IT may have been a winter's morning, but Nifty Latty, a koala joey, was being bathed outside in a repurposed laundry tub.
"You can see why we need a hospital," said Ron Land, the secretary of the rescue and care group Port Stephens Koalas.
The makeshift bath was outside the group's small demountable building that has served as everything from a koala clinic to a marsupial morgue since 2017.
However, the heartening news for Nifty Latty and the dozens of other marsupials in need of the volunteers group's help each year is that a new sanctuary is nearing completion at Port Stephens Koalas' base at Anna Bay.
The facility will combine conservation with tourism. The sanctuary will have a $2.5-million koala hospital, along with upgraded enclosures. The tourist facilities, worth about $6.5 million, will include "glamping" accommodation, a cafe and a visitors' centre.
Ron Land said the koala sanctuary would be unique.
"The point of difference is while there are other facilities in Australia that display koalas and care for koalas ... there's none that have this very important tourist element, so it makes it a fully integrated facility," Mr Land said.
Port Stephens Council has contributed $6 million toward the project, and the NSW Government has put in $3 million. Port Stephens Koalas has had to raise the fit-out costs of more than $500,000.
The plan is for the tourist side of the development to provide ongoing funding for the sanctuary. So the koalas bring in the visitors, the visitors bring in the money for the koalas.
"They both have to work together; if one doesn't work, the other doesn't work," said Port Stephens Mayor, Ryan Palmer.
Ron Land said the facility had to work, not just from a commercial point of view, but for the very future of the koala. He has estimated that numbers in the Port Stephens area have dwindled to about 250.
"If we were going to do just one element of this, it wouldn't be as successful as the fully integrated facility," Mr Land said. "The uniqueness of it runs parallel to the need for it."
While the sanctuary is not likely to open before late September, the Newcastle Herald was this week taken on a tour of the facility.
For the visitor, the koala experience will begin at the entrance, with a "sanctuary story walk".
The sanctuary's marketing and promotions manager, James Cook, said the walk would have signs explaining the journey of a sick or injured koala, from the time it was rescued, through its rehabilitation at the facility, to it being released.
"By the time you reach the end of the story walk, you'll be well versed on all aspects of the koala and the plight of them, and what the sanctuary will provide for them," Mr Cook said.
Councillor Palmer said for a visitor, the facility was about not just seeing a koala but learning about the pressures the species faced.
"From what we've seen in the last six to 12 months with the bushfires, people have really taken an interest in what the future of the koalas has been," Cr Palmer said.
The story path winds it way between the 20 "glamping" tents, which will cost between $300 and $400 a night to stay in. The facility will also have 20 motel units. Some of the luxurious safari tents' decks face the koalas' enclosures.
However, guests will have another view to the koalas.
"We're going to be installing a number of real-time cameras up in the enclosures, and they'll feed back into the glamping tents," Mr Land explained.
For visitors to get closer to the koalas, a skywalk has been built.
"It will give people a greater immersive experience, feeling like you're in their habitat, as you're 30 feet [about nine metres] in the air, eyeballing a koala directly in the tree," James Cook said.
Ron Land said it was important to display the koalas in their natural environment.
"We want relaxed, stress-free, healthy koalas," Mr Land said.
The skywalk passes a string of large enclosures. Some of the koalas in the enclosures have been recovering from injuries or illnesses. A few may help hold the future of the species.
For instance, one resident is Patu. His mother, Eila, was pregnant with him when she was badly burnt in the Mambo Wetlands fire in 2018. Mum spent 108 days in intensive care.
Now, both mother and son live in these enclosures. Eila can climb once more. In her enclosure, there is a koala smorgasbord, with bunches of leaves laid out. Ron Land explained four different eucalypt species were provided twice a day for the koalas.
Like his mother, Patu will spend the rest of his days here. The plan is for him to be part of the first breeding pair at the sanctuary.
"One of the key goals of this facility is to breed healthy progeny and re-release them into the wild to repopulate the wild colonies," said Mr Land.
The mayor was heartened by the prospect of a local koala breeding program.
"To be able to be part of the solution and hopefully reverse that population trend and send it the other way, is really, really exciting," Cr Palmer said.
Injured and ill koalas will be brought into the hospital being built.
We will have a facility here that is world class.Ron Land, Port Stephens Koalas
Ron Land said the facility could treat up to six critically ill koalas. The sanctuary was licensed to have up to 30 koalas in the enclosures along the skywalk, and up to 20 koalas could be kept in a rehabilitation area near the hospital.
"So it's a big deal, a big hospital," he said.
The new hospital will have four intensive care rooms, surgical areas, and an X-ray room. In one area, which will serve as a clinic, there will be a large window so visitors can look from outside.
"There will be a lot of activity in here, including daily checks and health checks of koalas, and low-level treatments of koalas," Mr Land said.
The Port Stephens Koala Sanctuary is aimed at international and domestic visitors, along with the schools market. James Cook said planning indicated the facility would attract 40,000 visitors annually by its third year.
However, COVID-19 has played havoc with plans. The pandemic has pushed back the sanctuary's opening, and it has also had an impact on koala rescue and care operations, as the group has been working with smaller crews.
What's more, the facility has to accept receiving very few international visitors until travel restrictions are lifted. But the interest is still there.
James Cook said he recently participated in a virtual showcase to North America, presenting the koala sanctuary to 75 US travel agents and consultants.
"It will be a 'must do' attraction when people come to the Port Stephens region," Mr Cook said, adding the conservation aspect would be a drawcard.
"By visiting the koala sanctuary, you're directly contributing to the long-term sustainability of the koala in the wild here in not only NSW, but Australia."
Councillor Palmer described how, as a life-long Port Stephens resident, he had been dismayed by the roadside signs recording the mounting koala death toll. He hoped that now there could be signs celebrating the growing number of koalas saved.
"It's the first time I've been on the hospital tour, and I hope it's a facility that will play its part in helping those koalas who would have no chance, if it wasn't there," Cr Palmer said.
"I hope there are more stories like Patu's, because of this hospital."
Ron Land said this would be a sanctuary not just for koalas.
The group has applied for accreditation as a small animal hospital to treat native fauna, such as kangaroos and wallabies, wombats and birds.
"It further justifies the capital expenditure," he said. "Even though we'll have a full patient list with koalas, koalas aren't the only native species in need of help."
When Ron Land joined Port Stephens Koalas a few years ago as a volunteer, he hoped to help bring to life a modest facility. Little did he imagine the sanctuary that has grown amid the trees.
The sanctuary would attract visitors from around the globe, he forecast. But more importantly, it would help save a national icon.
"We will have a facility here that is world class," Mr Land said. "And we'll give the koalas and other native animals treated here the best chance of survival."
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