Here, amid the gum trees and kookaburra cackles, nature lovers have the rare chance to kip with koalas, while also playing a vital part in their preservation.
Opened in September 2020, the $10 million Port Stephens Council-run sanctuary is a heartening example of how tourism and conservation can partner for good. Joining forces with volunteer rescue group Port Stephens Koalas, the council has transformed a former caravan park into an 8ha wildlife haven were sick, injured, and orphaned koalas can be rehabilitated for release back into the wild.
The venture gives animal carers a purpose-built treatment facility (koalas were previously cared for in private homes), while also helping educate the public about koala conservation. Visitors can peer through the glass at the onsite Koala Hospital and stroll along the 225m elevated Skywalk to see resident koalas in a natural bush setting.
Alongside the koalas’ home is my home for the night. A tented village tucked behind the dunes of One Mile Beach beside wetlands bordering Tomaree National Park. The 20 raised glamping tents fan out around an interpretive path, which is dotted with giant fiberglass koala sculptures, that tell the life story of the lovable marsupials.
My tent has a canvas shell with a glass sliding door, a large covered deck, and an adjoining (fixed-construction) ensuite. Inside are all the mod-cons you would expect from a four-star hotel – king-size bed, air- conditioning, sofa, TV and basic kitchenette (there’s also a pool on the grounds and a further 20 hotel-style rooms). My favorite feature is the ceiling, lined with white silk that cascades down from the pitched roof in shimmering pleats. On the bench is a welcome hamper packed with breakfast provisions (muesli, bread, and spreads), as well as cheeses, biscuits, Hunter Valley sparkling wine, and salted coconut chocolate.
At bedtime, I leave the door and windows open and let the night creatures’ calls float in. An orchestra of cicadas accompanies the baritone yawp of frogs. It’s koala mating season and I strain my ears, listening for the throaty bellow of an amorous male. Before long, I’m woken by sunlight dancing on silk, and the nocturnal soundtrack has been replaced with morning birdsong. I have breakfast on the deck as a flock of lorikeets whistles through the treetops and a kookaburra eyes my toast from next door’s balcony.
At 8.15 am I join a guide, Melinda Atkinson, for a sanctuary tour, exclusive to in-house guests before the day visitors arrive. We learn about the local koala population’s drastic decline – down from more than 30,000 in decades past to as few as 250 today. The destruction of koala habitats is to blame, together with car strikes and dog attacks. Standing up to protect these most beloved of Australian wildlife icons is a band of 170 volunteers who rescue stricken koalas and nurse them back to health. Koala Rosemary and her joey Blinky (not my cushion) were injured in a goanna attack and will soon be released back into the wild. Others, like Tai who is blind and brain-damaged from a suspected car accident, will see out their days in the sanctuary. A dozen koalas are permanent residents and the hospital treats a further 50 on average per year.
When we pass Tai’s pen, volunteer Lois Tack – gloved with a bucket in hand – is counting droppings, which will be logged to monitor the koala’s progress. The UK ex-pat has just finished wiping Tai’s slobbery fur and replacing his eucalyptus leaves (koalas eat a hefty 1kg a day), and says she has pinch-me moments working two mornings a week with the koalas.
“Until I came here (at the end of 2020), I’d never seen a koala before,” Lois says. “I love it. I don’t care that my alarm goes off early. I never thought I would be up close and personal with a koala.”
Every visitor helps fund the sanctuary’s important work. A percentage of proceeds, from the accommodation, admission fees, and the onsite Fat Possum cafe, go towards koala conservation. Just don’t arrive expecting to hold one. Koala cuddling is banned in NSW. You can snuggle up to your Blinky cushion instead.
Port Stephens is about a two-and-a-half hours’ drive northeast of Sydney.
Superior glamping tents at the sanctuary (some of them accessible) cost from $460 a night, including exclusive access to the sanctuary and a welcome basket with breakfast provisions. portstephenskoalasanctuary.com.au
This article originally appeared on Escape and do not necessarily represent the views of australiaexploring.com