Going on a koala safari at Hidden Vale Wildlife Centre in Queensland's Lockyer Valley

I've had to travel all the way to a towering, anonymous eucalyptus forest, a pocket of greenery deep in the parched, colour-drained farmlands of southwest Queensland, to discover that you can tell a lot about a koala by staring at its buttocks.

But wait. Bear with me. It's late afternoon and I'm staring straight up at an arboreal marsupial's posterior, through borrowed binoculars, as part of a new conservation-based "koala safari" introduced by Spicers Hidden Vale Retreat, 34-room luxury resort built around an historic, 5000-hectare cattle station.

I'd been informed earlier in a day, in a prelude to the safari at the Hidden Vale Wildlife Centre, that a koala's particularly "wet bottom" or "dirty tail" can be an indicator of illness such as cystitis for a species whose existence is threatened by a range of diseases as well as other factors.

The tours, here in the bucolically scenic Lockyer Valley, a mere hour or so west of Brisbane, were launched earlier this year as a spinoff of a wildlife research and conservation program funded by Graham and Jude Turner.

They're the founders of the giant Flight Centre group and owners of Spicers Retreats in Queensland and NSW, with the couple, through its Turner Family Foundation, committing $18.5 million over three decades to conservation, including the centrepiece Hidden Vale Wildlife Centre.

As far as real safaris go, this one's hardly the stuff of Jeeps and jungle greens, and I'm not inspired to start whistling the Daktari theme. But, as cute a concept as they sound, the koala safaris are an important step in building public awareness.

One of the world's most adored creatures, the koala is officially listed as "vulnerable" by the federal government with the Australian Koala Foundation urging that its status be raised to "critically endangered", placing in the same category as many threatened species on the dark continent.

Indeed, considering the koala's iconic nature, it's arguably as serious a national and international conservation issue as that posed to the Great Barrier Reef. Can you conceive of a world, or an Australia, without  the reef and the koala? It's possible.

The koala population of south-east Queensland is estimated to be between 10,000 to 20,000 out of a total of less than 80,000 nationally, according to the Australian Koala Foundation. That's a dramatic, if not shameful, decline from the millions shot for their fur in the early part of the 20th century.


Indeed, the Australian chapter of the World Wildlife Fund states  the destruction and fragmentation of their habitat means koalas must spend more time nowadays on the ground moving from tree to tree. This makes them more vulnerable to being struck by cars or attacked by dogs.

The resultant elevated levels of stress can render them prone to illnesses and diseases. Many koala populations are vulnerable to the sexually-transmitted disease chlamydia manifesting itself when the animal is in its most stressed state.

Many Queensland koalas can carry but not display symptoms of the potentially devastating condition, which include infections of the eye, even leading to blindness, urinary tract, respiratory tract and reproductive tract with the latter leading to infertility, according to Dr Andrew Tribe, who heads the Hidden Vale Wildlife Centre and its koala research program.

"The koala's an integral part of our natural history and our national prestige," says Dr Tribe, a former University of Queensland academic and senior veterinary surgeon at Melbourne Zoo. "We can't afford to lose any more species in Australia."

Earlier in the day, before heading out on safari, I'm ensconced inside an office at the modern Wildlife Centre, seated next to the amiable Dr Tribe, nearly as lofty in stature as some of the taller saplings back in the koala colony forest. He's studying a screen that resembles something straight out of air traffic control, or at least a busy country aerodrome.

In reality, the display shows the movements of more than two dozen koalas – 15 females and 10 males - which, as a part of a special hi-tech telemetry project, have been fitted with electronic collars and anklets that allow their movements and behaviours to be tracked by the research team.

Here at Hidden the loss of a single research program koala is taken seriously. When a koala is detected as missing, due to the loss of an electronic collar or electronic, by researchers via their elaborate electronic tracking system they react swiftly to locate the animal's body in the forest in order for an autopsy to be performed before decomposition sets in in order to conclusively establish the cause of death.

