Australia’s dreamy, wild landscapes often serve as inspiration for a trip Down Under – but it’s the draw of a close-up encounter with their endearing inhabitants that can cement that dream into action.
Australia is home to a diverse collection of quirky creatures, but few are as beloved, or as emblematic, as the koala. These tree-climbing marsupials are a touch more elusive than their cousin, the kangaroo. They’re small, solitary animals that blend in marvellously with the lofty eucalyptus trees they inhabit, and can sleep for up to 22 hours a day.
Following the bushfires of 2019-20, koala populations and habitats have both been drastically reduced. It’s estimated that 64,000 koalas were killed during the Black Summer bushfires, and as a result, the species was listed as endangered in early 2022.
According to National Koala Monitoring Program modelling, the estimate for the national koala population is between 287,830 and 628,010 individuals. Some research has concluded that these animals could even face extinction by 2050. But there is still hope.
Today, there are protected pockets of land across eastern and south-eastern Australia that house populations that are stable, or growing. And with the government’s plans to establish a mega-park that protects koalas in New South Wales’s Coffs Harbour region – a five-and-a-half-hour drive north of Sydney – there’s reason to believe their future is looking more promising.
The proposed Great Koala National Park will connect publicly-owned state forests to existing National Parks, creating a 315,000-hectare nature reserve, potentially by 2025. For perspective, that’s an area larger than the entire country of Luxembourg, or Samoa. In the meantime, here are some of the best spots where you can still see koalas in the wild across Australia.
Raymond Island, Victoria
This curious little island – accessible by a ferry that traverses the 200 metre channel from Gippsland on the mainland – is a haven for wildlife. Not only are you all but guaranteed to clap eyes on a koala while on Raymond Island’s mile-long Koala Trail, but you’ll find mobs of kangaroos bounding between the gumtrees too; and, if you’re lucky, maybe even a reclusive echidna.
It’s estimated that 200 koalas live among the native bush of this sleepy, residential isle, which measures just four miles long by one mile wide and is located 185 miles east of Melbourne. visitmelbourne.com
Kangaroo Island, South Australia
Long eulogised as Australia’s “zoo without fences”, Kangaroo Island (KI) is one of those rare destinations that merits the hype. Awash with raw, rugged beauty, more than a third of the wild isle is protected by nature reserves that teem with all manner of Aussie creatures: wallabies, possums, goannas, bandicoots, echidnas, Australian sea lions and more.
Don’t let the name deceive you: while there’s a very healthy population of resident kangaroos here (approximately 65,000, according to some reports), it’s estimated that some 15,000 koalas call the island home. In fact, prior to the Black Summer bushfires of 2019-20, koalas were so prolific on KI that they were considered to be a pest by locals.
Look up and you stand a chance of spotting one nuzzling among the branches in almost any of the island’s forested areas. To improve your odds, take to the the scenic walking trail along Cygnet River at Duck Lagoon, or enlist the help of a local tour operator, such as Exceptional Kangaroo Island, that can help take you straight to the stocky creature’s known haunts. tourkangarooisland.com.au
Port Macquarie, New South Wales
Koala-mania has gripped this coastal town, four hours’ drive north of Sydney. Home to a koala sculpture trail, the world’s first koala hospital, and a koala-focused wildlife park and breeding centre, there’s plenty to see and do here that revolves around these herbivores. But chief attraction among them all, is paying a visit to the local wild koala population, said to be one of the largest in the state.
While New South Wales’s resident colonies were devastated by the Black Summer bushfires, there is hope that numbers will recover. With a spot of luck you might see one in the forest canopy at Kooloonbung Creek Nature Reserve, or on Sea Acres National Park’s treetop boardwalk.
Alternatively, just a short drive outside of town, Lake Innes Nature Reserve and neighbouring Queens Lake Nature Reserve offer a deeper immersion in the thick of the Aussie bush – animals that have been rehabilitated by Port Macquarie Koala Hospital are often released here. visitnsw.com
Magnetic Island, Queensland
A tropical and mountainous parcel of land that’s considered a suburb of mainland city Townsville, “Maggie” has long enticed backpackers and Australian holidaymakers. Purveying palm-lined sandy beaches that provide sea-turtle nesting areas, and devastatingly blue waters that welcome dugongs, whales and dolphins, it’s no surprise that this Sunshine State destination is popular.
But beyond its coastal draws, Magnetic Island also features a thickly wooded interior that houses the largest population of wild koalas in northern Australia.
The 2.5-mile Forts Walk, within the Magnetic Island National Park, is one of the most likely places that you’ll spy these stubby-eared marsupials. While you pause to gorge on the dramatic ocean views in-between the heritage-listed Second World War relics, gaze up and and you might catch sight of koalas dozing in the forks of gumtrees, or grazing on their slender leaves. queensland.com