Go behind the scenes at Hidden Vale Wildlife Centre and assist researchers on a Koala Safari

A tour of the facility gives visitors a unique opportunity to learn about what they do here and watch the students and researchers working in their labs...
19 Nov 2020
Jessica Palmer, Freelance writer and photographer

As Dr Andrew Tribe held out a stumpy tailed lizard, he asked the kids if they would like to hold it.  My five-year-old daughter, who is clearly not a reptile fan, slowly shrank backwards to ensure that I was between her and the odd-looking lizard.  My seven-year-old son simply said, ‘’Yes please!’’ and held his hands out.  Dr Tribe, who runs the wildlife research centre at Spicers Hidden Vale, promptly plonked the armoured lizard into his hands and continued on with some fascinating facts.

‘’Do you want to hold it mum?’’ he whispered.

‘’Errr, no thanks,’’ I whispered back. To be honest, I could barely tell which end was its head and which was its tail.

The Hidden Vale Wildlife Centre is no zoo!  Run in collaboration with the Turner Family Foundation and the University of Queensland, the centre is a dedicated research and teaching facility.  The animals here are part of a regulated conservation program. A tour of the facility gives visitors a unique opportunity to learn about what they do here and watch the students and researchers working in their labs.

A koala in the trees spotted on a Koala Safari

We were visiting the facility before heading out on a unique, eco-experience offered by Spicers Hidden Vale, the Koala Safari! On the Koala Safari, you will get to assist researchers in locating and checking the welfare of the koala community, of which they are currently tracking around 26 furry icons.

Upon first entering the wildlife centre, we were amazed to see a large window that looked in on what appeared to be a wildlife veterinarian hospital room. Two veterinarians were caring for a koala who was slowly waking up from sedation. Unfazed by the three people that were now watching their every move, they placed a hot-water bottle gently under him and a blanket on top to keep him comfortable while they checked his vitals. His ears twitched rhythmically while he slept and I was reminded why people from all over the world are fascinated by koalas. They’re absolutely adorable!

This particular koala is part of Dr Tribe’s research tracking the resident population of Hidden Vale’s 12,000 acres. Koalas are under serious threat in South East Queensland and Dr Tribe’s research will provide valuable data on koalas that will help improve the status of Australia’s cuddly icon. They hope to build the koala population here at Hidden Vale and reintroduce koalas to specific areas across the region.

After a tour of the Hidden Vale Wildlife Centre, which also included learning about their current research on the Spotted Tail Quoll and peeking in on two cute pygmy gliders, it was time for our much-awaited Koala Safari.

A koala at the Hidden Vale Wildlife Centre

It was just my party of three, Dr Tribe and a young researcher who had moved here from Norway to specifically study koalas. The kids excitedly jumped in the back of the safari troop carrier and began their barrage of questions.

‘’How long till we see a koala?’’

‘’What’s that blue antenna thing?”

“Can I take my shoes off?”

“Where are we going?’’

‘’Um, just be patient, we’ll be there shortly,’’ I replied.

I really had no idea how long it would take to reach the first koala “hotspot” but it turned out to be under 10 minutes.  The koalas are fitted with a GPS collar and with the help of modern technology, researchers can track their whereabouts on a computer or tablet. The hotspots are areas in which they would normally find a few of them nearby.

After a short walk on flat terrain, through long grass and under towering gum trees, the researcher suddenly stopped and announced, ‘’They’re around here somewhere.’’ She unfolded a bright blue antenna she had been carrying and pointed it skyward, slowing angling it this way and that.

Looking for koala's on a Koala Safari

The antenna is crucial to finding the koalas overhead, and they are found much the same way as the ‘’hot/cold’’ game we all played as kids. The game where you hide something, only to yell “cold”, “warm”, “hot” or even, ‘’burning hot’’, depending on how close your friend was to finding the item.

In this case, a portable device connected to the antenna beeps louder when you get ‘’hotter’’ to finding the koala.  The researcher held it skywards and walked a few steps before turning back in the opposite direction a few times. ‘’She’s in this tree,’’ she said, pointing to a particularly large gum tree.  We all looked upwards, hoping to be the first to spot it.

We weren’t the first, but it was exciting to see a familiar furry bottom nonetheless. Dr Tribe handed the kids a pair of binoculars to share and they both took turns in getting a closer look. We learned the koala’s names, who were related and we even got some gossip on whom was dating whom.  The furry bottom in this tree had apparently recently travelled to a nearby location to ‘’ditch’’ her boyfriend before returning home alone.

Heading to a second hotspot nearby, the koalas here were particularly elusive. We eventually found one very high up a gum tree and sound asleep. Actually, all of the koalas were high up on this particular day, making them a little hard to find and all the more exciting when we did spot one.  The kids were excited to learn how to find koalas in the wild, by tell-tale scratchings on the tree trunk and their distinct droppings. They made plans to embark on their own koala safari at home.

A koala in the trees spotted on a Koala Safari

Satisfied with the furry findings, we all trooped back through the long grass, avoiding cow pats and our socks now full of scratchy prickles.  As I reflected on the drive back to Spicers Hidden Vale, I was very aware that the Koala Safari is a very unique experience and a great opportunity for all ages to learn something that couldn’t be learned elsewhere, not at school, nor at a zoo or a wildlife park. The Koala Safari was an amazing experience!

You don’t need to be an in-house guest of Spicers Hidden Vale to head out on the Koala Safari.  A fantastic option is to book in a lunch and Koala Safari package.  The award-winning Homage Restaurant at Spicers Hidden Vale is registered as a COVID safe establishment and offers a unique ‘’paddock to plate’’ menu. What the restaurant doesn’t grow in their market garden, it is sourced from producers who live just down the road.  As a result, the menu is ever-changing but always amazing.

The Koala Safari tour is becoming very popular so make sure to book first!

The view from Homage restaurant
Jessica Palmer Freelance writer and photographer
Jessica is a freelance writer with a constant urge to escape the mundane. She travels regularly within Australia and overseas but is currently loving exploring Queensland due to Covid-19. Jessica is the founder of www.familyholidaydestinations.com, a website and digital magazine dedicated to family travel.

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