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4 New Adventures in Australia’s Gold Coast

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Last week, Peter shared his Hidden Gems of Sydney and tomorrow he heads to Tasmania for another Australia adventure. While the beaches of Australia’s Gold Coast are well-known, arts and culture contributor Thea Klapwald found a few unexpected ways to explore that side of the continent.

In Australia, the Gold Coast is aptly named. Thirty-five miles, or as Aussies boast 42 km, of coastline stretches in front of you with sandy, and surf clubs to make even Southern Californians and Hawaiians envious.

I had never visited before and only knew of The Gold Coast from its reputation with Australians as built-up with high-rises (yup, they’re there!) or annually overrun with “schoolies” – high school kids celebrating graduation in November (this year avoid booking November 17-24, 2012).

However, the Gold Coast has reinvented itself from a run-of-the-mill beach “vacay” if you know where to look.

Raptor Rapture at Bird Sanctuary Show and Treetop Bridge Over Ancient Forest

A raptor swoops overhead and lands nearby. You are not in an Arthurian tale but at O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat and Villas. Located in what the locals term the Gold Coast hinterland (inland from the shore), O’Reilly’s is a third-generation owned and operated facility located at the edge of the ancient Lamington National Forest. The Forest landscape has a history that dates back to 300 million years ago and its geology dates back to the Paleozoic Era of 225 millions years ago.

Today, Shane O’Reilly is the current managing director and is often seen wandering the property asking you if you need anything. A stay at O’Reilly’s is an experience that it includes birds of prey staring you down, as well as a casual stroll on swinging treetop bridges high above the subtropical rainforest floor.

The bird rescue center and sanctuary is a little-known attraction at O’Reillys. A bird “show” occurs regularly but it is not of the SeaWorld variety.

Sitting on a wooden bench in a field on a mountaintop while on the lookout for vengeful free-flying raptors is not something you do at big-ticket theme parks. Birds of prey are not forgiving animals, and the sanctuary is home to birds turned out from their own communities and attacked.

One such outcast, Bill the Wedge-tailed Eagle, is on the arm of an expert handler and Guide Carmen Ludke. Bill, Carmen and a handful of onlookers scan the sky to make sure no other eagles fly by during the lecture and demonstration. While Carmen explains how Bill has lost one eye from attacks by his fellow fowl, Bill flies over my head – I can feel a breeze generated by his great wingspan – and I instinctively duck. One bird-phobic audience member is spooked and hurries away.

After Bill returns to Carmen, I have my photo taken with a less challenging bird of prey, a gorgeous barnyard owl named Star that blinks for the camera – which I take to be a smile. Star is deceptively light and I do feel a little like the Queen of Camelot with the royal plumage sitting on my gloved arm.

O’Reilly’s Guesthouse faces Lamington Forest’s Booyong Walk, a path that leads directly to Treetop Walk, the first of its kind in the world opened in 1987. Nine bridges rise gradually to 50 feet so that it feels like you are naturally ascending with the rising height of the trees nearby. Once above the canopy you are close enough to touch Red Cedar trees with clusters of ephiphyte ferns and orchids clinging to the trunks. These plants are ancestors of prehistoric times. To really feel the majesty of the forest, two observation platforms are accessible via a ladder in a Strangler Fig and bring you about 110 feet off the ground.

If you have time, linger over this walk, or do it several times at different times of the day to experience the forest’s diverse ecosystem including a group of World Heritage-appointed singular songbirds such as Albert’s Lyrebird and the satin bowerbird, thought to have evolved 55 million years ago.