It’s not just the zoo where you can get up close to some of the creatures that call New South Wales home – you can ride camels on the beach, picnic alongside kangaroos and breakfast with alpacas. Make sure you include one of these animal encounters when planning your trip – it’s an experience you won’t forget.
1. Have breakfast with an alpaca
These adorable furry animals are gentle, friendly and make great pets. Their calm, social nature means you can find opportunities around NSW to get up close and hand-feed them. At Iris Lodge Alpacas, an alpaca farm on the Central Coast, you can even eat breakfast with the herd – first, you will feed the Wiltipoll sheep and meet Lola the Maremma sheepdog that guards them, then wander to the Angus cows for a feed and pat. Then it’s off to the herd of 60 alpacas where you can hand feed them and learn their personalities. You’ll be served a hot breakfast afterwards in the pen alongside them – it’s a fantastic experience for all ages. If you want to spend a little more time getting to know this cute animal, spend a few days at Starline Alpacas Farmstay; this working farm surrounded by the Broken Back Range has gorgeous family cottages and access to the alpacas whenever you please.
2. Lead a llama through a vineyard
If you’re planning a visit to NSW’s oldest wine region, the Hunter Valley, do something a little different and wander through the vineyards with a llama. Llamas are similar to alpacas in many ways (that is – cute and very friendly) apart from being quite a lot larger and not quite as soft. The Llama Collective will pair you with a llama and let you spend some time getting acquainted with it. Then you’ll lead your llama through the Ben Ean Vineyard for an hour with the picturesque Broken Back Range as a backdrop. It’s a great activity for families, with children six and over able to take part.
3. Explore sand dunes on a camel
A camel ride is a wonderfully calming experience – these soothing animals go at a slow pace and give you plenty of time to take in the breathtaking surroundings. Oakfield Ranch Camel Rides are available every day (except Wednesday) in Port Stephens, where you’ll explore the largest moving coastal sand mass in the southern hemisphere – the sunset ride is particularly special. At Port Macquarie, camel safaris are also available, where you’ll learn amazing facts and stories about the animal as you explore Lighthouse Beach.
4. Swim with the seals
Montague Island Nature Reserve is a special place: situated off the far South Coast, its renowned for its unspoilt environment and is one of the few places where you can see whales, seals, little penguins and many other birds species in one place. The most memorable experience to have on the island is swimming with seals: you can take part year-round but the best time to do it is September to November as the population is higher around that time – and it’s also the best time to see migrating whales. Montague Island Adventures will take you to a sheltered cove so you can snorkel alongside the playful creatures and admire the abundant fish, too.
5. Catch the whale migration
The Humpback Highway runs right alongside the NSW coast and each year more than 30,000 whales make their annual migration from Antarctica to the Pacific (and back again) between May and November. Jervis Bay is halfway along the whales’ 4,000-kilometre migration route, and they often stop here to rest and play with newborn calves. Jervis Bay Wild and Discover Jervis Bay will get you close to the action, or head to Penguin Head at Culburra, Cave Beach or the viewing platform in Booderee National Park to watch from the shore. In Port Stephens, grab your binoculars and head to Tomaree Headland, Barry Park at Fingal Bay, Fishermans Bay, Birubi Point and Stockton Beach north of Newcastle. You can even see them in Sydney — watch the whales pass by from the lookouts at Sydney Harbour’s North and South Head. At the tip of the Northern Beaches, Barrenjoey Head at Palm Beach offers an elevated viewpoint. At Mona Vale Headland, grab a picnic or fish and chips and perch on the expansive grassy area to look out for passing whales. For on-the-water experiences, Captain Cook Cruises, FantaSea Cruising, Bass and Flinders Cruises, Oz Whale Watching and Manly Ocean Adventures are just some of the whale-watching cruise boats that leave from Circular Quay, Darling Harbour and Manly.
6. Spot dolphins from the coast
Port Stephens, two-and-a-half hours north of Sydney, is Australia’s dolphin capital, with over 100 resident bottlenose dolphins that can be seen year-round. With 26 beaches and undulating coastal headlines, there are many vantage points to see the pods swim by. If you want to get even closer to these friendly, intelligent creatures you can head out on a cruise, or even swim alongside them. Jervis Bay, on the South Coast, is another excellent spot for dolphin sightings, with a number of cruises available.
7. Feed a pod of pelicans
The Australian pelican is one of the eight species of waterbird and is also found in western Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. These magnificent birds are mesmerising to watch but it’s rare to see a whole flock of them in the wild. That’s why the daily Pelican Feed at The Entrance on the Central Coast is so special. Taking place at Memorial Park, the attraction was started 20 years ago by staff at the local fish and chip shop who fed the local pelicans scraps. Now volunteers feed the birds fresh fish at 3:30 pm every day and it is quite the spectacle.
