I couldn’t get enough of that face.
Her intense round eyes stared soulfully at us from the nearby fence top as we waited for a chance to pet this beautiful creature. Cautiously, she made her way toward us, her claw-tipped paws gripping the edge of the wood. “Approach her carefully, from her back,” her handler explained. “And please understand that koalas are not bears. They are marsupials.”
Nine-year-old Kamballa – her name is the Aboriginal word for “young lady” – is one of the star residents at Walkabout Wildlife Park, an Australian animal sanctuary about an hour north of Sydney. Kangaroos, wallabies and a host of native animals and birds roam freely in the natural bush environment. Many have been rescued, injured or orphaned, and some are part of a breed-for-release program. Visitors are welcome to walk among them, and it is immediately evident that this is the animals’ party and we are the invited guests.
It was our first day in Australia when Herb and I set out from Sydney with Sam Collins’ Kangarrific Tours. We joined one other couple for the two-hour journey to the Hunter Valley, one of Australia’s wine regions. When we arrived at our mid-trip stop at Walkabout, the summer sun was already casting shadows over the sandy brown, leaf-covered grounds, bathing the entire space in a sepia-toned light.
A small shop and covered porch with picnic tables led the way to the outdoor sanctuary. Kangaroos and wallabies seemed to be everywhere, lounging in shady spots and unfazed by our arrival. Kamballa was brought to her perch on the fence, and we all took turns taking photos and petting her wooly-soft, grayish-brown fur. Sam told us we were welcome to pet the kangaroos as well, but to make sure we approached them from the back, “otherwise, they’ll think you want to box with them!”
I spent the rest of my time at Walkabout taking in the environment, wandering with my camera, watching the animals. Our hosts had prepared a table of coffee, tea and snacks for us, but except for quickly tasting the popular Australian Tim Tam biscuits, I stayed outside, soaking up every moment of this fascinating, up-close wildlife encounter.
As I stood watching the kangaroos, two larger-than-life emus suddenly appeared in my peripheral vision, seemingly out of nowhere. They slowly strutted by, close enough to touch. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any more surreal, one of the emus approached a nearby kangaroo, and as if to show who was in charge, pecked the kangaroo on the back, sending him hopping on his way! Two kangaroos in the distance began boxing with each other, and for a moment, I felt as if I were in some sort of Dr. Doolittle fantasy world, a movie set made with special effects and magical creatures.
I could have stayed at Walkabout for the rest of the morning, but we were on a wine tour, after all, and it was soon time to head north into the heart of the Hunter Valley.
* * * * *
We drove about an hour, along forest-lined roads, past yellow diamond-shaped “kangaroo crossing” signs. Hunter Valley, Sam explained, was Australia’s oldest wine region, with the first plantings dating back almost 200 years. About 175 vineyards are scattered throughout the valley, most of them small boutique operations with their wines available only locally. We later learned that locally really means locally; they are not even distributed in Sydney.
Our first stop was a family-run vineyard called Gemelli estate. Situated along an idyllic country road, it’s a serene setting with beautiful views of the valley. Owners Rebecca and Michael Boyd purchased the property in 2010 and named it after their children – “gemelli” is Italian for “twins.” Rebecca greeted us at the Cellar Door and talked about her family’s hands-on involvement in the business as she poured wines for us to taste. Harvest season was already underway, with the vineyard producing Chardonnay, Muscat and Merlot grapes.
Back in the van, we headed to our lunch stop and our next, most unusual tasting experience: A cheese tasting at the Hunter Valley Smelly Cheese Shop. Part of the Roche Estate complex of shops, restaurants and an outdoor concert venue, the Smelly Cheese Shop features an overwhelming variety of local and imported cheeses and gourmet foods. But the real treat is the shop’s cheese expert Sharon, a crackerjack of a woman, funny, fast-talking and full of facts about all things cheese. This was my first-ever cheese tasting, and I was fascinated with the ideas Sharon presented for pairing the cheeses with different foods and incorporating them in recipes. I think she could have quite a successful side business writing cookbooks!
We visited another vineyard after lunch and ended the afternoon at a craft brewery before leaving the Hunter Valley. It had been an incredibly full day, and I welcomed the chance to collect my thoughts on the drive back before jumping into the world of touring Sydney. We were in a new country, on a new continent, creating new memories.
I couldn’t wait for the next day to begin.