On a recent weekend, as I sat cross-legged on the small lawn at the Cedar Creek Wombat Hospital about 100 miles north of Sydney, a 10-month-old wombat, about 15 inches long, walked onto my lap. I wrapped an arm around the animal between its fore and hind legs and pulled it upright against my stomach, like you might do with a small, friendly dog.
She looked me straight in the eye, completely calm. I stroked her soft tummy and felt her heart beating. After a few minutes she began to wriggle and I let her go.
In a nearby pen a slightly older wombat scratched her posterior on a hollow log while my children chased another. “She’s doing that on purpose to show off,” said Roz Holme, the refuge founder who has been looking after wombats for 30 years. “They get jealous of each other.” Another young wombat tried to climb over a foot-high barrier to join in.
Because of their assertive personalities, wombats — marsupials who look like a cross between an oversize gopher and a walking koala — are not generally beloved in Australia. Drivers regard them as hazards. Farmers see them as pests. Zoos give them less prominence than their more cuddly cousins, the koalas (who spend up to 22 hours a day asleep).
But exploring for wombats is one of the most interesting ways to experience Australia’s national parks, conservation reserves and state forests, which cover about 10 percent of the country’s land mass.
Wombats live in large numbers at Wilsons Promontory on the far southeast coast, one of the most popular national parks in Victoria state. (Campsites must be booked months in advance.) A five-minute walk from the park’s main camping area, along a coastal path, leads to a network of wombat burrows.
Wombats are also common in Tasmania, the large island on Australia’s southern tip that has some of its most rugged terrain, and New South Wales, the Texas-size eastern state whose capital is Sydney. In tropical Queensland state, only two small wombat colonies remain.
Where they live, wombats aren’t that hard to find. Because they don’t sweat, the animals control their body heat by burrowing a few feet to where the temperature is around 75 degrees. Expert and indiscreet diggers, their roomy burrows are so big they often obstruct farming equipment and destroy fences. The best time to find them is on cool evenings when they emerge to eat grass.
“They aren’t scared of humans, but they are very easily startled,” says Jackie French, an author. “Don’t go quietly. Talk amongst yourselves. Be polite. Don’t intrude. Just watch.”
French, Australia’s children’s laureate, has probably done more to raise awareness of the wombat across the world than any living Australian. In 2001 she persuaded her publisher, HarperCollins, to print an illustrated children’s book about a family harassed by a carrot-loving wombat. She says the company agreed to the book as a favor because of her previous literary success: “It was a case of ‘Let’s be nice to Jackie.’” (Her publisher says she loved the book from the start.)
“Diary of a Wombat” was a blockbuster, selling 300,000 copies in Australia alone and spawning 31 versions in other languages and sequels.
The book is based on Mothball, a real wombat French met on her property, near Monga National Park, about four hours southwest of Sydney. The animals thrive near Monga’s rivers and temperate rain forests because the soft soil makes digging easier.
“I have never experienced friendship with an animal before, and I probably never will again,” French says. “He was possibly the only mammal who enjoyed hearing me playing the violin.”
Mothball, who died in 1981, was a companion to French for five years. Once, after going missing for 18 months during a drought, he turned up at her rear door and barged through a window screen, knocked her over and ripped her dress from hem to collar, she says. He then ran into the bathroom, spread toilet paper everywhere and tore up a mat. “He was hot, hungry, and he blamed humans,” French says, laughing.
Across the world, wombats are seen as exotic creatures that represent the strangeness of the Australian outback. When singer Katy Perry met one on a TV show last year she exclaimed: “Oh my God! I thought it was a fictional animal.”
“They have got a classic persona,” says Matt Richel, the executive director of the Victorian National Parks Association, a lobby group for nature reserves. “If you get in the way of the wombat and where it wants to go, it will walk over you.”
French and Roz Holme, who founded the refuge I visited, are members of a small but highly motivated — some might say obsessed — community dedicated to protecting wombats and convincing other Australians that one of their more unusual creatures is worthy of human love — or perhaps cautious affection.
One wombat ripped up Holme’s son Wade’s homework, an excuse his teacher didn’t believe, according to his parents. “Wombats trash your house,” says Roz’s husband, Kevin, a truck driver. “They chew everything: power cords, walls. They will tunnel through a Gyprock [drywall] wall in a night.”
