Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures, located halfway between Cairns and Port Douglas, is something of a local institution. For the last 15 years they’ve been educating visitors about the saltwater and freshwater crocs that inhabit this area of Far North Queensland (and make many of the area’s waters unsafe for swimming). But could a place dedicated to these mean-looking reptiles really be worth our limited time in this unique area? Given that our visit stretched past five hours and only ended due to the day’s growing heat and the kids’ flagging energy, I’d give Hartley’s a resounding eight thumbs up from our family! Read on to find out why.
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Up close and personal
It was the creatures of all types, reptile, marsupial, bird and even human, that made our visit to Hartley’s Crocodile Adventure so memorable and why we think it’s one of the best things to do in Cairns (with kids or without!).
We decided to pay for an early morning “breakfast with the koala” experience, which got us to the park bright and early (not our usual style). It was just us and one medium sized tour group, so after they had gotten their requisite koala selfies we had about half an hour to pet and feed the gracious 17yo Evie and ply her human companion Ricki with an unending stream of questions. Our kids are huge fans of the PBS Kids show Wild Kratts (ok, we are too) and it was like having a personal chat with one of the hosts! Both Ricki and Evie were extremely patient with us and we got a much more personal experience than we could have dreamed of. Note that the $55 cost for the family breakfast package does not include a picture holding the koala. If you want to do that, it’s available elsewhere at Hartley’s for a charge of $22. But Queensland has strict regulations on how long each koala can work each week, so don’t try to pick up the koala that’s at breakfast! Even without holding a koala, we still got lots of petting and snuggling (they all have slightly different fur texture, but she’s so soft!).
After our breakfast with Evie was done, we headed over to see Milky the baby koala. The cuteness!!!! She’s around 10 months old and we saw her in all manner of adorable positions including nestled in with here mom Willa, tucking into the pouch for a swig of milk, and then this absolutely adorable position:
Next to the koala nursery is the koala photos station – one of a few places where you can hold a koala in Australia. But there is also a rotating reptile display and a great opportunity for some hands-on learning. David and Darrol spent over an hour with us introducing us to two of their friends, Louie the 1yo Crocodile and Tangles the 6yo Black-headed python. Did you know that crocs go through fifty sets of teeth during their century of natural life? Surprisingly, the adult teeth aren’t particularly sharp – their danger is due to the massive closing force of the Crocodile jaws and the crocs’ strength to roll their chomped prey around to kill it and break it apart. Oh, and apparently they can swim as fast as a car can drive and can sprint for short stretches on land. Did I mention that you’re not supposed to go in or near the beaches and riverbanks in the area? Our visit with Tangles was an important “family first” in our year of challenging ourselves and growing through new experiences: one of us held a snake! Not just any snake, but an enormous python. And not just any member of the family, but the one who’s positively phobic of snakes and has warned us on every bush walk (and some neighborhood walks) to stay in the middle of the footpath for fear of slithering friends. Check out this bravery!
We really loved the high level of engagement and enthusiasm from all of the team members at Hartley’s. They know and love the animals, and they also know how to interact with guests to teach them in an engaging, hands-on way. It’s this opportunity to get up close with the creatures and the creature experts that makes Hartley’s a special place. We finally headed over to the man-made lagoon for our boat tour, the centerpiece of your Hartley’s experience at the Cairns crocodile park. We spent twenty minutes cruising the lagoon in the specially designed croc-proof boat, catching glimpses of some of the 25 resident saltwater crocodiles. We even saw “big Ted”, the dominant male of the bunch, who is around 120 years old, weighs 900 kg and is over 5 meters long! Of course the crocodile’s most notable feature is its massively powerful jaw, which we saw on full display as several of them went after a chicken leg with gusto.
As with every other experience at Hartley’s, this one was extremely educational. With a wry sense of humor, our guide shared the history of the property and explained crocodile nesting practices.
Once our croc cruise was done, we ventured to the Gondwana Gateway section of Hartley’s. The area contains the usual variety of animals from Australia, and some less common ones like quolls and lace monitors. But what makes this area a standout in my humble is the way that the staff educators have cleverly used kid-friendly narrative panels to explain the ancient ancestors of the animals we see today and how the changing continent structure and climate impacted the evolutionary path of each animal. Fascinating stuff, for young and old alike!
Have you heard of a Cassowary? Me neither! Adjacent to the Gondwana Gateway is a habitat dedicated to this bizarre looking flightless Australian bird native to the area, a relative of emu and ostrich and other ratites. At certain times you can attend a cassowary feeding, but even in between feedings you’ll notice a bowl of delicious stone fruits sitting around for the enormous birds to eat. It turns out that cassowary birds have a symbiotic relationship with the cassowary plum tree – the plums are toxic to many creatures, but the cassowary can eat it unscathed; the seed then travels whole through the bird’s digestive tract and is dropped whenever the cassowary “feels the urge”. From the cassowary bird poop, eventually a new tree will eventually sprout! Isn’t nature cool?
Want to spot Australian animals out in the wild? Find out how in this great guide.
Is Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures worth the price?
There’s even more to explore at Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures that we didn’t get to, including an area of reptiles and an optional tour of their commercial Cairns crocodile farm. There’s also a range of shows, feedings and keeper talks related to different animals.
In total we spent over four hours at Hartley’s even without taking advantage of all those options. The stated Family admission price is $97.50 AUD, and our breakfast with the koala was an additional $55 AUD for our family. Given the uniqueness of some of the animals, the broad range of activities and the attentive and personal staffing, we think it’s an experience that warrants budgeting for when you’re planning for things to do in Port Douglas or Cairns with kids.
What to bring to Hartley’s
As with everywhere in this area, bring a healthy supply of really strong, DEET-laden mosquito repellent. After all, the park is situated around a man-made lagoon swarming with mossies! We’ve had good results with Bushman’s, but check out these alternatives as well. Some of the mosquitoes in the area do carry diseases and our non-toxic options just weren’t cutting it on their own (though we love using these bracelets and stickers at bedtime… just in case).
The heat and humidity here will make anyone wilt, so bring tons of water. This would be a great time to use a Camelbak as your daypack, as you can fill the huge reservoir at your hotel or apartment in the morning and then enjoy refreshing cold water all day long (make sure to add ice). The tap water at Hartley’s is not potable – apparently it’s an issue for local residents too. If you run out of water you can of course buy a bottle from the cafe or the gift shop, but better to come prepared on your own. If you aren’t sure what daypack to bring on your family trip to Australia, check out some great choices here.
Hats and sunscreen (check out our family fave!) are always important in Australia due to the high UV exposure under the ozone hole. I will say that much of what we experienced at Hartley’s was well-shaded, which was a great surprise, but some of the reptile area looked to have more exposure.
Visiting Australia for the first time? Make sure to read these tips!
Disclosure: Hartley’s generously hosted us for their general admission family ticket; all opinions are my own.