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Outback odyssey

From spotting penguins and koala bears to picking your own strawberries, Anoma Srisukkasem discovers there's plenty of fun to be had in Australia's rural Victoria

Published on October 6, 2007

Outback odyssey

Nature lovers enjoy their time to get up close with Australian wildlife

I was famished one recent evening on Australia's Summerland Beach but none of the adorable creatures that resembled waiters in tuxedos were taking any notice of me. All of them were busy waddling and tottering homeward to meet their waiting sweethearts. Each of the returning penguins brayed a particular song known only to his or her partner. I couldn't blame them for the lack of service, and just hoped they would make their way back home safely.

These Little penguins, at an average of 33 centimetres tall the shortest of all 17 species of penguins, waddle ashore at sunset en route to their sand-dune burrows every day. This world-famous penguin parade attracts more than 500,000 travellers each year to Victoria's Phillip Island Nature Park, 90 minutes by car from Melbourne.

Whether you are an ecotourist, agrotourist, shopaholic or adventurer, the march of the penguins is an event you should not miss, but it's just one of several captivating tourism spots in Victoria.

Not far from the penguin parade, nature lovers enjoy visiting the Koala Conservation Centre where they can wander among the bushes and get up close to different species of Australian wildlife - koalas, wallabies, possums, echidnas and snakes.

I was eager and excited to see koalas for the first time in my life, wondering if they would look anything like the koala dolls that cling to the handles of my wardrobe. The fellow reporters I was travelling with had made a game of who would be first to spot a koala.

No surprise to me I, wasn't the first one to see a koala, but I was still as impressed as anyone else in the entourage when they finally showed up. Just a glimpse of one of the 37 cute koalas at the centre can make your heart beat in sync with the sound of wind rustling through eucalyptus leaves.

With their cute looks and habits, even a person who normally doesn't have a soft spot for animals will probably go gooey watching koalas grasping branches on eucalyptus trees. The marsupial herbivore native to Australia has just two activities - sleeping and eating eucalyptus leaves.

Each animal eats about 500 grams of eucalyptus leaves a day and sleeps in the trees for around 16 to 18 hours a day to save energy.

Another special activity not to be missed is catching Australia's oldest steam train on the Puffing Billy Steam Railway. The train is a relic of Victoria's early rail days and one of the finest preserved steam railways in the world.

A ride on the 120-year-old train is a favourite activity for foreign tourists and Aussies both, with passengers ranging from young families to sweethearts, laughing friends to curious teens. The train puffs through the scenic Dandenong Range along a winding, steeply graded narrow-gauge railway.

Those interested in getting out of the city for a while and getting back to nature can try their luck as a farmhand at the Warrook Cattle Farm, learning rural skills like whip-cracking, milking cows, feeding sheep, or watching sheep be sheered of their wool.

A Chinese girl tried squeezing a cow's udder, and found a new gratitude for the gift of milk - a reminder to all of nature's generosity to us humans. I fancied trying my hand as well but had no idea if, deep down, the cow would appreciate such an intimate encounter with a stranger!

For agrotourists, Victoria's Mornington Peninsula, south of Melbourne, is recommended. It's a popular vacation destination with a patchwork of bush, pasture, hills, vineyards and national parks.

Montalto is the location for love - droves of suitors have proposed marriage to their girlfriends amid its romantic 23 acres of lush green vineyards and 1,500 olive trees. I'm sure the charm and splendour of the setting has played a big part in persuading many to say "yes". And how many women, I wonder, have been inspired by the surroundings to turn the tables and propose to their men?

You can enjoy innovative regional delicacies in the vineyard's highly acclaimed restaurant, and taste award-winning wines and olive oil. You can also relax with a lovely gourmet picnic, and stroll through extensive wetlands, watching the bird life and admiring the sculptures.

 For strawberry lovers, Sunnyridge Strawberry Farm is an ideal spot. The largest producer of strawberries in Australia, it's famous for its fields where you can pick your own strawberries, cherries and raspberries.

More than 300,000 visitors from around the world come here annually to taste the sweet soft fruits. They also enjoy shopping for the growing range of exclusive strawberry products, including jams, syrups, chocolate-coated freeze-dried strawberries and medal-winning strawberry wines and liqueurs.

Ashcombe Lavender Farm and Ashcombe Maze and Water Gardens are yet another popular tourist attraction. The 25-acre gardens include woodland walks, rock gardens, an exotic forest and waterfalls. The hedge maze here is Australia's oldest and most famous labyrinth - a great place to get lost!

A visit to the rich variety of rural attractions in Victoria state is something you won't forget in a hurry.

Anoma Srisukkasem

The Nation

The writer travelled as a guest of Tourism of Victoria and Jetstar Airways.

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