*At the time of publishing, all guests have been notified that HAL’s world cruise will conclude and guests will disembark in Fremantle, Australia. No further updates have been given.
After our two-day visit to Sydney on March 7-8 (which it turns out coincided with that of Tom Hanks and his wife), our 2020 Grand World Voyage took us to Townsville, North Queensland, a frequent call –and one of our favorites in Australia—during Holland America’s Amsterdam’s world cruises.
A gateway, along with Cairns, to the Great Barrier Reef where my husband Humberto and I have had the pleasure and privilege of snorkeling during two previous world cruises, Townsville is Queensland’s biggest city with a population nearing 200,000.
A charming, friendly city, one of its main highlights is The Strand, with a seaside promenade, lovely beach, tide pool and park areas. Other points of interest include the Reef HQ, reportedly the world’s largest living coral reef aquarium and an educational facility for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park; and Castle Hill, an impressive pink monolith that is an invitation to climbers and that affords panoramic views of the city. And, of course, Townsville is also a great place to get up close and personal with Australia’s awesome fauna.
This trip, we opted for the latter as we have a soft spot for cute koalas and kangaroos and other critters. So we headed for the Billabong Sanctuary, 11 miles south of Townsville. Sometimes offered as an optional shipboard excursion, this is a 26-acre interactive wildlife park presenting a variety of shows and activities.
The Koala Experience is a popular attraction at the sanctuary. These fluffy-teddy-bear-looking critters are marsupials and when I have cuddled one on two occasions, they seemed surprisingly heavy to me. They tend to latch on to you as if you were a tree and they may smell like a cough drop – their diet consists of eucalyptus leaves. Queensland (where the Billabong Sanctuary is located), South Australia and Western Australia are the only places in Australia where it is legal to hold a koala – in other states, like New South Wales where Sydney is located, it is against the law
We toured the Sanctuary with one of the ranger guides, Tabatha, who took us to see the koalas including Maluka, who she told us is a new daddy; a baby red kangaroo that loves sweet potatoes; a cassowary that we gingerly fed grapes to; and Reuben the wombat, who seemed very content while we petted his soft, bushy fur. Tabatha told us these friendly marsupials are the largest burrowing mammals in the world.
As we explored the park, Tabatha also told us about herself –she had just returned from holiday in Japan and she was surprised she was not asked anything about coronavirus when re-entering Australia, “only if you had traveled to China or Iran,” she said. She assumed that it was because everyone wears masks in Japan even when they have just a cold, she said. She also told us her job and that of other ranger guides at the sanctuary is made easier when the groups of visitors are Americans, who, she said, tend to be polite.
Among the stories about the animals in the sanctuary, she told us about Tonka, a wombat famous in the area for being very outgoing – he has passed away now. Once, when the park had to close for a few months for repairs after a cyclone, Tonka missed the interaction with visitors so much that he became depressed, Tabatha said. The park rangers gave the teddy-bear-looking wombat a small teddy bear for his own and that brought his spirits back. “He carried his teddy bear around all the time and cuddled it and felt better,” Tabatha said. We wished we had been there to see Tonka with his teddy bear.
Other activities and attractions include kangaroo feeding to hobnob with friendly free-ranging, docile gray kangaroos as you feed them, pet them and take photos of them – always fun and makes for iconic photos of a visit Down Under. Tabatha gave us a hint: kangaroos love it when you pet them under their chins and scratch the front of their necks. You can feed kangaroos at your leisure during your visit –bags of food for them are for sale at nominal price at the park (just keep an eye on the bag of food as the sanctuary’s geese have been known to abscond with them).
Yet other “musts” at the Sanctuary include the crocodile feeding show with a big saltwater crocodile that jumps out of the water to gobble up a chicken hanging from one of the park rangers’ pole, and the Reptile Experience with a park ranger showcasing snakes including pythons (yikes) from the safety of the sanctuary’s reptile pit as well as lizards and baby crocs. You can pose with a python or other reptiles if you dare – I must confess, I always pass on posing with a monster Burmese python curled around my neck!
But we did not pass on the opportunity to pet the dingoes (of “the dingo ate my baby” fame). While dangerous in the wild, the ones in the sanctuary are docile, and remind you of puppies.
Another option while in Townsville for those who wish to cuddle a koala (who wouldn’t?) and get up close to other Australian fauna, is the Bungalow Bay Koala Park on Magnetic Island. On this island, so named by legendary Capt. James Cook because it supposedly messed up his compass when he came upon it, there are rangers at the Bungalow Bay Koala Park who take visitors on tours to get up close and personal with Aussie wildlife. You can hold a koala, lizard, saltwater crocodile – and yes, a python too.
A big highlight of this portion of the voyage held onboard the Amsterdam was the Aboriginal Night Fire Dinner, an indigenous Australian themed dinner in the dining room with special lighting and décor and such dishes on the menu as Tasmanian salmon gravlax and Venison Pot Pie. Another memorable dinner was the Australian Wine & Cheese Feast in the Lido featuring Down Under wines and cheeses.
Some quick superlatives of this portion of the world cruise:
- Most fun: Having gray kangaroos feed off your hands.
- Most exotic: The Venison Pot Pie of the Aboriginal Night Fire Dinner.
Sadly, as I write this we have received word that our cruise around the world has been canceled and all passengers are to disembark the Amsterdam in Fremantle, Australia. So this will be my last “postcard.”