10 amazing animal destinations

Originally published in Sunday Telegraph

Sydney’s Taronga Zoo may be heartwrenchingly beautiful overlooking Sydney Harbour and Adelaide’s new zoo ain’t bad either, but what if you and the family want to get closer to the animals than sneaking a peek into an enclosure? Try these destinations for size.


Some campers find the kangaroos a tad pesky, because they have as much gall as a charity doorknocker, scratching on your tent as soon as the sun is up to beg for food. But if an intimate native animal experience is your thing, then this camping and caravan ground in Murramarang National Park could be for you. Visitors are asked not to feed the animals, but that doesn’t stop the roos asking. You can camp from around $5 a person or book a cabin from $90 a night.

WHERE: Around 300km south of Sydney.


What could be nicer than hand-feeding the friendly dolphins that enter the sparkling waters and have been entertaining tourists since 1964? It’s something your kids – and you – would never forget. In a World Heritage Area that includes dungogs and amazing coastal scenery, Monkey Mia is only a part of the offering around Shark Bay, where you can also cruise the coastal waters or head a couple of hours north to see Ningaloo Reef. The local resort offers camping from $14 per night right up to $299 a night beachfront villas, so there is something to suit all price ranges.

WHERE: Around 850km north of Perth, close to Carnarvon


To see unusual marsupials like the dunnart, planigale and euro then head to the remarkable Flinders Ranges, where you might also be able to spot the rare yellow-footed rock wallaby in the wild. It’s a hot, arid landscape full of spectacular gorges and creeks that is quite unlike anything else in Australia. Try to visit in winter before the temperatures soar into the 40s! There are plenty of camping options through the ranges, as well as tours and self-drive itineraries.

WHERE: Around 450km north of Adelaide.


If someone in the family is in urgent need of an adrenaline rush, then Oceanworld at Manly on Sydney’s northern beaches could be the place for you. They don’t just offer a chance to get in the water with the sharks, but they do it at feeding time for some extra heart-thumping thrills. Divers who pay $350 are given a lesson on using scuba equipment and then thrust into the shark tunnel to be surrounded by grey nurse sharks, stingrays, turtles and moray eels while food is being handed out.

WHERE: Oceanworld Manly, Sydney


The 20,000 hectare Lamington National Park is not far from the theme parks of the Gold Coast, but is a rainforest home to frogs, snakes, pademelons – a very cute and squat wallaby – and an abundance of birds. There are lyre birds, bowerbirds and paradise riflebirds with plenty of tours for the dedicated birdwatcher running from the various guesthouses in the park. Camping at national park rates or choose to stay in one of the more luxurious lodges.

WHERE: 45-minute drive from Surfers Paradise


Those crocodile-infested rivers around Darwin have to be good for something, and entrepreneurial tourism operators now offer an abundance of boating tours where you can feed or simply watch the crocodiles on the Adelaide River, between Darwin and Kakadu. Some operators shut down in the wet season between November and March, which is also an unpleasant time of year to be in the top end unless humidity and thunder storms are your favourite things. Tours start from around $30 a person, and people who have seen one tonne of prehistoric eating machine launch itself from the muddy river to snare some food say it’s worth it.

WHERE: An hour’s drive from Darwin.

FIND OUT MORE: www.northernterritory.visitorsbureau.com.au

Attack of the senses

Originally published in Daily Telegraph

IMAX is cinematic sensory overload — the screen is wider and higher than the human eye’s field of view, delivering what some may call an “immersive” movie experience, writes Alex Brooks for Daily Telegraph’s Best Weekend section.

Imax for kids in SydneyA silver eye-shaped tower with IMAX emblazoned across it winks over Darling Harbour.

This odd-shaped building has glinted and shimmered in the harsh Sydney sun since 1996, proclaiming it holds the “world’s largest screen”, a 34m x 29m curved wall of white.

IMAX is cinematic sensory overload — the screen is wider and higher than the human eye’s field of view, delivering what some may call an “immersive” movie experience. I call it motion sickness.

My kids, of course, love it.

The IMAX is a unique cinematic adventure which raises the stakes for a generation which has grown up with big screen TVs in every lounge room.

