We arrived in Melbourne with the kids on a Friday afternoon, five days into the Australia part of our round-the-world-trip, and still no iconic Australian critter sightings. The highway signs kept teasing us with their messages. A “Kangaroo Crossing” sign here or an outline of a large furry animal there made us put down our maps and scour the road ahead for moving creatures. But after five days of driving, we still hadn’t seen any (except for that dead wombat). Our CouchSurfing hosts in Melbourne were all too happy to help remedy that. We had scarcely had time to put down our bags when they whisked us to a local park where we saw loads of kangaroos noshing on the wide lawns there. We even saw a couple of mamas with baby joeys in their pouches. These kangaroos were used to people gawking at them, so we were able to get quite close to them.
The area where we were staying was about an hour from the center of Melbourne, in the Dandenong Ranges, a hilly area of soaring forests. We soon discovered that this area held many many treasures in its small towns and parks. Our recommendations if you’re in Melbourne with kids, especially if they love animals, are these:
1- Healesville Sanctuary – This is the place to get your fill of all the cute and cuddly (and not so) Australian animals. This is a zoo specifically for the native fauna of Australia. Try to make it for koala feeding time, otherwise, all you’ll see are furry balls perched up in the trees. Platypus, dingo, kangaroo, wallaby, echidna, lyrebird, wombat, and even Tasmanian devil can all be found here. The staff are happy to answer questions, and occasionally bring out an animal for petting. The sanctuary is about an hour outside of the city, but is accessible by public transportation. There are also several bus companies in Melbourne that run shuttles to the sanctuary.
2 – Cardinia Reservoir Park – The park itself, in the town of Emerald, is a great big expanse of green surrounding a lovely reservoir that supplies Melbourne with drinking water. But the real treat here is the kangaroos, who venture out into the large fields of the park just before dusk. Though of course you shouldn’t pester the ‘roos, they are accustomed enough to people that you can get close enough for some great photos. But seriously, don’t try to pet them. They’ve got a kick that can flatten a sumo wrestler.
3 – The Great Ocean Road – This has to be one of the best coastal drives in the world, with dramatic cliffs dropping down to great wide beaches as bare as a newborn’s bottom. All along the route are parks, where you can find all sorts of wildlife from snakes to sea anemone to observe, and marine sanctuaries, where you can rest assured there are happy sea creatures, even though you can’t swim with them. My advice? Just pack a picnic, get in the car, and drive until a spot draws you in. You really can’t go wrong here.
4 – Melbourne Zoo and Melbourne Aquarium - While the two are not related, most folks in Melbourne discuss them in the same breath, because they are two stellar animal parks and they are both highlights of a visit to the city, especially for families.
5 – Puffing Billy Railway – Yes, I will grant you, this is not, per se, an animal-related outing. However, the Puffing Billy Railway is a 100-year-old steam train in the Dandenongs that is beloved by all. Who can resist the adorable wooden cars, the puffing steam from the coal-fired locomotive, the hoot of the train whistle? The locals hop right on and stick their feet out the side to ride in the windows, which is perfectly fine until you get to the rail trestle crossing. Just don’t look down. The ride takes between 40 minutes and an hour, depending on the day and the stops.