Exotic animals, luxury lodges and a sunrise cockatoo chorus. Take a walk on the wild side in the Central West of New South Wales.
Dropping into a deep canvas deckchair on the verandah of my private lodge, I scan the savanna. Minutes later, two curious giraffes amble up and stand metres away, necks swaying, coolly returning my gobsmacked gaze from behind their ingénue lashes. As I watch spellbound, more giraffes gather. They’re joined by zebras, antelope… and a mob of kangaroos. Wait. Kangaroos? It’s the sensory equivalent of an elephant wandering onto the set of Skippy. It’s also the clearest sign yet I’m not in Botswana; in fact, I’m six kilometres from Dubbo in the Central West of NSW, basking in the African vibe of Zoofari Lodge at Taronga Western Plains Zoo.
“Just slow down, enjoy and observe… connect with nature in your own time and your own way,” suggests Matthew Fuller, the zoo’s general manager. It’s easy advice to take.
Zoofari Lodge is a luxurious resort comprising 15 canvas-walled, iron-roofed lodges, all of which have African-inspired decor, a king-size bed with billowing mosquito net and an enormous double bath. There are also binoculars for viewing animals but given that they meander up to the concealed perimeter fence near the verandah, these are surely for effect.
Meet the Animals
As tempting as it is to settle in, there are other animals (and my fellow guests) to meet. Our sunset tour swings by the cheetah pen where one resident, Leela, is draped over a log. With her haughty expression and huge orange eyes – the striking mascara-dark lines beneath them reduce glare when hunting – this glamorous specimen is known as the zoo’s supermodel. “She’s gorgeous and she knows it,” says guide Emma-Jane Fairbank. At dusk we watch elephants, rhinos and African wild dogs feast. As Cuddles, a 43-year-old pachyderm, hoovers up a bucket of pellets with her trunk, her gut emits a symphony of stomach rumbles. (Steven Spielberg used the sound of an elephant’s stomach for his Jurassic Park dinosaurs.)
Wildly Good Dining
Having seen the restaurant menu earlier, her tummy isn’t the only one rumbling. Back at the Zoofari main house, after tasting local and South African wines and African bunny chow – no, not rabbit food but delectable bread and pastry cups filled with spicy meats, peanuts and vegetables – Lodge guests are seated at long banquet tables. We dine on grilled crocodile, dukkah-crusted salmon, organic chicken and roast lamb (stuffed with rice, quinoa, apricots, prunes and dates). By the time we get to the chocolate “township” scones and spiced pears, we want to make like the animals and sprawl under a tree.
Of course, we don’t. The hippos are taking a moonlight swim and no-one wants to miss that – or the chance to see what the other wild residents get up to at night. With the guide’s torch ready, we board the minibus for the final tour of the day. “Experiencing animals in their natural environment touches our hearts in ways that seeing wildlife in cages cannot,” says Fuller. “Our keepers try to ensure that visitors leave with a deeper appreciation of wildlife and are inspired to conserve it.”
There can be few more luxurious ways to be a conservation crusader than spending a night at Zoofari Lodge. After a nightcap on the verandah, it’s time to collapse into the capacious bed and dream of adventures in the wild – the snorts and bellows of savanna residents adding a touch of reality. When the sun rises to bathe the lodges in a warm glow, squawking cockatoos explode in gleaming white flocks from the casuarinas and acacias. Nature’s alarm clock.
After a morning coffee by a roaring fire, a buffet breakfast and check-out, Zoofari guests feed the giraffes. Under the eye of keeper Andrew O’Brien, we mount a platform to handfeed carrots to the towering beasts. “It’s best to hold the carrots sideways so the giraffe can curl his half-metre tongue around each one and draw it into its mouth,” he advises.
