where his ancestors stripped bark to make canoes. "Instead of chopping the tree down, they stripped bark from it to keep the tree alive and work with nature, not against it," says Brett.
There are also 4000-year-old boomerangs from silt jetties, mussel shells used as cups for drinking fresh water and kangaroo bones that were used to sew possum skin cloaks.
"I wish people would embrace Aboriginal culture more in Australia," says Rob, explaining how there is a band of elders as leaders, rather than one chief, in his culture. He tells me of family totems, and how his personal totem is a wedge tail eagle. These totems are gifted to you – early or late in life.
Over the four days, Brett, who would surely have a rare bird animal totem if he were gifted one, helped me to spot 118 bird species, three reptiles and eight mammals. Even though some species were more plentiful than others, he's quick to point out: "Things that are seemingly common, can become uncommon quick."
The remote far-eastern Gippsland coastline is a stunning twist of trees, storm-weathered rocks and soft-sand beaches, where you feel like you've found that increasingly rare commodity – unspoilt coastline.
Skipping along the rocks, watching seabirds duck and dive and large swells crash in foamy bursts, gives you a feeling of being alive after lockdowns - it's a reminder that people need time to recover, just as nature does – and that it can take time.
On the drive from Melbourne, stop to sample the famous local Gippsland produce at The Grove restaurant, overlooking an impressive olive grove. thegrovegippsland.com
Stay overnight at The Church House gourmet retreat, perched on a hillside with spectacular rural views - see thechurchhouse.com.au. Enjoy the hosted meals, or head next door to Waratah Hills winery for a picnic in the vines. waratahhills.com.au
Choose a one-day or multi-day tour including outback, humpback whale and koala conservation options. My four-day Wildlife Journey took me through the south-east of Australia, with some of the most complex ecosystems in Australia and one of the highest concentrations of wildlife. Visit echidnawalkabout.com.au/tours/wildlife-journey for more information.
Check the latest border restrictions in each state and territory before travelling. For more information visit australia.com