South Australia is rich with remarkable animals, amazing places and extraordinary experiences. Question is, just how wild do you want to go?
Get a face full of great white shark off Eyre Peninsula
The Neptune Islands off the tip of Eyre Peninsula are regularly visited by very large great white sharks. They come to feed on a substantial colony of plump, delectable New Zealand fur seals.
The remote, uninhabited islands are about an hour’s boat trip from the regional capital of Port Lincoln. Three companies run shark-diving operations on trips that last from one to five days: Rodney Fox Shark Expeditions, Adventure Bay Charters and Calypso Star Charters. Day-trips cost around $370, which sees you out to the islands (three meals included), into a steel cage and into the water. There’s no diving license required – only the ability to keep a regulator in your mouth while a 16-foot, one-ton great white comes to check you out.
Curious animal fact: No one has ever seen a great white shark give birth.
Cuddle a koala in the Adelaide Hills
Cleland Wildlife Park is high on the slopes of Mount Lofty, enjoying fabulous views as well as natural enclosures where guests can interact with the like of emus, kangaroos, and wallabies. It’s also one of the few places in Australia where you can hold a koala, thanks to koala experiences that take place between 2pm and 3pm.
While you’re up here, be sure to visit Mount Lofty Lookout (2330 feet) close to the park: the view is amazing, and when the weather’s hot, you can sometimes see resident koalas in the local gum trees.
Alternatively: The wild koala population is said to number 13,000 on Kangaroo Island and relatively easily found in Flinders Chase National Park.
Curious animal fact: Koalas are territorial and have distinct trees which are called ‘home trees’. They mark them with a scent gland located in their chest fur.
Cruise with a whale off Victor Harbor
In the 1800s, the sheltered bays of Victor Harbor were the perfect place to hunt whales; now they’re the perfect place to see whales. Between June and September, migrating southern right whales and humpbacks enter the waters to calve and play, affording visitors the opportunity to watch them lobbing, spy-hopping and breaching from a range of attractive headlands.
For that extra intimate encounter, you can board the Big Duck, a high-powered rigid inflatable that will take you out to see the cetaceans up close. As well as dolphins, Australian sea lions and New Zealand fur seals.
Alternatively: Head out to beautiful Fowlers Bay on the edge of the Nullarbor Plain where you can board the dive boat Asherah and watch dozens of whales in turquoise waters from June to August. The operator is licensed to motor within 500 feet of the animals (one of the closest in the country), and is currently applying for a license to permit guests to swim with Humpback whales.
Curious animal fact: Numbers of southern right whales in Australian waters have nearly doubled in the past 10 years.
Hang out with a pod of dolphins at a city beach
Glenelg is Adelaide’s most popular beach suburb and just 40 minutes by tram from the city centre. From here you can join a Temptation Sailing Dolphin Cruise[dolphinboat.com.au] and head into the Gulf St Vincent, playground to over a thousand common and bottlenose dolphins. Temptation’s 55-foot catamaran is equipped with a special floatation line: once you’re equipped with snorkel gear and wetsuit, you’re out the back and holding onto the rope while the dolphins swim up for a closer look.
Alternatively: Head to Port Adelaide for an urban wilderness adventure with Adventure Kayak You’ll not only canoe among 20 historic shipwrecks, you’ll have the opportunity of meeting the resident pod of Port River dolphins. See also Baird Bay eco tours, listed below.
Curious animal fact: Dolphins sleep by lying on the surface of the water for three or four hours at a time, with one half of their brain shut down. This allows them to continue breathing.
Watch giant cuttlefish do the wild thing off Whyalla
No, really. Between May and August, a small patch of shallow water off Whyalla is home to a natural phenomenon seen nowhere else on the planet – the mating of giant 1.5ft long cuttlefish. In a good year, some 200,000 animals will ‘aggregate’ off the beaches north of the Eyre Peninsula town, but the true nature of the spectacle is the way males try to catch females so they can mate.
Male cuttlefish will deploy strategies to lure females out of their hidey-holes in the reef. Most notably, they pulse with a whole range of colors, like nature’s billboards. The action takes place just off the beach so all you’ll need is a snorkel, a mask and a wetsuit to ward off the cold. Whyalla Diving in Whyalla hires wetsuits and snorkel gear for $55 for two days.
Curious animal fact: With a view to future military applications, scientists have been studying the cuttlefish’s ability to instantly change color.
Check out the chocolate-coloured kangaroos on Kangaroo Island
Kangaroo Island has become world-famous for its native Australian animals which have flourished thanks to the lack of feral species on the island.