The children – and some adults – giggle and wince at contact with the coarse, black saliva-drenched tongue. “Their tongues are rough and strong because in the wild they dine on branches with thorns sharp enough to puncture tyres,” explains O’Brien. “And don’t worry about the saliva… it’s no more harmful than dog, cat or little brother saliva!”
Giraffes sated, we head back to the zoo’s visitor centre, where bikes and electric buggies are standing by. The enclosures at the zoo are linked by a 6km paved circuit, with every bend revealing a different delight.
Here, guests get a feel for the zoo’s aim – to thrill and educate its 220,000 annual visitors and, through breeding and conservation programs, save wildlife from extinction. Its 300 hectares house paddocks, bushland, enclosures and waterways bound by concealed moats and fences, plus breeding, veterinary, quarantine, research and educational facilities.
Sumatran tigers vie for “oohs” and “aahs” with 93 other free-roaming species – 50 per cent of which are threatened, endangered or extinct in the wild – including African lions, black and white rhinos, African and Asian elephants, monkeys and meerkats. “If these animals disappear from their native habitat, they at least survive here,” says Fuller. “We’re an ark.”
It’s feeding time that has most visitors awestruck. As a crowd looks on, keeper Denyelle Woodhouse fills a hessian sack with chicken carcasses and hoists it to the top of a six-metre pole. Walking out of the enclosure first, she springs open a door for Sumatran tiger Indah to enter. Indah bounds across the clearing and leaps to the top of the pole. In seconds, she descends with lunch in her jaws. One observer suggests Woodhouse re-enter the compound to give Indah a well-done pat. “If I did that,” quips the keeper, “forget chicken. Her dinner would be me.”
It falls to Woodhouse to feed and exercise the tigers and report on their health to the resident vets. Each day, she checks the 140 locks on the compound’s entry points and, lest any beast get ideas, the sophisticated gate system that separates the tigers from each other – and the keepers.
There’s no threat today from the black-maned male sunning himself in the African lion enclosure. He opens his eyes long enough to glare disdainfully at a guest making cow and kookaburra noises to rouse him. (Had the man read the sign that this lion could wolf down 40kg of raw meat in one sitting, he may have shown more respect.)
There’s even less risk from the three elderly residents huddled together in the Galápagos tortoise enclosure – the oldest is aged 90. The zoo was the first in Australia to breed the rare species. Today, while the kids Pena, NJ and Turbo – hatched between 2011 and 2014 – explore their enclosure, the old-timers look serene, as if recalling more active days on the Ecuadorian islands.
In contrast, it’s action stations over in the elephant house where Cuddles is joined by Burma and Gigi. Grasping brushes in their trunks, they daub bright blobs of paint on canvas. Their abstract art fetches hundreds of dollars at the zoo’s gift shop, the money raised going into research and conservation. Elephant painting is part of the enrichment program that helps wild animals retain natural behaviours and psychological wellbeing in captivity.
“We don’t allow predators to prey on other species as in the wild,” explains Fuller, “but we do provide scent trails and opportunities, such as painting, that stimulate them in different ways.”
Diet is also a priority. It’s worth a peek into the building where huge amounts of meat and vegetables are prepared daily. Every week the wallabies and kangaroos, rhinos and primates consume 50kg in apples alone.
“We want our animals to be healthy and never obese – always a danger in captivity – so our nutritionists and vets cater to the dietary requirements of each species and we replicate what they’d eat in the wild,” adds Fuller.
The zoo established a rhinoceros breeding program in the 1990s – since then 12 calves have been born, the most recent in April – and created the world’s first black rhino embryo by IVF in 2008.
“Every rhinoceros counts,” says Fuller. “I can think of no finer thing than to help bring another rhino into the world.”
As he talks, a huntsman spider scuttles from cover and scales his trouser leg. Fuller cups the critter in his hands and gently places it on a plant. “The only ones treated better than our visitors here,” he laughs, “are the creatures.” After a night in a Zoofari Lodge, I reckon it’s line-ball.
Photography by Julian Kingma