Ask any wombat activist for the best place to find wombats in the wild and they’ll likely give the same answer: dead, on the side of a road. Even though wombats can run as fast as 25 mph, a lack of natural predators and poor eyesight makes them highly vulnerable to cars. Baby wombats, which live in their mother’s pouch for up to a year, often starve to death attached to their dead parent.
One luckier wombat was Ringo, now a star exhibit at Wild Life Sydney Zoo, a private zoo in the city’s Darling Harbour tourist district. Ringo was found in his dead mother’s pouch by a passing motorist. He weighed less than two pounds. Six months later he was passed to the Sydney zoo by a regional zoo.
Now 37 pounds, Ringo is highly popular among zoogoers, says Erin Costello, the keeper who raised him. The zoo, which specializes in native Australian animals (including a 16-foot-long saltwater crocodile and several deadly spiders), created a dedicated room for Ringo attached to the marsupial enclosure. The room, which has a glass wall so visitors can see in, is kept cool and dark. Ringo has access to the same area as several rock wallabies (which look like small kangaroos), kookaburras and quokkas (which look like even smaller kangaroos).
Until recently he participated in regular performances. He would follow a small green ball on a stick through a crowd of tourists. Now that he’s an adolescent — about 18 months — Ringo’s been pulled from the live shows because of fears he might bite the paying guests.
Although not large, Wild Life Sydney is as slick as any zoo in Europe or the United States. The exhibits are well lit, the air conditioning is cool, and touch-screen monitors provide interesting information. When my two children wandered off, the staff, using two-way radios, found them within minutes.
When it comes to facilities, Cedar Creek Wombat Hospital is at the other end of the spectrum to Wild Life Sydney. Forget a gift shop: The visitors’ bathroom is what Australians refer to as an “outside dunny.”
After they bought 190 acres in a state-owned forest in the mid 2000s, the Holmes built rudimentary facilities for sick and injured wombats they collected from the roadside or the bush. An ancient trailer served as a hospital. They recently borrowed $12,000 for a digital x-ray machine and raised enough money from donors, including Jackie French, for a small two-room clinic for simple operations.
For adventurous travelers interested in meeting a couple of earthy Australians passionate about animal welfare, the Holmes are worth the trip along the steep, SUV-only road to their property. One warning: The road floods after heavy rain.
Cedar Creek is in the Hunter Valley, a wealthy tourist region that produces some of Australia’s best wines. The night of my visit to the wombat hospital, I stayed at Tuscany Estate, a pleasant, up-market motel next to an airy restaurant with views across a valley mostly used for viticulture.
Hotel rooms in the area go for up to $600 a night. There are some 150 wineries, vineyards and restaurants in the area that sell food and alcohol, according to the state tourism department. Several tour operators will drive visitors in minibuses to wineries for tastings and meals.
As we left Cedar Creek, a wombat walked out of the bush towards my wife. When she didn’t move aside, the animal nipped at her sandal-covered foot. She jumped aside in shock but wasn’t hurt. “He’s come back looking for food,” Roz explained, no apologies necessary.
Tuscany Wine Estate Resort
Hermitage Rd and Mistletoe Lane, Pokolbin
A clean, modern motel in the Hunter Valley wine district with a swimming pool. Rooms from $190 a night.
Mercure Resort Hunter Valley Gardens
2090 Broke Rd, Pokolbin
A motel within walking distance of many wineries and adjacent to Hunter Valley Gardens, ten gardens designed in different styles that are popular for wedding photographs. Rooms from $135 a night.
Wild Life Sydney Zoo
1-5 Wheat Rd, Darling Harbour
A commercial zoo specialising in native Australian animals. Open 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. during spring and summer. Closes at 5 p.m. during winter and fall. Adult, $32; child, $22; family, $109.
Cedar Creek Wombat Hospital
Cedar Creek Road, Cedar Creek, New South Wales.
A private wombat refuge and rescue service. The owners, Roz and Kevin Holme, ask any visitors to contact them first. There is no entrance fee but they hope tourists will make a donation.
For general information about the most common wombat species: australianmuseum.net.au/Common-Wombat
For tourist information about Sydney and New South Wales state:
For a list of nature reserves in Victoria state, including Wilsons Promontory: parkweb.vic.gov.au
More from Travel:
A. Odysseus Patrick is a deputy editor of the Australian Financial Review.