Waking Up in the Wild at Taronga Western Plains Zoo, Australia
I woke up shortly before dawn to the chatter of what sounded like thousands of birds.
Rolling out from under the covers, I pushed past the netted curtains draped around the queen-sized bed. I jammed my feet into a pair of slippers, pulled on a complimentary bathrobe and stepped outside.
The sun was yet to make an appearance over the horizon, but my fellow animal companions were already awake. The Giraffes moved slowly and gracefully, crossing the plains in front of me, in search of food. Eland huddled together, drawing warmth from each other in the crisp, early morning air. In the far distance, I spied an Ostrich. A shy creature, I was yet to see it come closer than around 200 metres from where we had spent the night.
As I watched, a Kangaroo bounced out from under a distant tree, completely shattering my African illusion. This was Australia and I was waking up in the wild at Taronga Western Plains Zoo.
A Wild Night Out at Dubbo Zoo
When an old school friend invited me to her wedding in regional NSW (a casual five hour drive from my parent’s house), I started looking up things to do in the area. I had recollections of visiting Taronga Western Plains Zoo as a child, almost twenty years ago. I’d enjoyed it at the time.
When I found out that it was possible to spend an entire night sleeping at the zoo, I did not hesitate in booking the room.
Never mind that the zoo was a two hour drive from the wedding, in a larger country town known as Dubbo. This is Australia, after all – where distance is never a cause for concern.
The drive from Orange to Dubbo was 155 kilometres, along a questionable back road. We were entertained along the way, by the presence of various sculptures of “animals on bikes” (enjoy!, the signs accompanying these odd sculptures had said). The sculptures had started at the small town of Cumnock and stretched onto Obley, becoming less and less imaginative along the way, as the enthusiasm for them clearly waned.
We arrived at the Zoo at around lunchtime, grabbing our tickets, maps and keys from the front office. To access Zoofari, you had to go through a series of gates that were only accessible with a keycard. We were instructed to stop and wait for each gate to close after entering, to ensure nothing got into the area, or escaped. How we were supposed to stop said animals entering or escaping was beyond me, but them’s the rules.
Taronga’s Zoofari Cabins
We were greeted at the gate by a friendly staff member. She offered us bottles of water (we refused) and led us to our lodge.
Oh, it was as beautiful as I had hoped. Half cabin, half tent, it was split into two partitions.
The bathroom was separated by a sliding mirror over the head of the bed and a door. We were spoilt with the choice of a shower and a bathtub. I resolved to spend a few minutes unwinding in the tub at some point in our trip.
Three quarters of the cabin divided into the front room, which featured a couch that could unfold into a sofa bed, a fridge, a kettle (thank goodness) and a glass table, which boasted a trio of green apples and a pair of binoculars.
In the centre stood a queen sized bed – a luxury after all the cruddy beds we’d slept in across Europe. (As a side note, how is it a thing that hotels can get away with pushing two single beds together and calling it a double? It is not conducive to night time snuggles at all.)
The bed was draped with a mosquito net – a practical item that gave the entire room a whimsical look.
Best of all, the cabin that we’d chosen looked out onto a field that was peppered with African animals (no zebra, as we were promised on the website, sadly).
When I stepped outside the cabin and stared out at the “African Savannah”, a giraffe gazed back at me, holding my gaze as it slowly munched through its evening meal.
The evening kicked off with the tasting of wine’s from both around this particular region (Orange is famous Australia-wide and possibly beyond for its wine) and Africa.
The accompanying snacks were the real treat – all sorts of delicious breads and cheeses, presented with steaming bowls of crocodile and camel. I’d had camel before when I lived in Doha, but was yet to try crocodile. Tasted like fishy chicken.
From there, the Zoofari Lodges’ inhabitants sat down for dinner. It was a “help yourself” sort of affair. We chose from salad, goat, cous cous, lamb and barramundi (a type of white fish), with delicious damper (an Australian rendition of soda bread) on the side.
There were two downsides to this scenario. If you were sat at the end of the table as we were, half the plates ended up being cold, or practically empty by the time they reached the end. The other was that you were forced to make small talk with the table’s occupants. Normally I wouldn’t have minded, but I was exhausted. If we’d been able to sit separately and help ourselves to a buffet of food, I’d have been all the more happier for it.
At least the food was good. Dessert in particular was delicious. From three choices, I selected a cup of warm chocolate cake, with ice cream and berries. Yum, yum, yum.
The Night Time Tour
We gathered after dinner for a night time tour of some of the zoo’s most beloved animals.
The tour kicked off with an introduction to Cuddles, a longtime resident of the zoo (since 1977, in fact) and the only Western African Elephant in Australasia. What a beautiful creature she was, ambling over towards us in the dark, lured in by the promise of delicious treats. Cuddles had never been bred and had seen the demise of the other members of her herd (most unsettling for her was the death of her good friend Yum Yum in 2010).
She now spends her days in the company of the zoo’s other “Golden Girls” – Asian Elephants Gigi and Burma, who we were to meet the next morning.
From there, we moved on to one of the zoo’s White Rhinos, a species which is severely threatened in the wild, due to poaching. We got a good look at Lazarus the Lion and ended with a visit to the resident Hippos. Niall was happy to see us and came out for some grub. Happy, in direct contradiction to his name, simply snorted and disappeared back out into the water.
Although we it was only nine thirty at night by the time we pulled back into the Zoofari Guest House, I was sleepy from the sun, food and wine. We collapsed into bed and I slept a deep and easy sleep, until the early hours of the morning, when I was roused from my sleep by the area’s local birds, just in time to watch the sunrise.
Breakfast Time for the Zoo’s Inhabitants
We met at 7am (so early!) for our last activity of the day – feeding the animals breakfast!
First up on the agenda were our neighbours, the giraffes. We each got to slip a piece of carrot to the two that chose to come on over. The giraffes eagerly slurped the carrots out of our hands, which was nice until the keeper Naomi told us that they regularly stuck their tongues up their noses. Thank goodness for hand sanitiser.
We then paid a visit to an Eastern Bongo – a type of antelope. As one of the males eagerly ate up our carrots, Naomi noted that there were only 200-odd left in the wild, making them critically endangered.
From there it was onto an equally endangered creature, thanks to poaching in its home continent of Africa – the Black Rhino. We met Chikundo a male briefly, as he lost interest in us fairly quickly. Taronga is running an international breeding program for the Rhinos, with the first second-generation calf born at the zoo in 2010.
Last but not least was a close encounter with the zoo’s aforementioned “Golden Girls” – Gigi, Burma and Cuddles, during their morning baths. After a rundown on the animals from the keeper’s, Gigi blew us kisses and Cuddles waved goodbye with her trunk. Gorgeous creatures.
AND WE DROVE PAST THE ELEPHANT ENCLOSURE AND GOT A GLIMPSE OF THE NEW BABY ELEPHANT BEFORE HE WAS PUT OUT ON DISPLAY WITH THE OTHER ELEPHANTS!
And then it was over. We gathered our bags and with one last look around the Zoofari Lodge, departed.
It wasn’t with heavy hearts however, as we still had the rest of Taronga Western Plains Zoo to explore – by bike, nonetheless!
Are you a fan of glamping? Would you spend the night staying at a zoo?
We stayed at the Zoofari Lodge, with animal views. Bookings can be made here. Be sure to book well in advance – the cabins with the animal views sell out quite quickly!
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