The invading army arrived at dusk.
One by one, the petite penguins emerged from the waves, their white bellies flashing in the dim light. They clambered across rocks and down a sandy path toward their burrows in the nearby dunes seemingly unaware of the humans watching, whispering, just a few feet away.
Thousands of little penguins come ashore every sunset at Phillip Island, a 90-minute drive from Melbourne. This natural phenomenon, known whimsically as the penguin parade, is just one of the attractions that make Australia a haven for animal lovers.
As Bill Bryson explains in his book In a Sunburned Country, Down Under is home to some of the deadliest creatures on the planet including the box jellyfish, the blue-ringed octopus and 10 of the worlds most venomous snake species.
This is a country where even the fluffiest of caterpillars can lay you out with a toxic nip, Bryson writes. If you are not stung or pronged to death in some unexpected manner, you may be fatally chomped by sharks or crocodiles
My husband Chris and I encountered our share of scary beasts during a recent trip to Australia, including the giant spider guarding the guest book at one Aboriginal rock art site. But it was the more cuddly critters kangaroos, penguins and the like that captured our hearts.
Venturing into the bush
Our first close encounter of the cute kind came during an early morning drive through Grampians National Park, when a short-beaked echidna trundled into our path.
Chris stepped on the brakes. I turned down the radio. And the hedgehog-like echidna curled into a spiny ball.
We had to wait for the frightened critter to unfreeze before continuing our journey down the road. Located about three hours west of Melbourne, the Grampians feature 420,000 acres of green grasslands, silvery eucalyptus trees and red sandstone ridges. The regions stunning views and plentiful native wildlife make it a popular destination for bushwalkers.
Venture down any gravel road, and youre likely to spot a flock of yellowcrested cockatoos grazing alongside sheep or a herd of gray kangaroos silhouetted against the sky.
On a morning hike near Mount Stapylton, we came across a couple of startled wallabies they bounded away immediately on elastic legs and one very intimidating emu. A quick walk to the base of MacKenzie Falls brought us within shouting distance of a few red-andgreen parrots cracking eucalyptus buttons with their beaks.
The wild residents of the Grampians dont avoid inhabited areas, either. During our overnight stay at the Asses Ears Wilderness Lodge, Chris heard giant feet thundering past our cabin.
A sunset penguin parade
Heading east on the Great Ocean Road, Australias answer to the Pacific Coast Highway, we experienced another natural wonder: the penguin parade.
Also known as fairy penguins or blue penguins, the slate-blue birds deserve their diminutive name. The smallest species of penguin, they typically stand about a foot tall and weigh around three pounds.
With their tiny wings and stiff gaits, the penguins resemble petite, peg-legged toys.
But these birds are far from tame, our guides at Phillip Island Nature Parks warned. Theyll bite or scratch anyone who tries to pick them up. (Theyre also quite camera-shy. Photography is forbidden at the nature park.)
We charted the penguins progress from a wooden viewing platform on Summerland Beach, watching them pick their way past grass, shrubs and fallen limbs before disap pearing into the darkness.
The procession reminded me of Snow Whites Seven Dwarves trudging off to work. Rather than melodic song, however, these birds communicated via loud calls that resembled wheezy snoring, squeaking and purring.
Little penguins can nest far inland, so Phillip Island visitors are cautioned to check under their cars before leaving the parking lot. I didnt quite believe the warning myself, until a small bird scooted into its burrow directly in front of me.
Feathered rainforest friends
Chris and I discovered more of Australias avian bounty in the staggeringly beautiful Blue Mountains just west of Sydney.
We spent about a day exploring the region, which takes its name from the bluish haze produced by oil-bearing eucalyptus trees. It encompasses nearly 665,000 acres of rugged cliffs, plunging valleys and splashing waterfalls, dotted with a handful of quaint mountain towns and dozens of hiking trails.
Walking in the shadow of the Three Sisters rock formation, which tower more than 3,000 feet above the rainforest floor, we were greeted by a cacophony of cackles, chirps, squawks and shrieks. The rainforest rang with the whipcrack cry of the Eastern whipbird and the piercing, ringing sound of the bell miner, or bellbird. I kept thinking a car alarm had gone off.
But there was no mistaking the laughing cry of the kookaburra, a surprisingly familiar sound thanks to its use in Tarzan soundtracks and Disneys Jungle Cruise theme park ride. For me, that wild sound triggered memories of the old childrens song Kookaburra.
On view at Sydney zoo
Here in southeastern Australia, pink-and-grey Galah cockatoos congregate in city parks and noisy, nosy Australian magpies perch on every fence post.
Signs posted on rural highways warn drivers about the possibility of a kangaroo, wallaby or wombat wandering onto the asphalt. They do so regularly, as evidenced by the furry carcasses littering the roadside.
Yet, despite countless koala crossing signs, we never spotted the big-nosed marsupial live in the wild.
Thats where the countrys many wildlife preserves and zoos come into the picture.
At Sydneys superb Taronga Zoo, just a short ferry ride across Sydney Harbour from Circular Quay, visitors can see koalas, kangaroos and Tasmanian devils alongside more exotic species.
The Australian Walkabout trail includes a rainforest aviary, platypus pools and a special facility that houses nocturnal animals such as greyheaded flying foxes and long-nosed bandicoots.
For those craving a closer look, there are free activities keeper talks, bird and seal shows and a petting zoo for the kids as well as paid encounters with your favorite animals.
With so many ways to see Australian wildlife in its native environment, however, paying for a little extra face time just seems foolish.
All you have to do is head outside.
NEXT WEEK: We explore beautiful New Zealand, an increasingly popular destination for lovers of the great outdoors.