- Mary Rogelstad
- March 22, 2022
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The wildlife living in southeastern Queensland in Australia have struggled for survival in recent years. From late February through early March, the region was inundated with flooding. In 2019-2020, the area faced threats from wildfires that swept through the country. And on any average day, there are worries about encounters with the growing number of cars on the roadways.
Trish LeeHong and the staff at her Wildlife Rescue, Rehabilitation and Education Association have worked tirelessly to save animals in the region that have faced these threats. They are among the wildlife experts who were showcased internationally for their harrowing efforts to save koalas and other animals from burning landscapes.
The rescue staff has partnered with Rustic Pathways students and the Rustic Pathways Foundation for years to care for these animals. This work will begin again this summer during the Animal Conservation in Australia program. Australia Country Director Sam Murray says the volunteer activities planned at the 40-acre rescue center are a highlight of this summer’s program.
“The students visiting have lots of hands-on opportunities to bottle feed animals and get up close and personal with them,” Murray said. “Trish is an inspirational woman… She takes the time to expand the students’ knowledge and understanding of rehab.”
Australian wildlife at the center include koalas, echidnas, and kangaroos. The students’ service work there occurs several days into the program. Before reaching the center in a remote village, the students spend time in other regions of Australia, learning lessons that will help them when they reach the rescue site.
Exploring the City, the Sea, and an Irwin Family Paradise
The students’ journey begins in Brisbane, which is the capital of the Australian state of Queensland. There the teens have time to recover from their long plane ride while going through orientation and spending the night resting.
Afterwards, they jump right into service. Students learn about the environmental habitats of local wildlife while working on projects, such as tree planting and removing invasive species. After a day of volunteer work, it’s beach time.
The teens travel to the picturesque town of Noosa Beach, where they may spot koalas on land and dolphins in the sea. They spend time swimming in the surf and taking a hike in the area’s national park where they may see parrots and other Australian birds. A jet boat ride takes them through other parts of the habitat to search for more wildlife and visit secluded beaches.
After this stop, the teens begin working more directly with animals at the Australia Zoo on the Sunshine Coast. It’s owned by the family of the late Steve Irwin, who as a wildlife specialist ignited a global fascination for many Australian animals.
At the zoo the students go through training to learn about the role of zoos in conservation and the work of animal caretakers. They get a behind-the-scenes look at the day-to-day operations of the zoo. They also help with tasks, such as maintaining enclosures, creating enrichment activities for animals and preparing food.
The zoo has 1000 acres of exhibits so there are many opportunities to learn about a variety of animals, including both Australian and international wildlife, such as crocodiles, kangaroos, wallabies, tigers and red pandas. Irwin’s family also follows Steve’s mission of “conservation through exciting education.”
“The zoo staff offers one-on-one encounters with the wildlife. They also have conservation shows,” Murray said. “The croc show is one of the centerpieces of the experience. They’ll have their croc team in the auditorium – or Crocoseum as they call it. Their show teaches students about the Australian saltwater crocodiles, which Steve Irwin and his family were very involved in doing research on and being ambassadors for.”
Camile Greening, who traveled with Rustic Pathways to Australia in 2018, treasures the time she spent with Australian animals and their caregivers during her trip. Among her best memories are hanging out with kangaroos and learning “heaps” of Australian slang.
“I learned I could survive something as scary as being on the other side of the world away from my parents as a fourteen-year-old who hadn’t even stepped foot into high school yet,” Greening said.
These confidence-building moments and hands-on animal care skills will be used later when the students head to the rescue and rehabilitation center. But first they have a stop in what Murray calls one of the most Instagrammed places in Australia.
The Spot You Have to See
After visiting the zoo, the students travel to Byron Bay, which is a famous mecca for celebrities. The area is dotted with multi-million dollar mansions. The region has become a haven for wanderers, ranging from artists and musicians to backpackers and surfers. Murray said it was a particularly popular place to hide out during pandemic lockdowns.
“It’s an incredible environment with the rainforest coming down to a spectacular coastline. The town has a very eclectic feel, and it’s a very healthy environment for students with lots of outdoor activities,” Murray said.
Murray says one of the highlights is seeing humpback whales that normally migrate to warmer waters in June, July, and August. He says that near the bay’s lighthouse you can see blows from the whales that are going up the coast.
The students will hike on the headland that projects from the coastline into the sea to search for the whales. They’ll also visit waterfalls, work at a sustainable farm, and kayak in the bay to search for more marine life, including dolphins.
Towards the end of their visit to this popular location, the student will wind down on the beach with a yoga lesson as the sun sets. This will mark the point when they’ll get ready to meet Trish at the rescue center to get to work there.
In the remote village of Murphy’s Creek, the moments spent bottle feeding joeys and watching animals recover are quite inspiring for many students. A number of alumni have raised donations to support the center after providing service there.
Nick Makris, who traveled with Rustic Pathways to Australia in 2019, used his newfound knowledge during his service work at home.
“Currently, I am continuing to volunteer at my local zoo (the Brookfield Zoo in Illinois). I have been a volunteer there since 2017, and love being able to talk to guests about wildlife and nature,” Makris said.
Animal lovers like Makris particularly benefit from their journey through southeast and eastern Australia because of the unique experience it provides. In the region, they can see many animals in the wild that they cannot see elsewhere, such as koalas, kangaroos, and wallabies.
Overall, It’s estimated that Australia is home to about 250 marsupial species and that about 80% of the country’s flora and fauna are uniquely Australian. After visiting the rescue center, students have time to reflect together on what their experience was like interacting with these special animals.
They end their journey along the river in Brisbane, wishing as alumni Katia Kanner did that the trip wasn’t ending.
“If anything, I would want it to be longer,” Kanner said. “We could all spend more time with one another in such an amazing country,”
For more details on the Animal Conservation in Australia program, please visit our program page.
Mary is the Lead Editor at Rustic Pathways. She has been a writer and editor for nearly 20 years. Prior to covering student travel, Mary created content for the music education company J.W. Pepper & Son. She also was a writer and producer at CNN International and a communications director for a social service agency and a K-12 private school.