A family holiday in the Sunshine Coast

SADIE BECKMAN
Last updated 05:00 14/06/2014
Sadie Beckman
Sadie Beckman

FAMILY HOLIDAY: Australia Zoo is a bastion for wildlife education and conservation.

Sadie Beckman
Sadie Beckman
CUDDLY KOALAS: They are deceptively cute and cuddly, but actually quite smelly.

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A family holiday to Australia's Gold Coast is a popular choice, but to be honest it's so far on the beaten track that it's both a joy and a relief to discover so much variety in the surrounding regions, all of which are within an easy day's drive.

The Sunshine Coast is a gem of a place, where the glitz and glamour of Surfer's Paradise and Miami gives way to the laid back, alternative vibe of Maleny and Mooloolabah.

Bush-clad ridges offer spectacular views across Australian hinterland to the sea, and little art studios, galleries and organic cafes are tucked away around almost every corner.

There is one major international tourist attraction in the area, but perhaps because it has evolved from a tiny local family business with real heart, it seems neither impinging on the local tranquillity, nor out of place.

Australia Zoo started life in 1970 as the Beerwah Reptile and Fauna Park, where orphaned or homeless Australian animals were taken in and raised by the Irwin family, including son Steve.

Through the 80s, Steve and his father became crusaders for the dreaded and threatened Saltwater Crocodile, (numbers of which were rapidly depleting due to the popularity of its skin) taking them in at the park to protect them.

Later he and his wife took over the business increasing its size to the 100 acres it now occupies, alongside starting a family.

A series of television documentaries established Steve Irwin's fame internationally as 'The Crocodile Hunter' and he continued to dedicate himself to the zoo as well as many outside conservation projects until his tragic death during an encounter with a stingray while filming in 2006.

His legacy, and the family's presence are everywhere around Australia Zoo, but it doesn't feel shrine-like. Exclamation marks are a-plenty, 'crikey' abounds, and every piece of writing or signage you read seems to sound like Irwin's voice.

The place is full of lush trees and vegetation, with many enclosures glass sided, creating an open feel. Clean, and well looked after, it was the nicest environment I've seen in a zoo, and the staff all seemed quite young, very happy and genuinely passionate about the animals they cared for, even when that meant dirty work.

"You've gotta love poo when you work at the zoo," quipped a twenty-something keeper with a big grin as the enormous black native cockatoo perching on his arm nonchalantly delivered a large pile of steaming droppings onto his shirt.

Moments later he handed the bird to me, and I was grateful for the timing.

We were also able to hold a Woma Python, an alarmingly large "baby" alligator and a non-plussed koala named Lawson who was deceptively cute and cuddly, but actually smelled quite rank and left a nice brown stain on my husband after he had been holding him.

This served as a good reminder that we were privileged enough to be handling wild animals, and that they should be respected as such, despite their teddy-bear appearance or TV representation. Or that's what I tried to say to my husband as he disappeared back to the car park with a nauseous look on his face, to find a change of clothes in the van!

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As well as animals on display, there are some less-fortunate ones behind the scenes in the zoo's purpose-built wildlife hospital, which treats up to 7500 animals each year.

Here, people bring in injured or sick wildlife, and a team of vets and volunteers nurse them back to health, before releasing them into the wild if possible. It was interesting to discover that animals unable to be freed were not automatically new inhabitants at the zoo, but are subject to a placement programme run by national authorities to rehome them in the most appropriate facility country-wide.

As well as snakes and birds, many of the patients were koalas which had been hit by cars - something I had previously thought was unlikely because, despite all the time we spent driving and the children spent with their eyes glued to the roadside trees and vegetation, we never managed to even spot one in the wild.

At the hospital there were dozens though, and including the zoo's koalas, they chew their way through a massive 1000 kilograms of eucalyptus leaf tips per day, which is gathered by a special leaf cutting team and is no mean feat by all accounts.

After checking out the hospital we got to see the 'Wildlife Warriors' live show at the zoo's 'Crocoseum' - an outdoor arena with seating surrounding a central fenced-off pond where Irwin has been famously filmed feeding and jumping into the water with giant crocodiles.

The zoo's Croc Team continue the tradition, and the sight of Charlie the 'Saltie' launching himself out of the water to grab food dangling from his keeper's hand was still a buzz, despite my reservations about the show's commercialism.

And that is probably the definition of what Australia Zoo does well.It marries the commercial nature of its massive operations with the pervading philosophy of putting conservation first.

While these concepts would seem to be at odds, and the giant gift shops might look profit-grabbing, nearly everything the place makes goes back into it, as well as into wider conservation projects such as the successful fight to declare a 135,000 hectare reserve safe from mining by the Queensland State government after years of campaigning, and the wildlife hospital which receives no state funding.

Whether you subscribe to the Irwin family's celebrity and entertainment focus or not, you can't help but admire the sheer determination that has gone into making Australia Zoo a bastion for wildlife education and conservation far beyond its home on the beautiful Sunshine Coast.

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