Until this 12-day trip in the Atherton Tablelands, I’ve often joked with the Sailor about how well the councils inform you about the presence of local wildlife, but that you never actually see anything!
Living in Malaysia where I was always kept company with a variety of animals on my jungle hikes, I was a bit disappointed to have seen so few on my treks in North Queensland. The birds are abundant and easy to spot, but I rarely got to sight any mammals.
However it wasn’t until a camping experience at Lake Tineroo that I realised why. They definitely exist here and the council’s aren’t pulling my leg, but much of the fluffy fauna is nocturnal. Duh, why didn’t I think of that!
Compared to any other locality in Australia, North Queensland’s Wet Tropics is home to the highest amount of endemic mammals. And when you start looking in the right places, the variety of wildlife in the Atherton Tablelands is incredible.
Not only did I see species I had no idea existed, but some are totally unique to this region.
The geography has helped with that somewhat- being one thousand meters above sea level means those mammals that can only live in high altitudes have flourished here.
So let me help you get those warm, fuzzy feelings too with some epic wildlife encounters! In this guide, I’ll reveal the locations I sighted these amazing animals and name-drop other known areas they’ve been seen.
But first, some tips, dos & don’ts
◇ As most of these animals are nocturnal, you may want to consider camping overnight or staying at a wildlife lodge to better your chances.
◇ If you’re short on time, you may also wish to head out with an experienced guide on a night tour. Not only will they know what to look out for, but they’ll be aware of how to minimise human impact on the animals.
◇ If you’re staying overnight and aren’t on a tour, then you may need a torch handy. Although do be aware that nocturnal animals have very light-sensitive eyes and careless spotlighting can cause them distress, so try not to shine the light on them.
Places to Spot Unique Wildlife in the Atherton Tablelands
Granite Gorge is a habitat native to a small colony of endangered Rock Wallabies. They were identified as a new rare species at the Gorge in 1996 so this is the only place you can see them in Australia.
We stayed here for our first two nights in the Tablelands which became the perfect start to our trip.
These marsupials are generally very placid and easy-going, and enjoy a good feed when people come to visit.
You can buy them small pellets of food from reception (available for $1 a bag) and most would gently hold your hands to eat from it. I don’t normally condone feeding wildlife but these guys are a bit less ‘wild’ these days, and have become quite reliant on guests giving them sustenance.
Don’t worry if you’re not staying here as non-guests are welcome to enter the gorge for the day at a small fee. You can also check out their 1k – 3k walking track which I’d highly recommend. It’s an easy hike that traverses across huge granite boulders with the wallabies before leading you around a croc-free swimming hole, and it finishes up in the Savannah like wilderness.
As well as the wallabies, we spotted some other animals around our cabin like the green tree frog, possums and lizards. A beautiful peacock regularly come to sleep on our deck too, which must have been his favourite spot considering the poos he left when we arrived! 😁
The Gorge also has a range of other non-wild animals around reception which were a hit with visiting kids.
This is one animal I had no idea existed before our trip! Northern Bettongs are really cute, nocturnal marsupials that look more like rabbit-sized rats than kangaroos, hence their nickname ‘rat-kangaroos’.
They can only be found around this region as they’re quite fussy about where they live, preferring grassy woodland areas near tropical rainforests. I saw heaps of them at Camp Barrabadeen by Lake Tineroo where I stayed for a couple of nights.
You’re likely to hear them rustling through the leaves on the forest floor before sighting them. Usually they’ll be hunting for things like fruits, seeds, tubers and fungi- including their favourite food, truffles! They have impeccable taste and are the biggest dispersers of truffles around here.
If primitive camping isn’t your style then I’m sure there’s definitely a few more rural places in the neighbourhood where they can be seen.
You can find out more about this endemic on the WWF website.
Platypus are a bit of a freak of nature. Whilst being endemic to Eastern Australia, they’re one of only two mammals that lay eggs (the echidna is the other, also found in Australia) and appear to be a God-like experiment.
With the bill and webbed-feet of a duck, the tail of a beaver and the body and fur of an otter- they’re fascinating to say the least. If you were a new explorer to Australia, you’d probably think you were hallucinating! In fact, many did and deemed early specimens as fake.
But even more unlikely is that they’re one of only a few species of mammals that are venomous. The males can provide a toxic blow from its rear feet using sharp stingers so lethal, that human victims will be in excruciating pain and may be incapacitated.
Yet another reminder that lethal animals are all over Australia, even in the cutest form!
We spotted platypus in a couple of places in the Tablelands.
The best place to view them in their natural habitat is at the Australian Platypus Park. Whilst they’re known for being more active at dawn and dusk, you can definitely see loads here during the day. The environment is so peaceful and lush too.
We spent an hour by the lake and sighted about 30 platypus, and when they got more trusting of us they started to come quite close by the reeds.
A tell-tale sign for spotting them are all the bubbles at the surface of the lake (not to be confused with those from the turtles who also share the water! Although they normally expel fewer). The platypus will then usually pop-up nearby and stay up for a few seconds before diving back under. They’re actually a lot smaller than I was expecting but no less endearing.
A tip if you come here: bring a sun-hat and slap on the sunscreen as there’s little shade.
Another well known place you can spot them is at Peterson Creek in Yungaburra, although they’re a bit more shy here and harder to spot. The first day we came we saw nothing, but the second time we saw a couple by the bridge at sunset and near the start of the walking track.
You can find out more fun facts about the platypus on the National Geographic website.
Tips for sighting platypus:
▫︎ Whilst you shouldn’t raise your voice or shout when you’re near platypus, you should actually keep talking! If they hear you speak then they’ll know you’re not a predator.
▫︎ Don’t put up an umbrella near them or they might think you’re a bird and won’t surface.
