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There are times when the most practical way to view certain animals is in a zoo or sanctuary (like our recent encounter with Tasmanian Devils). But there’s something really special about experiencing wildlife… in the wild.

That’s most feasible when the species in question frequents known accessible areas and isn’t dangerous to humans. And it’s most exciting when they’re utterly foreign to us (spotting wild raccoons or squirrels isn’t likely to get our hearts racing).

So one of the most clearly marked items on our to-do list in Australia was to view indigenous wildlife in natural habitat whenever reasonably possible. So far, we’ve had great success hunting down elusive duck-billed platypuses, and now it’s time to find koalas.

While koalas range over a wide area, actually spotting them in any particular place can be a challenge. Not only are they nocturnal, but the forests of eucalyptus they frequent can be large. Where exactly do you start looking?

We’d read that a particular hike on Magnetic Island, easily accessible by ferry from Townsville, Queensland, was known as a good koala-spotting location. But we’d also heard that it’s common to take the hike and not see any at all.

We had one day in the area, and one trip to the island, so failure was not an option. We had one shot on Magnetic, and we had to make it count.

As we’ve found with virtually everyone Down Under, a simple question can lead to a wealth of information. People here are as wonderful as we’d heard, and eager to share the beauty and wonders of their country. They seem to appreciate the fact that most visitors have to travel such a great distance to reach them, so they’re eager to reward the effort.

Since wildlife encounters are one of our prime interests, we asked many people about the most likely places to find each species we were interested in. We were all set to take the Magnetic Island hike we’d read about, knowing that we might have only a 50-50 chance of success.

Never shy about chatting with locals, we made one final inquiry at the ferry office as we bought our tickets. “We’re heading over to Magnetic for one reason; to see koalas” we told the ticket agent. “We’ve heard that ‘The Forts’ walking track is the place to go?”

She said she’d heard that The Forts was indeed a popular hike for koala spotting.

As luck would have it, a fellow ferry employee overheard our conversation and stepped over to add her insight. “If you really want to see koalas, I’ll show you where to go. There’s a place where you’re guaranteed to see them, sometimes 6 or 7 at a time.” She drew on the map, providing detailed instructions to the exact spot.

The bus driver on the island reinforced our already-solid perception of Aussies as friendly, helpful people. When we showed him the map and requested that he drop us off at the closest stop to our destination, he said “I can get you real close” then detoured off-route to take us a mile closer than the bus route. It was much appreciated in the tropical heat.

When we arrived at the magic location, we stepped into the eucalyptus trees and were immediately alone among the koalas. Every 40 or 50 feet there was another one, cuter than the next, some just 4 or 5 feet overhead. As they were totally nonplussed by our presence, we’re guessing that the lady in the ferry ticket office has shared this secret spot before. ;-)

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