“Oh my God, I can’t believe it!” I whispered, pointing up into a tree. The grey furry creature looked like it had just escaped from a child’s toy room. Cute little button eyes, a black rounded nose, chubby cheeks, and big tufty ears… yes, it was a koala! In the wild! And not just one, but THREE WILD KOALAS, including an adorable little baby.

I'm not going to lie, I may have cried a little out of sheer happiness.

First koala spotting in the wild... if you look closely you'll see a little baby koala ear poking out underneath its mama's nose

 
 

After a while, we kept walking up the path and came across ANOTHER koala sleeping in a tree! This one was only shoulder height from the ground—obviously no fear of predators here. We took a lot of photos, but restrained ourselves from petting him.

The koala, on the other hand, was way less excited about us... he roused himself to open an eye, then fell back asleep.

 
A sleeping koala!

A sleeping koala!

 

Out of all of the places I saw during my 33 days in Australia, Magnetic Island was my favorite. Maggie, as the island is affectionately called by locals, is a little slice of paradise. There are beautiful beaches, palm trees, gorgeous sunsets, and bright blue waters, and best of all, the island is teeming with wildlife. In just the first 24 hours, we had seen the koalas, two whales, rock wallabies, butterflies, and beautiful birds.

On the ferry ride to the island, we just happened to see a humpback whale and her calf. Amazing!

On the ferry ride to the island, we just happened to see a humpback whale and her calf. Amazing!

The other animal highlight of the visit was touring the Bungalow Bay Koala Village, which not only lets you hold one of their rescued koalas, but also encourages you to get up close and personal with a variety of other animals. I held a turtle and a few lizards, and even let a python wrap itself around my neck (weird, but not as scary as I thought it would be).

 
 
 
 

Of course I also paid the extra fee to cuddle a koala for a few minutes, since my online research had satisfied me that this isn’t harmful to the animals. Don’t worry, the experience was definitely optimized for the koala, not for me. The guide told me how to stand, and to hold very still for the photo so the koala and wouldn’t freak out and scratch me with her very long claws. Koala-holding time was limited to just a few minutes per person, since they can only be handled by humans for up to 30 minutes per week. 

So, if was less like cuddling, more like pretending to be a tree while holding a surprisingly heavy animal the size of a toddler. But it was still an incredible experience. 

My happy smile conceals a slight fear that the koala might dig those long claws into my skin... thankfully, she did not.

My happy smile conceals a slight fear that the koala might dig those long claws into my skin... thankfully, she did not.

 
 
 

During our time in Australia I learned a lot about koalas, including these fun facts:

  • Koalas are not very smart; they actually have tiny brains (aw)
  • They also don’t see well, so in my photo with the koala, it is slightly possible she really did think I was a tree
  • Eating eucalyptus trees doesn’t make the koalas high; that’s just a myth. But the leaves are very toxic so koalas spend most of their energy digesting them, which is why they’re so tired.
  • Koalas sleep about 20 hours a day
  • They aren’t actually bears; they’re marsupials, and their closest relative is the wombat (a crazy-strong animal that can knock you out with its butt—seriously)
  • A long time ago, koalas were poached by humans for their fur. Today they have few to no predators, but do die from car accidents and diseases. Thankfully, the koalas on Magnetic Island are doing well and are mostly disease-free.

Even if you’re not an animal lover, Magnetic Island is still a lovely little place to relax, take some walks, do some snorkeling, or just visit one of the many beaches. For more tips, scroll down.

     
    The beach awaits...

    The beach awaits...

    We had Balding Bay pretty much to ourselves

    The view from the Forts Walk hike, where you have a good chance of spotting wild koalas

    The view from the Forts Walk hike, where you have a good chance of spotting wild koalas

    Sunset over Horseshoe Bay

    Sunset over Horseshoe Bay

     
     

    If you go

    • You can take the ferry from Townsville to Magnetic Island. There are two ferries: the Sealink, which we took, is for passengers only, and the Fantasea allows you to take a car. Whales not guaranteed, but September is peak whale migration time so you might get lucky!
    • We left our rental car in the ferry parking lot, but after we arrived on Maggie, I wished we’d brought it with us—the island isn’t the easiest place to get around without a car. Instead, we made use of the public bus that goes around the island every 30 minutes, and the one (!) taxi company in town.
    • Magnetic Island doesn’t have much in the way of nightlife and places close early, so this is not the place to party, but there are some nice cafes and restaurants. We enjoyed the funky vibe at Scallywags on the southern end (I’m pretty sure it's BYO only so pick up your alcohol at the Nelly Bay bottle shop before it closes at 8 pm). I also had a great steak while watching the sunset on Horseshoe Bay at Sandi’s (on the northern end of the island).
    • We stayed at the Amaroo on Mandalay, which has new owners. The room and kitchenette we had were a little dated, but the price was good and the lovely couple who own the hotel couldn’t be nicer. They insisted on picking us up and dropping us off at the ferry, no charge, and even drove us to the Koala Village so we wouldn’t miss the tour. I would highly recommend staying here (bonus: there are adorable wallabies jumping around, and you might even spot a koala high up in the tree on the edge of the property like we did!).
    • I'm sure I don't need to tell you that I'm a big fan of the Bungalow Bay Koala Village. The only way to go in is with a tour (three per day). You have to pay extra for the koala handling, which lasts just a few minutes. Our tour was led by a great guide who was very good at convincing people to interact with the animals, including the 9-foot python. I think this would be a great activity with kids.
    • For your best chance of seeing koalas in the wild, take the Forts Walk, which starts at the corner of Horseshoe Bay and Radical Bay roads (there is a bus stop there). Keep your eyes trained on the trees, or just watch out for the other tourists taking pictures and making "awwwww" noises.
    Final koala sighting on the island, in the trees behind our hotel

    Final koala sighting on the island, in the trees behind our hotel