Watching a 3D movie at IMAX is positively absurd, as the entire audience sit with silly plastic goggles on their faces and little kids literally try to catch the 3D objects which appear to burst out of the gigantic screen.

We visit IMAX again to catch the latest instalment of Hunger Games, a bloodthirsty young adult story of kids who are forced to kill each other for the entertainment of merciless politicians.

My kids have read the Hunger Games books and while I have a pang of doubt as to whether my youngest son should see an M-rated flick, the 10-year-old convinces me that watching Prime Minister Tony Abbott decimate education funding on the news every night is more hazardous to his impressionable young mind.

“Katniss Everdeen totally has to kill people or be killed. She doesn’t kill just for fun, like they do in M-rated video games or the Liberal Party,” he pleads.

I hop online to buy tickets — having been burned before when I thought I could simply turn up to the IMAX and buy a ticket to the next session — and choose a family ticket, which saves between $8-$10 on the whole expensive exercise.

IMAX tickets don’t come cheap. I wonder if the yellow and black safety squares on the outside of the IMAX building are to warn incomers of impending feelings of seasickness when they walk into the auditorium and lose all spatial awareness after forking out the $32 entry fee for adults and $23 for kids.

Children under the age of three are technically free at IMAX, but there are stern warnings on the IMAX website not to bring youngsters, who tend not to sit still for long periods of time.

Popcorn bastes the air with its buttery smell as you enter IMAX, but there’s no need to be lured into the expensive snacks. If you show your IMAX ticket downstairs at Gelatissimo, you can get a discount.

Those ice creams are well worth it.

As is the IMAX: it’s the movies on steroids. What’s not to love about that?

Punch T-rex on the nose

Originally published in Daily Telegraph

Projected images of teensy tiny tyrannosaurs running around Circular Quay are on the walls of the entry walk into the exhibition, exploding the myth of tyrannosaurs as big, nostrilly giants with girlie arms and scary teeth, writes Alex Brooks for Daily Telegraph’s Best Weekend section.

Australian Museum Dinosaur exhibition

"Jackson, stop playing on that phone and start interacting,” implores a mother at the Australian Museum’s latest blockbuster exhibition, Tyrannosaurs: Meet The Family.

Jackson reluctantly stops playing Candy Crush to swipe a few dinosaur eggs across what looks like a giant iPad table — one of many technology-led features in this dinosaur extravaganza.

Projected images of teensy tiny tyrannosaurs running around Circular Quay are on the walls of the entry walk into the exhibition, exploding the myth of tyrannosaurs as big, nostrilly giants with girlie arms and scary teeth.

This exhibition aims to show a more intimate and scientific view of the big scary dinosaur family, which has way more to it than just the big and scary T.rex, which roamed the continent now known as North America.

In other parts of the world, tyrannosaurs were the size of turkeys and the daddy tyrannosaurs were nice enough to sit on the nest of eggs, much like the Australian emu and cassowary who seem to have some prehistoric links to the dinosaur family.

Tyrannosaurs: Meet The Family is more stage show than science, though. There’s a dramatic wall showing huge-scale images of dinosaurs walking through the hallways of the museum while big red signs flash “evacuate”.

When visitors stand in a particular yellow square, they can punch, kick or pat those impostor museum dinosaurs on the big screen.

My kids are dying to take their turn standing on the square and punch a dinosaur on the nose, but enthralled toddlers and preschoolers keep cutting in front of them.

“T.rex might be a two-year-old’s dinosaur fantasy but it doesn’t scare those little kids enough to stand in line,” sulks the oldest son.

My kids run off to find a toddler-free zone where they can muscle their way in to squeeze, jump, stare and press buttons.

There’s a bite force machine, allowing kids to press a handle to ascertain their own bite force — 31kg for the oldest son, compared to T.rex’s 3100kg and a lion’s 560kg.

The kids then jump as hard (and loud) as they can on some kind of crater and meteor simulating machine, supposedly helping my boys explore one of the theories of dinosaur extinction. My kids stomp hard enough to create a meteor that is 10km wide and pound the earth with a 350km crater. Other adults in the exhibition possibly did not need to hear such a grating cacophony of interactive learning.