▫︎ Avoid pointing or other aggressive moments.
Yet another new animal to my knowledge repertoire! Similarly to northern bettongs, these guys are nocturnal, forest-floor dwellers. Whilst they enjoy eating plants, invertebrates and fungi, they also have a sweet-tooth and love licking the odd bit of tree sap or honey that’s going spare.
Long-Nosed Bandicoots have rodent-like features, although they’re actually marsupials about the same size as a small rabbit. They’re easy to identify by their elongated nose and grey coloured fur.
We spotted quite a few at Camp Barrabadeen and at Chambers Wildlife Lodge in Lake Eacham where they couldn’t get enough of the honey that was put out on the bark.
These mammals are endemic to eastern Australia so can be seen in other states along the coast, although their numbers are more abundant here. If you’re sitting outside at night in a largely rural area I’m quite sure you’ll get to see them. They’re a bit less shy than the other night-walkers around.
Their close cousin is the Northern Brown Bandicoot who can also be found in North QLD.
I was lucky enough to spot a few types of possums at Granite Gorge and Camp Barrabadeen, but amazingly we managed to see the striped possum twice at Chambers Wildlife Lodge.
Apparently these gorgeous marsupials are endemic to North Queensland and can only be found along the coast from Townsville to Cape York although they’re rarely seen, so sightings such as this are a real treat.
At their viewing platform, once the noisy gang of visitors had departed, the Sailor and I sat patiently for about half hour. On both nights when it was nice and quiet, this beautiful yet evasive animal came running down the tree.
Their main diet is flowers, fruit and beetle larva but they also have a massive sweet-tooth. Each night the lodge puts out some honey on the tree and for ages this little guy worked its way up and down the bark to lick out as much as it could.
We moved around slowly when the possum was feeding to get a slightly closer look and she was totally endearing to watch. If we made a sound or moved suddenly, she’d freeze for a few seconds until she was confident we weren’t a threat.
These nocturnal, possum-like marsupials are Australia’s most common glider. Using their extended membrane they can glide half the length of a football pitch- crazy right!
Although, I have a bit of a confession to make. I didn’t actually see one firsthand on this trip. 😳Sorry guys! But I can feel it in my bones that I was so close.
I was hoping to catch a glimpse of them at Chambers Wildlife Lodge as apparently they’re quite abundant around Lake Eacham. But I guess as wild animals, they move around, so of course sighting them isn’t guaranteed.
I do get the suspicion that they’re even more evasive than striped possums though, so you’ll need to be ultra quiet and still to see one, with a touch of good luck.
Sugar Gliders can be found all over the north and east of Australia, although the Atherton Tablelands is home to more species of possums and gliders than anywhere else on Earth. The stats here are nuts!
Typically they nest in tree hollows, and Kevin the caretaker at Camp Barrabadeen showed us a picture of one on his phone that he found inside a shoe that was on a tree there, so they’re definitely around Lake Tineroo too. Technically, I guess we did see one indirectly 😉.
Otherwise, you may also have some luck seeing a sugar glider at other nearby stays like Atherton Tablelands Birdwatcher’s Cabin in Wondecla, which is in a lovely off-the-grid rural area, or at Allawah Retreat at the northwestern end in Tolga, just above Atherton township.
Seeing this animal in the Tablelands was the sweet-vanilla-buttercream icing on the cake, with sprinkles on top.
Notoriously evasive and well-camouflaged, tree kangaroos are VERY hard to spot in the wild. Even when I went to the Wildlife Habitat in Port Douglas and stood in front of their enclosure, I still couldn’t see them! They blend in so well.
It’s certainly not surprising that it took Europeans years to actually discover them.
For days I hiked high and low in different areas of the Tablelands, checking out places they’ve been sighted like Peterson Creek Walking Track- twice- and tried to time my walk accordingly.
Whilst tree kangaroos are mainly nocturnal, they’re also known to move about during the day, particularly when it’s rainy. But I still wasn’t having any luck.
Beginning to lose hope, it wasn’t until our last day on the Tablelands that I remembered a tip-off.
Kevin the caretaker from Camp Barrabadeen mentioned a place he knows where they’re usually always around. “Nevada, or Nirvana- I always get the name confused”, he said.
After a quick Google search- jackpot. I found out where he was talking about.
Nerada is a sustainable tea plantation set across the lush plains in Malanda.
Just over a century after opening in 1991, the Russell family planted a row of trees outside their visitor centre and soon enough, a few tree-kangaroos came from the neighbouring rainforest and decided to make this patch their home.
I actually thought this spot was a slightly strange place for them to be found as it was just in front of their factory which was a little noisy, but nevertheless, that’s where they were. Again, I didn’t see them right away and the Sailor had to point excessively for me to locate them!
The plantations is said to have 5 on site, 3 adults and 2 joeys and they’ve named two of them Billy and Misty. We saw two of them chilling high up in the tree, regularly dozing off or trying to reposition themselves to get comfy on the branch.
Apparently when tree-roos are disturbed they can easily fall out, and it was clear to see how…some of those positions looked a bit, er, on edge!
There are a few types of tree roos, but only two species are endemic to Australia, and the Lumholtz can only be found on the Tablelands. The other to be found in Australia is the Bennett’s tree-kangaroo who lives in the nearby Daintree Rainforest.
These guys are so notoriously hard to spot that it took Europeans years to even know they existed, and even then it wasn’t without help from local Aboriginal tribes.
Nowadays they’re better known as Lumholtz’s Tree Kangaroo, named after the Norwegian explorer Carl Lumholtz who took the first specimens back to Europe. But among the Aboriginal people they’re called Boongarry, whose native name should not be forgotten.
For more information about tree kangaroos in Australia, check out this Australian Museum article.
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