Right now, I could almost convince myself of two things: that I’m in the sun-scorched savannahs of Tanzania and that I’m here for my son. The air between the flat, scrubby earth and massive sky is dust-dry and the light is golden. Tonight my son and I will sleep in canvas tents on country roamed by lion, giraffe, cheetah and zebra. And my little boy, Benji – two years old and nuts for animals – is thrilled to be here.
But we’re really on Zoofari, a two-day accommodation package at Taronga Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo, a one- hour flight from Sydney. And, really, it’s about me. As a city kid, I was mind-blown by this open-range zoo, which has been operating since 1977. Behind the moats and invisible fences, animals from far reaches of the world seemed so wild and so astonishingly close. Ever since zoo stays became a thing a couple of years ago, I’ve been busting to come back for a sleepover. And so our adventure begins.
The zoo opens at nine every morning and we roll up on the dot in our rental car (there’s a bunch of hire companies at the airport). The line-up of keeper talks starts early and we’re going to tick off each one over two days. But first, to the buggies. You can cover the 5.5-kilometre circuit by car or rental bike but the Premium Package at Zoofari Lodge includes a golf cart and we’re taking it for a burn. By burn, I mean a law-abiding 10km/h tootle (police have been known to patrol zoo roads).
First we cruise by a pack of African wild dogs that yip and squeak, oblivious to our stares. When we pull up at the meerkats, there’s a tiny riot. We try to count the slender little bodies as they dart, tumble and stand at attention before scuttling on but it’s mayhem. Turns out, we’re here just in time for the Meerkat Encounter. A keeper is going to take visitors into the pen to play. Delightful!
Disaster – the minimum age for this one is 10. I explain it’s a reasonable safety thing and Benji’s about to make his position on age discrimination very clear when a clever keeper whispers something wonderful in his ear. “Mum,” says Benji, grabbing my hand, “this way to the baby animals!”
The critically endangered black rhinos that live either side of the meerkats are stout, hook-lipped and charmingly cranky. Poaching has decimated wild populations and baby Pampoen (“Pumpkin” in Afrikaans), born on Halloween last year, isn’t just a high five for Dubbo’s breeding program, he’s hope for the species’ survival. “Rhinos look lazy,” laughs Benji. “Well, a rhino can run 40 to 50km/h – much faster than a person,” I say. I’m picking up trivia all over the place and it’s thrilling.
We’ve seen cheetahs do brunch (unlike most predators, they primarily eat by day); have done the elephant talk, during which Kanlaya, a calf born in June, tripped and fumbled adorably with her trunk (which has about 40,000 muscles); and we’ve waved at zebra and eastern bongo as we headed to the Midway Kiosk for sandwiches. Now it’s 2pm – time to check in for our sleepover.
Set on a dirt track at the rear of the zoo, Zoofari Lodge is a collection of Serengeti-style tented suites that back onto grassland where animals graze away from the exhibits. The zoo has won swags of awards for its accommodation – which includes the self-contained Savannah Cabins and low-fi permanent tents at Billabong Camp – but the upscale option, Zoofari Lodge, is even more luxe than I expected.
Our tent has a four-poster bed draped with mosquito nets, as well as a pillow menu, bath, air conditioning and hardwood floors, which extend to a shaded verandah that fronts on to savannah. Civilised, Instagram-baiting bliss.
Benji snuggles under a blanket on the deck, counting zebra, buffalo and ostrich until he falls asleep. I’m inside, refreshing my tea, when I hear his voice: “Esscuse me, bird – you waked me up! Okay, you can come into my house.” There’s a peacock, whom I later Iearn is named George, in conversation with my toddler as a curious giraffe presides. But by the time I grab my camera, George is off to make someone else’s moment magical. Never mind. It’s nearly 4pm and our first safari is about to start.
Zoofari guests get to go behind the scenes when the zoo closes. Aboard an open safari-style truck, we see epic food stores, hear tales of lions getting root canal therapy at the wildlife hospital and discover that the nine elephants produce one tonne of poo – an excellent fertiliser – every day. We see where the sprightly lemurs sleep and help feed a rare white rhino his “biscuit” of meadow hay.
Kate, our private guide, is a school principal by weekday and my new trivia guru. She tells us that male ring-tailed lemurs get into stink fights, squirting rivals with glandular secretions. And that a massive rhinoceros can spin 180 degrees in a single jump. When Kate asks us to take a “mind picture” of the rhino’s relatively small feet, explaining the triumph of their engineering, a pre-teen one-ups her, taking a snap with their smartphone. “Education is one of the best defences the wild has got,” says Kate. “Everything you learn or spend at Zoofari supports the conservation work that we do at the zoo.”
Dubbo’s climate swings from sweltering summers to savage winters. It’s the end of August and, after sundown, we’re flirting with -1°C and the blazing fire at the Guest House is a magnet. As Benji plays with other kids, I involve myself in a pre-dinner wine-tasting that tours local regions. There’s a softly oaked, citrusy chardonnay from Orange, a vibrant merlot from Mudgee and a lovely pinot gris from Red Earth Estate, a winery that’s literally next door to the zoo.
The feast that follows? All African. Chef Nanette Clark talks us through her menu of crocodile canapés, South African bunny chow (not made from bunnies, just chicken curry inside a hollowed cobloaf), toddler-approved buffalo meatballs with maize spaghetti, and wild boar with roasted vegetables. Over share plates at a long table, I meet a couple from Brisbane doing the romantic thing and a property developer from Melbourne who’s in town on business and has been joined by her family for the weekend. Dubbo is, you see, a country hub these days.
But when we return to our tent, it feels as if we’re a world away. Benji and I are wriggling into pyjamas and plush robes, the wind whipping at the canvas, when we hear a low, raspy rumble. “It’s the lion!” yells Benji, his face pure, gorgeous wonderment. This is what we came for.
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By 7am, we’re beanied up and back on safari. As the sky turns from fire-orange to pastel blue, we stop to give the giraffe a snack. Benji excitedly holds out a carrot for a long blue tongue before eating it himself – sorry mate, law of the jungle. We drop by the six brand-new cheetah cubs, furry little miracles all. Then we watch the elephants take their daily shower. What memories to make before breakfast.
After pancakes, we join the Prowl the Pride Lands Premium Experience to look for our lion. Riding in the truck (enclosed this time), our hearts thump as we head deep into lion territory at feeding time. The mama lion, Maya, and four “bachelor” juveniles pad stealthily around the new $9 million, 3.5-hectare exhibit. Guide Linzi is explaining how the animals retract their claws while walking to keep them razor-sharp for the kill when, suddenly, Daddy appears. With mane in full show-off mode, Lazarus strides straight towards us – and a hunk of meat. “He looked at me, Mummy,” says Benji, suitably awestruck by going eyeball to eyeball with an apex predator.
All this zoo action is fantastic but sometimes the beasts just have to run free. So before we get back on the circuit for a second day, I let mine off the leash in the children’s playground. Just as I’m hoping he’s getting as much of a kick out of this as I am, he streaks off towards some kids shouting, “Zoo poo goes on the gardens!” Toddler trivia. That’s my boy.