Note: The Pelican Feed is paused due to Covid-19 restrictions, check the website to see when it will resume.
8. Pat sharks and manta rays
You’ll change your mind about sharks and rays after a day at Irukandji Shark Encounter, where you can meet these beautiful creatures in a safe environment suitable for everyone. Located at Anna Bay in Port Stephens, a recent renovation includes new enclosures set up to mimic natural environments, where you can learn about the importance of ocean eco-systems and the knowledgeable guides will teach you all about the many species that live here. If you prefer not to get too wet, you can stay at the edge of the lagoon and admire the animals from a distance. Or wade in the shallows to feed and pat the many species of sharks and rays, or even don a wetsuit to get deeper. The centre also offers a guided snorkelling tour and a zebra shark encounter, a beautiful endangered creature that actually has spots, not stripes.
9. Snorkle with Turtles
Green sea turtles are one of the world’s largest species of turtles; they grow to over one metre long and can rest underwater for five hours at a time before they need to come up for air. Less than one kilometre off Fingal Head on the Tweed Coast lies Cook Island, home to a permanent population of green turtles, as well as hawksbill and loggerhead turtles and a huge variety of tropical and subtropical fish. A wonderful way to explore is via a snorkelling tour with Watersports Guru (available all year round), where you’ll travel up the Tweed River out to Cook Island, likely seeing a pod of dolphins on the way before jumping in the clear water to swim with the turtles. In summer, you might see harmless leopard sharks, too.
10. Ride a horse on the beach
Byron Bay’s beaches are world-famous for their incredible beauty and clear waters; do something different on your trip to Byron and explore them by horseback. Zephyr Horses offer a sunrise or sunset ‘forest to beach’ tour, where you’ll follow a forest trail through the area’s diverse flora to the beach. For more experienced horse riders, exploring the pristine Seven Mile Beach in the Shoalhaven region is a must. At the Regal Riding School, guides will take you along the fringe of the nearby national park and onto the beach. Feel the wind whip your hair and fresh spray from the ocean as you amble along peacefully or gear up to a trot.
11. Stroll the beach alongside kangaroos
In NSW, it’s possible to combine two of the most iconic Australian experiences – sighting kangaroos and spending time at the beach. Emerald Beach on the Coffs Coast is one such spot, where you’ll most likely catch the resident roos at sunset or dawn on the headland. Make sure you snap a photo, or your friends won’t believe it happened. Wild kangaroos can also be found at Pebbly Beach in the Shoalhaven region; it’s a popular camping spot located in Murramarang National Park. Keep your eye out for sea eagles and the sooty oystercatcher bird flying above, too.
12. Learn about Koalas
Koalas are one of Australia’s most beloved animals, but they are listed as vulnerable to extinction due to loss of habitat, disease and other factors. Fortunately, there are several institutions in NSW that rescue, rehabilitate and release koalas back into the wild. At the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital (free to visit), you’re able to see the koalas currently in care and learn more about this incredible animal in the ‘Koalaseum’ and you can help the centre in their conservation efforts by ‘adopting’ a koala. The kids will love the Hello Koalas Sculpture Trail, a series of sculptures across the town. Or visit the Port Stephens Koala Hospital, which has rescued 653 koalas and released 379 back into the wild; at the Koala Sanctuary, visitors can walk along the elevated skywalk to treetop height so they can get closer to the resident koalas.
13. Camp with Wild Wombats
It might surprise you to learn that the closest living relative to a wombat is a koala – they are both marsupials with backwards facing pouches. Wild wombats are widespread in coastal forests and mountain ranges in NSW, but for an almost guaranteed sighting, head to Kangaroo Valley, two-and-a-half hours south of Sydney. Although wombats are largely nocturnal, you’ll find them wandering around at any time of the day, along with resident kangaroos, at Bendeela Camping and Picnic Area, a rustic spot set in natural bushland on the banks of the Kangaroo River, where you can fish swim, bushwalk and canoe.
14. Meet a Meerkat
The Walkabout Park Wildlife Sanctuary in Calga, on the NSW Central Coast, is welcoming back visitors with a range of new experiences that will allow people to get up close and personal with the centre’s vibrant family of meerkats. There is a range of offerings available for meerkat fans, including the 10-minute Meerkat Speed Date, a 20-minute Meet the Meerkats or a 30-minute Meerkat Magic encounter. Guests at the Walkabout Park Wildlife Sanctuary can elevate their on-site experience by spending a night in a safari tent or indoor cabin and joining the Wild Night Out tour to see Australian wildlife in their native habitats. There are also meerkat experiences available at Symbio Wildlife Park and Hunter Valley Zoo.
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