Travel: Plan ahead for wild holidays in Sydney and New South Wales


Think back to some of your most memorable travel experiences and odds are it’s not a hotel, restaurant or tour that springs to mind, it’s a wildlife encounter. There’s something uniquely captivating about observing and interacting with animals, particularly when they’re ones you can’t easily see at home. With more than 2000km of beach-fringed coastline and vast swathes of rust-red Outback, Australia’s New South Wales (NSW) has countless opportunities to have a memory-making animal experience. Here are some of the best.

AQUATIC ADVENTURES

Humpback whale spotted breaching the waters in Jervis Bay during a swimming with whales tour with Dive Jervis Bay. Photo / Jordan Robins
Humpback whale spotted breaching the waters in Jervis Bay during a swimming with whales tour with Dive Jervis Bay. Photo / Jordan Robins

Jervis Bay is one of the only places in Australia you can swim with humpback whales. This sheltered bay three hours’ drive south of Sydney is the halfway point for the whales’ epic 5000km annual migration between Antarctica and the South Pacific. The whales head north between April and July but your best chance of swimming with them is when they return south in September and October. Dive Jervis Bay offers whale watching and swimming tours and if you’re lucky you may also see the bay’s resident population of fur seals, penguins and bottlenose dolphins. divejervisbay.com

Fur seals swimming around Montague Island, Narooma. Photo / Destination NSW
Fur seals swimming around Montague Island, Narooma. Photo / Destination NSW

If you want to snorkel, swim or dive with fur seals, make a beeline for Montague Island, located just off the coast from the pretty town of Narooma (five hours south of Sydney). The island’s playful population of Australian fur seals are a marvel to watch as they fizz around underwater like fuzzy torpedoes. The island is also home to NSW’s biggest colony of little penguins, more than 90 bird species and an impressive 19th-century lighthouse with accommodation in a restored keeper’s cottage. naroomacharters.com.a

Montague Island Nature Reserve, Narooma. Photo / Destination NSW
Montague Island Nature Reserve, Narooma. Photo / Destination NSW

Port Stephens is Australia’s undisputed dolphin capital, home to NSW’s biggest marine park and a large population of curious common and bottlenose dolphins. Located 2.5 hours’ drive north of Sydney, it’s a region that’s almost unfairly blessed with magnificent national parks, 26 pristine beaches and the largest coastal sand dunes in the Southern Hemisphere. To get a closer look at its most famous residents, sign up for a tour with Dolphin Swim Australia from September to May. dolphinswimaustralia.com.a

The waters off New South Wales' Cook Island are filled with green, hawksbill and loggerhead sea turtles. Photo / Destination NSW
The waters off New South Wales’ Cook Island are filled with green, hawksbill and loggerhead sea turtles. Photo / Destination NSW

Cook Island might not look much from the mainland but this tiny volcanic outcrop just off Tweed Heads near the border with Queensland is notable for its population of green, hawksbill and loggerhead sea turtles. On a tour with Kirra Dive, you can snorkel or dive with these graceful creatures while also keeping a look out for parrot fish, groupers and wobbegongs in the surrounding reef. Dolphins and whales are often spotted in the area plus harmless migratory sharks such as the grey nurse and leopard shark. kirradive.com

AUSSIE ICONS

It’s pretty much illegal to visit Australia and not get a selfie with a koala or a kangaroo. Featherdale Wildlife Park has the world’s largest collection of Australian wildlife with more than 2000 native animals from over 260 species. There are numerous opportunities to interact with the locals from hand-feeding kangaroos and wallabies in the park’s free-range enclosures to meeting a koala during a guided encounter. You’ll also find plenty of other Aussie favourites including dingoes, wombats and the Instagram-breaking quokka. Located a 45-minute drive west from Sydney, it’s an ideal day trip from the city. featherdale.com.a

Keeper Jake holding a resident alligator at the Australian Reptile Park on the NSW Central Coast. Photo / Destination NSW
Keeper Jake holding a resident alligator at the Australian Reptile Park on the NSW Central Coast. Photo / Destination NSW

If you’re more into scaly and scary, check out the impressive collection of spiders, snakes and lizards at the Australian Reptile Park, one hour north of Sydney. Intrepid guests can have a close encounter during the daily Snappy Hour plus see some of Australia’s largest and most deadly arachnids in the Spider World exhibit. There are plenty of gentler options too, including hand-feeding kangaroos and a stroll with Hugo, the park’s resident Galapagos giant tortoise. reptilepark.com.a

A koala at the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, North Coast NSW. Photo / The Legendary Pacific Coast
A koala at the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, North Coast NSW. Photo / The Legendary Pacific Coast

