STEP 1: Unwind and connect with nature
After touching down in Cairns I take a quick drive up the coast to Port Douglas, with the lush rainforest to my left and the ocean to my right.
I turn into the gates of Thala Beach Nature Reserve and it’s just green, green and more lush green as far as the eye can see. The resort’s main lodge is a gorgeous mix of exotic and colonial, with stunning oriental carpets, soft lounge chairs and strong handsome timbers and tree trunks supporting a cathedral ceiling of exquisite angles and turns.
Built within a former sugar plantation and nurtured back to natural habitat, Thala is the indigenous word for the white-bellied sea eagle, and when you see the bird’s eye view from its highest point it’s easy to see how it got its name. You can’t help but exhale when you get here. The whole place is just inviting you to sit, relax and listen to nature, allowing the ambience to flow in and over you.
STEP 2: Turn your eyes to the night skies
After a delightful coconut infused seafood dinner, I take to the skies. Well, from the ground, anyway. This place is an absolutely spectacular spot for stargazing. If the vastness of the rainforest doesn’t make you feel small, the incredible stretch of night sky with billions of stars will. Our fabulous guide knows her way around both the stars and a telescope, and up here the city lights are far behind us, so we get a stunning view of long-gone suns and famous constellations on the banks of the lily filled lagoon to the sound of frogs and cicadas.
STEP 3: Immerse yourself in the habitat
Next is a fabulous breakfast in the lodge with a sideshow of cheeky local birds as entertainment (194 species identified on the property alone, I’m told), and a wonderful guided walk around the resort’s gardens. There’s SO much life in this place! From stunning native parrots to green tree frogs and butterflies you just want to paint, it’s a paradise. The biggest stick insect I’ve ever seen just caught my eye, even though I nearly missed it in its clever disguise, and there’s a giant but elegant orb spider above me in its web.
The paths in the garden are narrow, so you feel truly enveloped by the greenery here. For the gardeners among us it’s paradise as the plant life is so healthy, diverse and abundant! (That said, it could be a challenge for the people who love a manicured edge or a tidy topiary). As our guide Brett describes it, “I think if you want a truly natural experience, to see what this area has looked like for thousands of years, Thala is a great snapshot” he says. “It’s not manicured, there’s been minimal human intervention and really it’s just local native plants at their best.”
STEP 4: Remember to smile at the crocodiles
Next up it’s a short trip down the road to visit the world-famous Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures, a family owned, award-winning ecotourism attraction that has been lovingly created on a 10-hectare World Heritage location with environmental sustainability at its core. It feels like a natural lagoon but it’s actually man-made. After many years of habitat restoration, it’s now a beautiful wetland and a sanctuary for over 3000 crocs and many other native Australian wildlife including wombats, kangaroos, koalas and birdlife.
Before you can say ‘what’s that swimming towards us’, I hop on a boat and cruise around the lagoon to meet some of the 25 crocs who live here. They all have their favourite spots and corners to lurk in, and are all very well looked after – and well fed. I’ve never heard anything quite like the snap of a crocodile’s jaw as it snatches at its lunch.
STEP 5: Get up close and personal
Back on dry land I’m up close with the most gorgeous grey kangaroo, who kindly lets me feed her and even rolls over so I can give her belly a scratch, like a big happy dog! Then there’s Nulla the wombat, who is carried over to meet me by a woman who almost vanishes behind Nulla’s bulky 22kg frame. Nulla is a five-year-old common wombat who’s been raised in captivity and she’s the most placid creature I’ve ever seen. Nulla has the daintiest feet and is such a lady I’m willing to overlook the fact that’s she’s also a bit smelly.
Next, I get to cuddle Daisy, a three-year-old koala who looks like a movie star and holds onto me like I’m a tree! This is such a thrill because we’re so close I can literally bury my nose in her fur. She’s so wonderfully soft and, unlike Nulla, smells gorgeous – like eucalyptus! This is honestly a highlight, and I must say that if you get a chance to hold a koala, you simply must. It’s a very lovely thing to do.
STEP 6: Try everything once
I mention I’m hungry and either the insect keeper has a sense of humour or he knows I’ll try anything once, because I’m presented with a box full of live ants. He invites me to lick one, telling me that these ants are used in cooking all over the world as a spice ingredient. I don’t want to hurt the ant, but the keeper assures me if I lick its lower body I’ll get the flavour of the ant without any loss of life, mine or theirs. I do it, and it’s the spiciest sensation, with a delicious lemony flavour that I can see would be absolutely delicious in Asian cooking or any dish that could use a little spicing up!
STEP 7: Respect the land
I really respect the thinking behind this place, with conservation and sustainability at the centre of everything they do here. The buildings on the site were designed to blend into the landscape, their water use is minimised by extensive recycling and rainwater capture facilities and energy consumption is also reduced through innovative use of design and materials as well as low energy lighting. While it’s obviously a place designed for tourists to come and see the animals and the exhibits, you can really tell that the people who run this place care very deeply about the animals and the landscape.
STEP 8: Sunset goodbye
It wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t finish the day off with yet another stunning sun-drenched walk along Thala Beach. Listening to the chatter of the rainforest and the waves lap against the shore as the sun disappears, it ignites all of my senses and warms my soul from the inside out. I’ve never felt more alive.