Not long ago, in the course of the koala research program, tragedy struck when one of the koalas being tracked and studied overnight disappeared from the screen, only to be discovered to have been killed by dogs. That's one less koala too many in the already dwindling south-east Queensland population.

Out in the field, participants of the koala safari assist researchers and koala spotters – yes, there is a such a job - in locating the marsupials, invariably in trees of more than 20 metres or more in height, and performing visible checks of their wellbeing or otherwise.

"A number of our koalas have tested positive to chlamydia but are showing no symptoms so that is something we will be monitoring closely," says Dr Tribe. "Tracking is very expensive but an incredibly useful way to know what's going on with our koalas and ensure they are safe."

As a tribute to the Turners' commitment to conservation, each of the koalas are named after an extended family member. One of the koalas has the possibly unfortunate name "Skroo", the well-known epithet of Graham "Skroo" Turner.

"[Skroo's] one of our biggest koalas and he drops his [electronic] collar a fair bit, possibly during fights with other males," says Dr Tribe. "But only one koala, O'Hara, has moved away from the colony [being studied and monitored by the Wildlife Centre]."

In the eucalypt forest, my neck craned during most of the koala safari, I marvel at the creatures' dexterity in not just shifting from one gum tree to another but also remaining in their embrace, often in some odd and perilous-looking positions. Fortunately, as I later learn, koalas possess sturdy cartilage at the end of curved spines, allowing them to make eucalyptus trees a more comfortable home than they can appear to humans.

Back in the eucalyptus forest, in the midst of the koala colony, or "koala hotspot", as it's called by researchers, Dr Tribe is wandering in between trees wielding a blue antenna and frankly resembling a hapless TV technician trying to gain reception from a dodgy set.

Ultimately, there's only enough time on tour in the forest to spot two koalas, not including the ant nest that I rather embarrassingly mistake for one of the animals.

I may have been tempted to mutter "bummer" but even spotting a few of these cuddly-though-not-be-cuddled creatures has been a rare privilege. As I step from their rapidly darkening forest home and out into dappled, fast fading lemony afternoon light, I emerge considerably more aware of their tragic plight.



Spicers Hidden Vale is offering a special "spring escape" deal starting from $474 per night for a two-night stay including luxury accommodation, daily a la carte breakfast, a chef's spring tasting menu for two on one night and a cocktail for two. See spicersretreats.com


Spicers Hidden Vale's koala safaris run on Tuesday and Friday afternoon. They begin with a tour of the Hidden Wildlife Centre following by just under two hours in the bush tracking the animals as part of a research program. The tours costs $74 per person including transport and refreshments. Seventy-five per cent of proceeds from the tours are donated to the Hidden Vale Wildlife Centre. Bookings are essential.


Fly to Brisbane Airport on one of the regular direct Qantas or Virgin Australia flights from Sydney and Melbourne and on arrival hire a vehicle for the hour or so's drive to Spicers Hidden Vale, near to the towns of Rosewood and Grandchester in south-east Queensland's Lockyer Valley.






They may resemble a small bear with their rounded ears and black noses but they share more characteristics with other animals officially classified as marsupials.


Baby koalas - just like the offspring of kangaroos - are called "joeys" and develop in their mother's pouch for about six months. Beyond that period they ride atop their mother's back for another six months.


Although koalas exist on eucalyptus leaves they can devour up to a kilogram a day with special fibre digesting organ, called a caecum, helps to detoxify the chemicals in the leaves.


It's believed koalas didn't need to drink much because of the moisture they derive from juicy eucalyptus leaves all day. However, they do drink water in times of drought and high temperatures.


Despite their drowsy demeanour, koalas don't get drugged out on eucalyptus leaves. They sleep up to 18 hours a day because the leaves are so low in nutrients and slumber helps conserve energy.

Source: World Wildlife Fund Australia, see wwf.org.au

Anthony Dennis visited Hidden Vale as a guest of Spicers Retreats