If you’re passing through Port Macquarie, check out the city’s Koala Hospital, which runs tours showcasing the important work it does rehabilitating injured koalas. Port Stephens will also gain a new koala sanctuary later this year, which will offer visitors the chance to observe the animals in their natural habitat and spend the night on the property in a luxury glamping tent. koalahospital.org.au; portstephenskoalasanctuary.com.au

Another important initiative helping to preserve Australia’s native wildlife is Aussie Ark, which after initially focusing on the Tasmanian devil, has now expanded to care for many threatened species. Located in lush rainforest high above the World Heritage-listed Barrington Tops National Park in northern NSW, it provides in-depth tours where you can watch the devils interacting in the centre’s free-range enclosures. If you’re really fortunate and your visit coincides with a new arrival, you’ll be able to hold and get a photo with a gorgeous little devil joey. aussieark.org.au

The most convenient option for an encounter in central Sydney is Wild Life Sydney Zoo in Darling Harbour. Home to the Aussie Big 5 (koala, kangaroo, wombat, platypus and saltwater crocodile), it also has fascinating exhibits on the Tasmanian devil, the quokka and a whole raft of creatures that wriggle, slither and bite. wildlifesydney.com.a

Kangaroos grazing at Pebbly Beach in Murramarang National Park, South Coast. Photo / Destination NSW
Kangaroos grazing at Pebbly Beach in Murramarang National Park, South Coast. Photo / Destination NSW

Of course, there are numerous opportunities to see many of these animals in the wild too. Murramarang National Park near Batemans Bay has a large population of kangaroos, Narrandera Nature Reserve west of Wagga Wagga has around 200 koalas and you can see wild platypus at Bombala Platypus Reserve in the Snowy Mountains. nationalparks.nsw.gov.au

EXOTIC ENCOUNTERS

Given it’s going to be a while before we can go on safari in Africa again, you can experience the next best thing with Roar and Snore at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo. Start the evening with drinks and canapes overlooking Sydney Harbour before an immersive night-time safari led by passionate keepers. The best bit? You get to stay overnight in a swish safari-style tent and see the morning feedings before the zoo reopens. Even more exclusive is Taronga’s Wildlife Retreat package, which includes accommodation in a stylish onsite eco-lodge, a three-course dinner at Me-Gal restaurant and a private tour of the zoo’s Australian native wildlife habitat. taronga.org.a

Giraffes roaming outside the Animal View Zoofari Lodges at Taronga Western Plains Zoo, Dubbo. Photo / Taronga Western Plains Zoo
Giraffes roaming outside the Animal View Zoofari Lodges at Taronga Western Plains Zoo, Dubbo. Photo / Taronga Western Plains Zoo

For an even more safari-like experience, head to Taronga’s sister property, Western Plains Zoo, near Dubbo. Skirting the edge of a vast savannah are ten tented lodges offering uninterrupted views of the resident giraffes, zebras and rhinos. An overnight stay includes all meals, a guided safari and two days zoo admission. taronga.org.au

If big cats are more your thing, two NSW wildlife parks offer once-in-a-lifetime encounters with these fascinating felines. At Billabong Zoo near Port Macquarie, you can help feed its endangered snow leopard and two cheetah brothers, Warrior and Vongani. Other up-close encounters include hand-feeding its adorable red pandas, Rato and Tito, and a behind-the-scenes tour of the meerkat enclosure. At Mogo Zoo near Batemans Bay, you can feed its majestic male African lion and gorgeous Sumatran tiger as well as pat a fully grown male white rhino. billabongzoo.com.au; mogozoo.com.a

Interacting with marine life at Sea Life Sydney Aquarium at Darling Harbour. Photo / Merlin Entertainment Group
Interacting with marine life at Sea Life Sydney Aquarium at Darling Harbour. Photo / Merlin Entertainment Group

If you’d prefer to stay in Sydney, you’ll find more than 12,000 animals from 650 species at the Sea Life Sydney Aquarium in Darling Harbour. Exclusive encounters include diving with 3m-long grey nurse sharks and interacting with king and gentoo penguins. Don’t leave without visiting Dugong Island and saying hello to Pig, a rare white dugong rescued from North Queensland after being separated from his mum. Why is he called Pig? Every day he chomps through a staggering 80kg of cos lettuce. sydneyaquarium.com.au

Checklist
NEW SOUTH WALES
DETAILS

Australian borders are currently closed to New Zealand passport-holders but a transtasman bubble is being investigated by both Australia’s and New Zealand’s governments. In the meantime, go to sydney.com/nz for more information, ideas and inspiration.



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