Sydney Wildlife World

Part of the thrill of expeditions to exotic lands is sussing out the wildlife, and I don’t mean dangerously attractive women with blonde manes gyrating in nightclubs till dawn.

Rather, like the adventurers of old, it’s the discovery of strange and fascinating creatures and their habitats that really gives you a sense of having ventured far from home. And if strange and fascinating is what you’re after, drop into Sydney Wildlife World in Darling Harbour. Unlike other zoos and animal parks, Sydney Wildlife World is dedicated to Australia’s unique and bizarre collection of plants and animals. There’s no sabre tooth tigers, weary elephants or performing chimps, but there are more than 6000 critters living in habitats simulated to represent their regional Australian homes – so if you’ve spent your last travel dollars on boozy nights and kebabs, and you haven’t the resources to road trip your way around Australia, you can still experience rainforests and outback environments (albeit replicas), right here in Sydney.

The astonishing array of Aussie critters includes all the classic groups (insects, spiders, reptiles, birds and mammals) and you’ll see all the old iconic creatures from koalas to snakes, but look out for the lesser-known characters too.

The freakishly large rhinoceros cockroach (it’s the size of your hand) and the cassowary bird (the biggest and most dangerous bird in the world) are just two Australian animals about which I previously knew nothing. And then there’s all the startling facts gleaned from various interactive displays, like butterflies having tastebuds on their feet, snakes smelling with their mouths and crickets having ears on their legs.

The tour takes about 90 minutes, and it’s a spectacular look at Australia’s diverse environments all under the one roof. There’s no touching (thank God, say the koalas), but it’s sure to heighten your understanding of this exotic continent. And if you want to touch, try your luck with the gyrating blondes.

Rosalind Scutt

The experience: Sydney Wildlife World is in Darling Harbour next to the Aquarium. Entry costs $28.50 and the complex opens on 20 September.

Sydney Aquarium

We’d be prepared to stake our deputy editor’s ferret (yes, he has a ferret and it sits on his head, see page 47) on the fact most of you have either already been to the Barrier Reef, or are planning to go there on your journey north. The thing is though, you don’t need to head all the way to Cairns to get a taste of the reefy delights because they’re here in all their colourful glory at Sydney Aquarium.

The aquarium ranks as one of the best in the world, and don’t make the mistake of thinking the representatives of the Barrier Reef are all you’ll find swimming around here because that couldn’t be further from the truth. Australia has an incredibly rich and diverse waterway and marine ecosystem, from the creatures that lurk in the waters of the Murray-Darling River system to the crocodile-infested rivers of the far north, and all of it is celebrated here. It’s not all about the fish either, because as you wander around you’ll encounter platypi, frogs, crustaceans, incredibly cute fairy penguins, a not so cute saltwater croc (try and organise your visit to include feeding time – Thurs 3pm – for a real eye-opening experience) and seals.

The seal display is highly recommended, as you get to experience these sea pups through underwater viewing tunnels, in all their playful glory. The underwater tunnel system is also used to view the scarily extensive shark collection. Now, who needs to pay out for a trip to the Reef?

Mary Van Der Honing

The experience: Sydney Aquarium admission costs $24.75. Get 20 per cent off with the voucher on page 64.

Shark Encounter

On the choppy ferry ride across the harbour, I’m being subjected to a barrage of hilarious jokes about how sharks have a particular appetite for red-haired girls called Amy – and then the nerves start to kick in. I love aquariums – they’re fantastic to walk around, so why not just leave it there? Why do I have to go the extra mile and actually get in the tank?

The recklessness of my decision is reinforced as we enter Oceanworld Manly and our lovely instructor Katie explains that the sharks are in fact 20 per cent larger than they appear to us now through the thick reinforced glass. Brilliant!

The tank contains several grey nurse sharks, which I’m assured are harmless. They come in L, XL, and XXL – the biggest a terrifying 3.7m long. There’s a couple of ornate wobbegongs (whatever the hell they are) and some manta rays – the largest of which would spill over the sides of a queen-size bed. There’s also a little baby shark. How cute! He’s only a couple of days old. How sweet! He’s got a big food sack attached to his belly containing all the siblings he ate in the womb for nutrition. How… disgusting! We fill in some forms (no, I don’t suffer from panic attacks, but then I’ve never been in a tank full of sharks before), watch the safety video (with helpful Jaws soundtrack – how reassuring) and run through the dive signals (paying particular attention to the “get me the hell out of here” signal). There’s no going back now.

