Having spent months earlier in the year editing and publishing my travel memoir, Is this the Road to Stratford?, I needed a serious dose of nature to get me back in balance. My computer and I don’t get on well if we spend to much time together in our little room.
My latest dose, a few days ago, was the Healesville Sanctuary. Named Wominjeka by the Wurundjeri people, the traditional owners of this part of the state, it means ‘welcome’.
It took me an hour to get from my place across to the Yarra Valley in the east of Melbourne, so by then I was in dire need of my morning caffeine fix. I found a cheery, book-lined cafe in the village, then grabbed a salad roll for lunch and headed along Badger Creek Road to the sanctuary.
Set in 30 hectares of bushland, it’s a beautiful place to commune with native Australian animals and birds.
A lot of what goes on in the sanctuary is conservation work, along with a breeding program for threatened species. They also have a hospital, the Australian Wildlife Centre, where they care for animals brought in injured or orphaned. After the 2009 Black Saturday bush fires, they treated around 150, mostly for serious burns.
My first stop was to feed the emus.
From then on, I wandered for hours around the tracks, and in and out of the display areas. My favourite animal was Maggie, the wombat. Maggie is two years old and weighs just on 23 kilograms. Fully grown, she’ll be around 40 kilos. It was feeding time, but all she was interested in was being cuddled by her keeper.
This wombat is Shadow, sleeping peacefully, her head resting comfortably on her arm.
There was a publicity shoot going on, with a glamorous model and a little koala. The koala performed for a while and then suddenly got sick of the whole thing and took off to the top of her tree, out of reach.
Tasmanian Devils are the largest carnivorous marsupials in the world. They are currently threatened by Devil Facial Tumour Disease, which causes tumours around the mouth, face and neck. The disease is fatal and the species is now listed as endangered. Healesville is one of eighteen zoos breeding and managing a captive population as an insurance against the species dying out.
In the parrot aviary, I was thrilled to be so close to a black cockatoo. On attempting to feed her some seed, she attempted take off my finger – several times. The keeper was surprised; apparently she’s not usually so bad-tempered. I could have explained I have a history with parrots and cockies – they always try to take my finger off. I don’t know what why, but I took it personally and left her alone.
The park has many presentations but the most popular and spectacular is Spirits of the Sky. Held in the flight arena, majestic birds of prey, parrots and an owl show off their flying capabilities, skimming the heads of the audience as they pass. The most popular is Magra, the 46 year-old wedge-tailed eagle.
This skull is a scaled up replica of a Thylacoleo, a Marsupial Lion, which roamed across Australia over 40,000 years ago. It was a ferocious Pleistocene killer, possibly taking down prey like the Diprotadon, a animal about the size of a small rhino.
I put my hand on a tooth to give you an idea of the size.
At 4.30, I just had time to say hello to an Eastern Grey kangaroo, while her baby stuck its head out of her pouch for a look, before I was gently reminded the animals were now off limits for the night.
I missed quite a bit. These days you can watch a platypus, an animal which has always been thought of as extremely shy, being handled and played with by its keeper. I also missed Victoria’s tiny Leadbeater’s Possum, under threat in the wild from land clearing and bush fires.
And I would have liked to get a look inside the hospital. I’ll just have to come back another day. It’s a lovely place. There’s something about being around animals in their natural environment that is very sedating. The keepers certainly seem happy in their work. I said to the young man who looks after the wombats and the kangaroos, ‘You must be happy in your job.’ ‘I’m not complaining,’ he said.