The most outstanding features of natural Australia, after two lengthy trips there, include aspects of the flora – and the bird life.
While the natural landscapes can be impressive, the topography of Australia is not as rugged as that found on most other continents. There are no active volcanoes or really dramatic volcanic landscapes, though some have erupted as recently as a few thousand years ago. There are large canyons with impressive cliffs (Blue Mountains and elsewhere) but these are not as deep as the Grand Canyon in Arizona and are more vegetation-covered. Tropical rainforest environments are limited in area and are often somewhat inaccessible on mountain slopes. Temperate rainforests are more numerous and accessible in many parks but lack the species diversity of more tropical forests.
Though mammals are abundant, many are small and nocturnal. The well-known kangaroos and similar species are crepuscular and nocturnal for the most part, only becoming apparent as the sun is setting. Then they can be abundant in open fields, golf courses – and roadsides. There are some very unusual mammals like Echidna, Platypus, Wombats, Koalas, and Flying Foxes, but with the exception of a few these are nocturnal. We have seen Koalas only in two little-known parks in Victoria, but they were easy to see once you learn to recognize them from a distance. Flying Foxes – large fruit-eating bats, are abundant in the more tropical parts of Australia and can be seen (and heard) roosting in trees, and flying about near sunset.
In summary, don’t travel to Australia to see Koalas, Kangaroos or Platypus. You will likely be disappointed by the views (only Echidna can be closely approached on the ground), should you see them.
Though reptiles are very diverse and many are numerous, they are only occasionally seen. Most likely seen are Monitor lizards crossing roads, Forest Dragons, and the larger skinks (Blue-Tongues). Small lizards abound in forest litter, but snakes, despite Australia’s reputation, are inconspicuous. We have seen only a handful (perhaps less than 10) in approximately 100 days of traveling, and we were keeping our eyes open for them. If you have herpetological leanings, and use the usual techniques of night driving in warm weather, turning over rocks and logs etc you will undoubtably find more, but they are not as abundant as in parts of North America – from our experience.
If your travel timing permits visiting the southwestern part of Australia during the peak flowering season this is also a major attraction. These are not the landscape-covering displays that are common to some other parts of the world (which actually tend to characterize disturbed/overgrazed landscapes) but rather individual plants with very unusual flowers and leaf forms.
Australia has little succulent plant diversity – mainly because fire dominates many landscapes and because really dry areas (less than about 150mm/yr annual rainfall) are lacking. Succulence has not developed widely, as in the Americans or Africa.
One element of Australia’s fauna is well-known, if not highlighted in tourist brochures. Australia is the fly continent. Away from urban areas flies are everywhere. While most are not the biting sort, they can be very pesky – trying to enter your nose, ears, eyes etc. Fly nets are valuable at times, but detract from the experience. Forested areas generally have fewer or no flies.
Why then, travel to Australia? We think it should be for the birds, which are diverse and readily apparent, and the diverse flora – which is different from what you will see on other continents.