After a quick session in the practice pool, we head through into the tank. The goggles limit my peripheral vision, so when everything goes dark and people start pointing frantically above my head, I look upwards with some trepidation to see the underside of a gigantic manta ray. My eyes nearly pop out. This is very surreal. After an intense struggle to stop floating skywards, I manage to stabilize my weight and perch on a ledge with two giant sea turtles at my feet. They’re beautiful, and I’m tingling with excitement and wonder, when suddenly a very fast, very knobbly orange thing whizzes past me, far too close for comfort. I’m momentarily stunned, until I realize it must be Brutus, the over-friendly wobbegong Katie warned us about. Then I see it. A massive bloody shark. There’s nothing between it and me, except a bit of water. I’m not sure I’m happy about this. Oh look, here’s a couple more. Panic attack, anyone? Regaining my composure I look up to see Katie grinning wickedly and pointing at my bulging eyes. As we pose for photos I realise that although I’m anxious, I’m grinning my head off. Despite having to duck to avoid getting stroked by a manta ray and contort myself to evade the ever-circling wobbegong, I can’t keep the smile off my face. It’s thrilling. And then our half hour is up. We wave goodbye to our new aquatic friends. All too soon, I’m back out in the beautiful Manly sunlight, blinking and feeling as though I’ve just returned from another universe.

Amy Richardson

The experience: A Shark Dive Xtreme at Oceanworld Manly starts from $180. Please book ahead on (02) 8251 7878.

Taronga Zoo

Let’s face it, everybody likes to get in touch with their inner beast once in a while. We’ve all seen the Steve Coogan comedy and spent a week looking in the mirror going: “you’re a tiger – grrrrrrrr!”. And which lad hasn’t had a few too many and done the elephant trick with the trouser pockets and the, er… So what better way to answer the call of nature than to go see the real guys in action? I certainly jumped at the chance to visit Sydney’s Taronga Zoo, where you can roam the plains of Africa, squint at big-eyed things that go squeak in the night and sweat it out in the tropics – all in one day. After catching the ferry from Circular Quay – highly recommended – and riding the Sky Safari over the zoo, I decided to start out in the Australian bush.

I was told many fascinating facts about kangaroos and things you really don’t want to snuggle up to in your sleeping bag, before wandering over to the open ocean area. One minute the seals were lolling around lazily, as aerodynamic as a tub of lard, the next they were zipping through the water like sleek, fat bullets. The monkeys and baboons made me chuckle, especially since my last zoo visit consisted of my young friend pointing excitedly to the apes and shouting: “Monkey, monkeys, monkeys! With the big red bums!” Once out of the tropics my feet steered themselves into the Sahara, where I was suddenly surrounded by big cats. One thing I don’t think I’ll ever get over is the sheer magnificence of a tiger ambling through the long grass, his striped coat allowing his powerful muscular frame to disappear into the dappled shade of the trees. Not the kind of pussy you could shoo out of your flowerbeds for doing his business.

With such a wide range of fantastic exhibits, I spent the whole day listening to the keepers’ inside info and marvelled at just how amazing the animal kingdom really is. One of my last days in Sydney well spent, and I challenge you to leave still thinking that humans are the most superior race on the planet.

Gemma Price

The experience: Taronga Zoo is 12 minutes by ferry from Circular Quay. Admission starts from $32.

Australian Reptile Park and Wildlife Sanctuary

Snakeskin stilettos and alligator-tipped cowboy boots… I bought them at a roadside stall in Mexico and wearing them was about as close as I’d been to reptiles – not counting dressups with Mum’s handbag collection in the ‘70s.

But that was a long time ago and suddenly, all grown up, I stood petrified in a snake pit while a guy who looked like The Croc Hunter on drugs gently coaxed me into caressing the python around my neck, yes that’s what I said – the python around my neck. And the real clincher here? It wasn’t even milked (or so The Croc Hunter said).The Australian Reptile and Wildlife Park offers a spectacular day out and aside from the reptiles, there’s plenty to see.Arrive at mid-morning if you can (it’s about a one-hour drive from Sydney’s CBD, or you can catch the shuttle bus or train from Wynyard Station) and claim one of the many outdoor BBQs, then take the rest of the day to wander around at your leisure.

The park is a huge expanse of open space including various habitats, with show pits and indoor exhibitions. There’s everything to see including birds, mammals, reptiles and spiders.

Live shows include reptiles and koala shows (you can touch and take pictures with both) and on the other side of the park you can hand-feed the kangaroos. And the alligators and crocs? They’re big and you view them from behind a fence, but feeding time has them jumping to seize their game (and you’ll be glad for the fence). Make it a day-trip and take lots of film.

Rosalind Scutt

The experience: The Australian Reptile Park is on the Central Coast. Admission costs $20, call (02) 9211 3192 for shuttle pick up.