KI is almost four times the size of New York City and has been isolated for 18,000 years, long enough to evolve its own sub-species of kangaroo. The Kangaroo Island kangaroo has rather endearing chocolate-coloured fur which is thicker and shaggier than that of its mainland cousins; it’s also shorter and sturdier and has black tipped hands which look a little like gloves. You don’t have to look very hard to find them – check out any of the rolling fields at dusk and twilight.
Alternatively: Still with unusual macropods, don’t miss the rare yellow-footed rock-wallabies in the ancient gorges around Wilpena Pound in the Flinders Ranges. These small, attractive animals live on narrow rocky ledges, and are especially common among the sheer walls of Brachina Gorge. You might see their small, narrow faces looking down at you, or catch sight of their unusual striped tails.
Curious animal fact: It’s not uncommon to see KI kangaroos on the white sand beaches of the island. They use them as shortcuts, being able to move much quicker over the sandy ‘freeway’ than through the dense brush.
Swim with sea lions in Baird Bay
Australian sea lions are so playful that some people are moved to compare them with puppies. Judge for yourself when you strap on a mask and snorkel and join Baird Bay Ocean Eco Adventures[www.bairdbay.com/] on a heavenly body of water near Streaky Bay on Eyre Peninsula. The Baird Bay sea lions are perfectly wild but when operator Allan Payne takes guests out on his boat, they can’t resist a bit of human interaction. And in case you haven’t had enough wildlife encounters, you’ll also get to snorkel with the local pod of dolphins. Adventure Bay Charters offers excellent underwater sea lion encounters, visiting a colony not far from Port Lincoln Marina.
Alternatively: Seal Bay on Kangaroo Island is home to one of Australia’s largest colonies of Australian sea lions. Visitors can walk with rangers on white sands through the colony to see pups at play, males fighting for supremacy and mothers suckling their young.
Curious animal fact: Australian sea lions number just 14,700; 85 per cent of these live in South Australia, the rest are in Western Australia.
Track southern hairy-nosed wombats 90 minutes from Adelaide
Join an Adelaide Private Tour for two days of searching for the protected Southern hairy-nosed wombat. You’ll enjoy all the romance and comforts of canvas and campfire cooking, as well as the run of a private 7000 acre property north east of Adelaide where South Australia’s state animal is known to dwell. An experienced guide will help you make sense of the landscape as well as the comings and goings of the wombats. There’s even a little Barossa wine tasting thrown in for good measure.
Curious animal fact: Wombats are marsupials as well as prodigious diggers. For this reason, the female has her pouch pointing backwards, to prevent it being filled with dirt when she digs.
Go deep for marsupial lions in Naracoorte
Naracoorte Caves National Park is home to a vast trove of fossilized remains belonging to animals that lived some 200,000 years ago. First discovered in 1969, this cache revealed the existence of a marsupial lion, believed to be the largest carnivore to have lived on the Australian continent. The caves also revealed evidence of thylacines (better known as the Tasmanian tiger) and a giant kangaroo which scientists believe walked rather than hopped.
The World Heritage Listed caves comprise 28 known caves, and some of them are open to visitors. Depending on your fitness (and liking for confined spaces), you can either tour on well-lit boardwalks, or you can suit up with helmet and kneepads to explore some of the deeper caves.
Curious animal fact: The marsupial lion was robustly built and similar in size to a present-day tiger or lioness. It was clearly built for killing, with powerful jaws, huge blade-like molars, and retractable claws. It is not however closely related to a lion, rather it is a member of the diprotodon family.
Visit Adelaide for the animal you never expected to see in Australia
Adelaide is home to the only giant pandas in the Southern Hemisphere. Loaned to Australia by the Chinese government in 2009, Wang Wang and Fu Ni arrived at Adelaide Zoo. They took up residence in a specially constructed 2000-foot enclosure with misters, waterfalls and rocks that can be cooled to 54F.
Curious animal fact: Pandas are something of a living fossil. Eight million years ago they were taller, thinner and they ate meat, but somewhere along their evolutionary path they changed to a diet of bamboo. Result? They’re presently equipped with redundant canines and spend most of their day on their backs eating a woody, low-nutrient plant that takes forever to break down in their gut. Numbers are down to around 2000 animals, and by the law of the jungle, they should probably be extinct. Fortunately for them, human beings find them irresistibly cute.
International carriers fly direct into Adelaide, including Singapore Airlines, Emirates, Qatar Airways, Air New Zealand, Cathay Pacific and Malaysian Airlines. Virgin Australia and Qantas fly to Adelaide from all major Australian cities (flights from Sydney and Melbourne are under two hours).