Welcome to the modern museum, where hands-on experience, augmented reality and 3-D technology have replaced dioramas of fusty old stuffed animals.

Heck, there’s even a free app to download so you can keep on playing, swiping and pinging tyrannosaurs on your phone even when you’ve left the exhibition. That would make Jackson happy …

Hooked on fishing

Originally published in Daily Telegraph

A mother and baby dolphin break the water’s surface in perfect unison while the largest dolphin has a shredded fin and my kids christen him “Nigel No Fin”, the perfect buddy for Carol the old boat, writes Alex Brooks for the Daily Telegraph’s Best Weekend section.

Fishing is another word for waiting. Fishing from a boat on the Central Coast’s Brisbane Water makes all the waiting worth it.

We paid $115 to hire a 16-foot half-cabin wooden cruiser named Carol from Andersons Boatshed for five hours of boating around the waterways around Booker Bay. Andersons throw in a fishing bucket and licence, too. We paid another $6 for a packet of bait.

Carol was one of several old-style wooden cruisers available for hire — she has other boat friends named Susan and Bonnie — which can be hired by groups of up to six people.

There are more modern boats too, like the BBQ boats, which host up to 12 people and include a porta-potty.

I loved lounging on Carol’s timber bench under the shade of her white cabin while the boys of the family motored me around beautiful Brisbane Water, seeking the perfect fishing spot.

I did stretch Carol’s friendship when I nearly tipped her upside down after spotting a dolphin fin and rushing to the other side of the boat too quickly.

Carol was very forgiving and her super slow motor let us to putter close to Hardys Bay and see a pod of six dolphins dancing through the water. A kayaker pulled up alongside and said he paddles every weekend and has never seen dolphins in the bay.

A mother and baby dolphin break the water’s surface in perfect unison while the largest dolphin has a shredded fin and my kids christen him “Nigel No Fin”, the perfect buddy for Carol the old boat.

The blokes at Andersons recommend fishing near the oyster leases close to Rip Bridge, where fish are dazed and confused after being caught near the drastic current.

Bellbirds call, sea kites fly overhead and the boys are happy baiting their hooks with prawns and waiting for the fish to bite.

All is tranquil and perfect until big boats with names like TerraRISING and Kamikaze thunder past, leaving Carol bobbing dangerously in their wake.

The wash of waves brings a black rubber thong floating close to Carol, looking for all the world like it is walking on water.

The boys’ fishing rod finally reels in a fish. It looks like a morwong, but it’s so tiny I swear Carol is whispering we will be arrested for hooking such a baby.

The chief man of the house does his best to quickly unhook the teensy fish and send it back swimming, but there’s a strange blob of ooze still on the hook.

“I think that’s the fish’s tongue and salivary glands,” he says, deadpan. “Let’s hope the fish doesn’t sue,” pipes up youngest son.

Yes. Let’s.

Cruising for a bruising

Originally published in Daily Telegraph

Jet boating on Sydney Harbour. Kids loved it. Me? Not so much, writes Alex Brooks for Daily Telegraph.

“Does anyone have any neck, shoulder or back injuries?” the nice young man with lip piercings asked me as he collected our tickets.

Red is a warning colour I failed to heed. I paid good money to get on a red jet boat, wear a red-hooded poncho and speed around Sydney Harbour with a red face and get drenched.

As salt water stung my eyes and my ears rang with my boys’ screaming, “Look at Mum’s face, look at Mum’s face”, I realised I had been hoodwinked. I was on a Sydney Harbour jet boat, and I was petrified. This was like a roller-coaster ride that lasts 10 times longer and douses you in cold water.

This was precisely what my kids had in mind when they asked to go jet boating. They have been jet-boating before and promised I would love it as much as they did.

I was gloriously unafraid when I clicked over to adrenalin.com.au and bought discounted jet boat tickets for $40 per person (usual price $60)!

