Holding a koala is unlike anything you might expect. First, it's the baby-sized bottom cupped in your hands. Next it's the sharp hooked nails that sink into your flesh. And finally, as the koala calms, a tight, warm marsupial hug.
Disclaimer: I'm an animal lover. But even the most hard-boiled cynic can't withstand the cuddle of a koala.
Here, at Currumbin, a wildlife park, close to the party beaches of Australia's Gold Coast, rescued koalas and their offspring live out their lives.
Currumbin is the most unusual of places. Begun decades ago as the private home of an eccentric man who loved to feed lorikeets, it has blossomed into a model animal sanctuary.
Lorikeets still descend on the property by the hundreds thanks to a sustained feeding program, but most of the park is dedicated to other Australian species, like kangaroos, crocs and koalas.
Currumbin is part animal sanctuary, part wildlife hospital and part Aussie animal zoo. The latter part of the property is the moneymaker that keeps the first two missions alive.
Most of the koalas here were raised in captivity; many were abandoned or injured as babies and cannot be released into the wild. They spend their lives very much like koalas on the outside do: dozing in eucalyptus trees and occasionally gnawing on a few leaves before falling asleep again. Koalas are known as the sleepiest animals on the planet. (It turns out, that's not because they're stoned on eucalyptus all the time. They sleep between 18 and 22 hours a day because of their slow metabolic systems).
The result of all that inactivity and close proximity with humans is that they are game for a good cuddle. The koalas at Currumbin snuggle against your chest, lay their soft heads on your shoulder and close their eyes.
For $20 you can have your picture taken with a cuddly koala, which seems rather cheesy until you realize the cash goes toward protecting animals at this refuge.
Sadly, koalas are declining along the east coast of Australia. Deforestation driven by development pressures combined with warmer, drier weather are the main causes of the diminishing population. Last year, the Australian government classified koalas as "vulnerable."
Kangaroos, plentiful in population, provide as a good of a contrast with koalas at Currumbin as they do across Australia. Americans, weaned on tales of Winnie the Pooh with Roo and Kanga, might be a bit surprised to see the dusty, unpredictable creatures romping about freely. It turns out kangaroos are rather easily annoyed, occasionally angry, and often horny.
You can purchase cups of kibble to feed them, which sounds charming until you realize they're a rather greedy lot that have no qualms about pushing you down to get at it. Of course, you can just stand back and watch from behind a rope, or better yet a tram.
If kangaroos represent Australia's brash side, then koalas epitomize Aussie cool. One cuddle with these Zen-like creatures, and you'll find your blood pressure dropping, your mind clearing and maybe a yawn or two escaping. Your laid back trip to Oz has just begun, mate.