There are places where a group of adults with no kids can feel a little out of place. Bouncy houses for one, Chuck E Cheese, playgrounds, and oftentimes — zoos. On our recent trip down under, seeing Australia’s unique animals was right up there with the Sydney Opera House and The Great Barrier Reef for us, but we weren’t sure we wanted to pay the exorbitant admission fees (upward of $80 per person!) to spend just a few hours at the zoo. We had several opportunities to visit a zoo, since there’s one in nearly every major city, in addition to animal encounters and sanctuaries dotted throughout the country. But after some research and a little bit of luck, we found you don’t actually need to visit a zoo to see the wildlife. Unless you want to see a whole range of animals, you can actually see Australia’s best wildlife where you should — in the wild.

To Zoo or Not to Zoo?

First things first, you have to decide what you really want to see. For us, there were three quintessential Australian animals that we didn’t want to leave without seeing: koalas, crocodiles, and, of course, kangaroos. If you want to see others (such as Australia’s 14 species of lethal snakes) you may need a zoo, unless you’re exceptionally brave and feel comfortable scouting them out on your own. Being the non-suicidal type of family, we opted to find these animals as safely, cheaply, and naturally as possible.

Giraffe in a zoo against Sydney skyline New South Wales, Australia.

Our First Sighting: Kangaroos at Sunset

On our first day, we were lucky enough to stumble upon Heirisson Island, a kangaroo reserve, just a five-minute walk from our hotel in Perth. It’s free to the public and in a surprisingly metropolitan location. I was surprised to find, after a little research, that most cities have similar reserves. I was anxious on our first venture, expecting a seven-foot kangaroo to come bounding out of the bushes Jurassic-Park style. After an hour and a half of searching, we saw nothing but thistles and weeds and tall Australian grass full of kamikaze mosquitoes. We decided to try again the next day.

It was late afternoon on the second day, which is apparently when the kangaroos come out to play. Within 10 minutes, we spotted a group of them — six or so — in the grass. They were much smaller than I imagined, three feet tall maybe, and adorable, with long ears and serious faces, their legs springy and agile. For about thirty minutes they watched us, seeing us but not too wary as we inched closer to get pictures of them. The sunset spread across the golden field, illuminating the shine of their fur, casting a glow on the island. A little later, a group of tourists followed us in and scared them away, but that was okay. We’d spent half an hour with kangaroos in the wild for FREE!

Kangaroo hiding behind tree near Perth, Western Australia

Two Weeks in: Time to Find the Koalas

We drove The Great Ocean Road out of Melbourne hoping to spot some koalas, but they were a bit more difficult to track down. Apparently they like their privacy. After seeing some I could understand why: Koalas sleep for up to 22 hours a day, lodged safely in tall trees whose grey-brown hues provide ample coverage for the animals. On our drive, we stopped at a turn-off called Koala Cove. We got out of the car, not expecting to see any based on reviews from fellow tourists, but we needed a bathroom break anyway and thought we’d check. Two girls were on the side of the road feeding parrots and offered us their birdseed since they were about to leave.

They walked away, and then one turned, pointing at the trees above us. “Oh, and there are some koalas up there.” We looked up, and our jaws just dropped. The koalas were right above us, sweet blobs of gray fur, drowsily clinging to the tree’s boughs, their white sideburns visible from where we stood. (If you don’t happen to be in that spot, or can’t find them yourself in the wild, there are dozens of koala sanctuaries, though some require admission. We’ve heard good things about Paradise Country on the Gold Coast, and Bungalow Bay Koala Village at Magnetic Island).

Wild Koalas along Great Ocean Road, Victoria, Australia

Last on the List: We Gotta Spot Some Crocodiles

We opted to do this with the help of professionals (the movie Jumanji scarred both of us at a young age), so we took a crocodile tour in Daintree, choosing the cheapest option ($22 per person). The guide took us through a rainforest thick with trees and logs that all looked like crocodiles to me… until we actually saw one and I realized how wrong I was! You couldn’t miss this 13-foot monster. It was lounging halfway in, halfway out of the water, waiting, according to our guide, for the tide to carry him out. The guide also spotted baby crocs (how he spotted these tiny reptiles I have no idea) and adolescent crocs, as well as a handful of birds.

Saltwater Crocodile, Daintree River, Australia

We spotted other animals over the course of our stay without necessarily seeking them out: emus, hundreds of cockatoos, eels, and spiders. Australia is a country rife with wildlife, rare birds, exotic plants, and animals that could be just a short walk away, even in the middle of a city.

If you’re a zoo person, by all means, support Australia’s amazing zoos — you’ll likely learn more and see more than we did. But if you’re the kind of person who likes to see wild animals in their natural habitat, Australia is a fantastic place to do that… And skipping the admission fees doesn’t hurt either.

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About The Author

Hey I'm Mandy. Writer, traveler, wife, mother, author, woman, over-sharer. I like to talk about the grit of travel, the beautiful, and the people that I meet. Oh yeah - and traveling with kids.