It was a sunny Sydney day, and the idea of being on a boats on Sydney Harbour conjured relaxation and leisure — I was thinking cruise rather than bruise. I failed to understand that one little word “jet” in front of the word “boat” changes everything. Our boat tickets had been emailed through and all we had to do was turn up to the eastern pontoon at Circular Quay 20 minutes before our 4pm cruise.

“Does anyone have any neck, shoulder or back injuries?” the nice young man with lip piercings asked me as he collected our tickets.


“And no one’s pregnant or has a heart condition?” he continued. “Just how fast will this boat go?” I asked, still unaware of what was ahead of me.

“You won’t go over 80 kays an hour and you’ll do a few spins and stops — it’s nothing too hard,” he reassured me.

We walked down to the pontoon and were told to put everything — yes, even shoes and socks and car keys — into a locker and don a fetching waterproof poncho that was still damp from previous boaters. We chugged away from the pontoon with a large crowd of onlookers waving and staring.

As we pulled in front of the Opera House, the boat suddenly roared forward and shot ahead to eye-watering speeds. I braced myself and heard whoops of joy from the boat while my mind suddenly recalled stories about jet boat rides, people with broken backs and flip accidents.

I tightened the string on my poncho hood until I looked like Kenny from South Park. Salt sprays stung my cheeks and eyes as the boat lurched and walls of water sprayed across us. The skipper kept counting us down so we knew when the spins were coming, but all I could do was shut my eyes and realise this boat trip would last 30 minutes — I had a whole 28 minutes to go.

My sons were laughing that insane kid-laugh that’s half fear, half thrill. The 10-year-old kept uttering, “Yolo” at every water-spraying opportunity.

Adrenalin. I have enough of it pumping through me every day without needing to pay extra for it, thanks.

The kids wanted to do it all over again

A visit to the toy underworld

Originally published in Daily Telegraph

Hobbyco is where boys (and far too many men in business suits), ogle everything from Scalextric to Lego to model aeroplanes, trains and automobiles.

Modern children receive many more toys than required in a childhood, some more devastating to human ears than others. The word toy describes an item used for play. In my house, though, there is an unnerving quest by two little boys to own and conquer a toy pile just for the sake of owning it. They would make Donald Trump proud.

This unhealthy idolisation of toys means a quick trip into Kmart or Target becomes not-quick-at-all.

There is too much lingering in the toy aisles discussing whether to spend pocket money on Nerf gun bullets or save pocket money to buy some hideously violent video game which Mum must later ban.

We have also just discovered the Hobbyco store on the top floor of the Queen Victoria Building in the city, which is quite possibly Sydney’s equivalent to London’s famous Hamleys toy store or New York’s FAO Schwartz.

Hobbyco is where boys (and far too many men in business suits), ogle everything from Scalextric to Lego to model aeroplanes, trains and automobiles.

My oldest son discovers Hobbyco sells Monopoly Empire, a version of the famous board game where you buy brands rather than Park Lane or Trafalgar Square.

“This is awesome Mum, and it’s only $46.50. Can we get it?” Nope.

“What about this Harley-Davidson version of Monopoly. Look, it’s black leather! Oh, but it’s $659. That’s way too much money.” So can you imagine my little capitalist offspring’s delight at being invited to an exclusive showing of the 2014 season of Christmas toys?

There are a few perks to my job on Kidspot. One of them is the occasional invite to a penthouse apartment where a toy company shows off not-yet-available toys and I get to bring along my kids.

This is the little boy equivalent of getting a front-row seat at the Paris fashion shows or a tap on the shoulder to be in X-Factor.

This is more exciting than going to see Santa Claus at Christmas, especially now the boys are old enough to know mummy and money is the real Santa.

We walk in and are smacked in the eyes with awesome harbour views, along with brand new Razor scooters, flying helicopters and a purple girlie whirly version of a remote control helicopter — the Flutterbye Flying Fairy.

Despite my boys being obsessed with the grotesque Smasha-Ballz, which actually make farting noises, I decree the toy of Christmas 2014 will be the $14.95 Chill Factor. It’s a silicone cup you store in the freezer and then pour in liquid to make an instant slushie.

It’s cheap, noiseless and has a purpose.

Unlike most of the toys taking up space in my house.