April marked my first visit to the Melbourne international comedy festival – indeed, my first visit to Melbourne – and the folks organising the international contingent have been very good to their foreign charges. Restaurants have been recommended, doctors have been obtained, and occasionally, a bouquet of flower as shows up in our hotel rooms and smells nice for a few days before the flowers die and we forget to throw them away.
One of the company managers, Hannah, decides it’s a good idea to organise a trip to Healesville animal sanctuary, and a few comics brave enough to leave the CBD bubble pile into a mini-van headed for the Yarra Valley to see some goddamn animals.
There are three performers in the car, and one five-year-old girl, who is easily the most gung-ho of us all and keeps asking if we’re there yet. About halfway through the trip – we’ve just stopped to use a Nandos bathroom in a place called Lilydale – she informs me “we are going to meet a koala”. Right away, in a panic, too loudly and quickly, I say: “Yeah, right. WE. There’s no we.” As if I’m a ghost, the other occupants of the car agree that meeting a koala is an absolutely great idea.
I don’t want to meet a koala. It seems like the kind of tin-eared activity you’d expect from cruise ship tourists. The most obvious “look, I visited Australia” thing possible. The five-year-old isn’t troubled that it might make her look tacky. She tells me she can’t wait to meet a koala. She can’t wait to hold a koala.
I definitely don’t want to hold a koala. Surely it’s an enormous invasion of their personal space – in literally every picture I’ve ever seen where someone is holding one, the unfortunate marsupial has the miserable look of the least popular kid in his class on photo day. And if you need a better reason than that, I have absolutely no desire to cradle an animal with enormous claws, a possible case of chlamydia and an expression more commonly worn by Alan Rickman.
I tell the lady behind the welcome desk my reservations – all of my reservations, in one stream-of-consciousness anxiety fit – and, after a few seconds of blank staring, she informs me that, at Healesville, you’re not allowed to hold the koalas. Oh.
I buy a $12 “Magic Moment” ticket – good for a 10-minute meet-and-greet – and turn around to discover the other comedians have pulled a fast one. No one wants to meet the koala either, and it’ll just be the five-year-old and me.
The real animals at Healesville animal sanctuary, by the way, are the children. There’s a lot of crying, like the seven-year-old boy with a Strine drawl throwing a tantrum and screaming “Mommy” at the top of his lungs near the red kangaroo enclosure. Our well-behaved five-year-old shakes her head.
We catch sight of the koalas as soon as we get near their enclosure. Koalas look like real-life Pokémon. And not one of the adorable Pokémon, like Pikachu – one of the angry ones that look like they were drawn at the end of a long work week. Darren, our tour guide, takes us into a paddock, where a koala is perched, samurai-like, in his tree.
Darren has tour-guide patter. You know that thing where guides have come up with, like, seven jokes that are a tiny, tiny bit naughty and deploy them strategically throughout your tour? Darren’s are so informative and corny that for a brief time, I’m too busy rolling my eyes and being fascinated to be terrified.
He points out the koala’s overbite and makes a joke about braces. He says the koala’s name is Benni. He urges us to get closer for a picture. The five-year-old bounds right up to the tree. She’s basically BFF with this koala, only it’s a one-sided friendship. Benni doesn’t move a muscle. He’s awake though, which is apparently a rarity. Pretty much as soon as I get near him and someone snaps a photo, Benni turns his head to stare at me, unimpressed. He jumps from one tree to another and we are forced to vacate the paddock early.
We hang out for a few more hours at Healesville though. It’s a great place to spend a day if you’re with a kid who doesn’t behave like a hooligan. On the way out, the five-year-old says to me: “I can’t believe we were so close to a koala. We were so brave.” Yeah, right. We were.
Originally published in The Guardian in 2015.