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Down-Under Animals - The Easy Way
Getting A Good Look At Roos, Devils and Penguins In Australia
Charles N. Barnard

If it is animals the visitor is most interested in seeing Down Under, he should be prepared for the reality that even in the Outback, kangaroos and other such critters aren't hopping all over the countryside. Australia isn't the Serengeti. Much of its fauna is shy, much is nocturnal, much knows better than to run around in the midday sun just so tourists can take pictures. Some of the best opportunities to see the unusual creatures of the Antipodes will be in zoos — and the one in Melbourne is a botanical garden as well. If you don't want to come home without being able to say you saw a wombat or a lemon gum tree, go to the zoo first. Later, if you do see what you're looking for in the wild, you are one up.

A few kilometers beyond Alice Springs there is a tranquil spot called Simpson's Gap, where an escarpment of red stone has been split by erosion and in which a pool of table water seldom goes dry. This is a good place to see small rock wallabies up close. They seem almost tame as they come down to the pool to drink; sometimes they are nearly surrounded by tourists.

One of the most curious (and somewhat scary) small animals in Australia is the Tasmanian Devil, which is found only on the island of Tasmania, but in great abundance there. Tourists are unlikely to encounter a Devil, which may be just as well. Best bet is to stop at any one of the roadside animal farms which post signs saying, "See the Devils!" There is one on the road between Hobart and Port Arthur. The keeper will rout a couple of sleepy Devils out of their den for visitors to see.

The Tasmanian Devil seems a cross between a hyena and a. . . what? He is black and white, with a possum snout, bristly hair and a truly fearsome set of bone-cracking teeth. Devils are creatures of legend as much as of fact: all kinds of tall tales are told about them — i.e., that they eat everything and anything; that when they devour a carcass, they first burrow into the stomach cavity, then chew their way out. This may take several days, in the course of which the Devil acquires an awful smell. (One sure way, it is said, to know when they are about.) Devils, I was assured, also eat their own dead. Such ugly habits notwithstanding, Tasmanians seem to regard their Devils with affection as unique island mascots.

Perhaps the most remarkable wildlife show in Australia these days is the Parade of the Fairy Penguins, which can be seen nightly on Phillip Island, an hour and a half drive from Melbourne. So popular has this event become with visitors that annual attendance now exceeds 250,000 and claims are made that "the Penguins" are second only to Ayers Rock as a national tourist attraction. Although these small, flightless birds come onto beaches all along the continent's southern coast, the facility at Phillip Island is the only one managed in conjunction with the National Parks Service. There are parking and barbecue and toilet facilities; food, drink and souvenirs are available.

The penguin colony at Phillip Island is estimated to number about 2000. Every night at dusk, several hundred of these return from the sea to the land; the 12- to 14-inch birds emerge from the surf, struggle their way over seaweed and rocks and then scurry across the beach sand on their way to burrows inland.

A crowd of several hundred tourists gathers every night. As dusk falls, lights illuminate the beach. There is a period of tense expectation before the first birds appear. Finally they come, sometimes only a few, sometimes hundreds. At certain places along their route, the penguins pass close enough for spectators to touch — if that were allowed, which it isn't.

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