One of my clearest memories from childhood, one of those ones that causes you to smile with sentimental longing, is our family trip to Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo. I have logged images of giraffes up close, hungry hippos at arms length, and zebras on vast plains as if at home in Africa (us kids in flares and pigtails).
Not much has changed (in my mind) except for these fundamental things: it’s bigger. From 300 hectares established on a former WWII army training camp in 1977, Taronga Western Plains Zoo (as it’s now known) is now 1100 acres over a 6km circumference. There are more animals (from 400 different animals back then to 4,000 animals of 350 species today, many of which are threatened). And you can sleep there. In my day, we stayed at a hotel in town (also a fine option), but now you can stay on site in a range of accommodation choices: (Zoofari Lodge, Savannah Cabins or Billabong Camp). We (me and my two young boys) opted to camp. And it was no ordinary camping trip. Much goes on after dark in the animal world. And staying at the zoo gives you front row seats.
After taking in a sublime sunset around the billabong to a cacophony of frog chorus and other raucous animals winding down for the night, we shared a good old “barbie” with other guests (including scores of similar age kids) as Yarrany the Bearded Dragon, rescued from a house, and Tjuta, the friendly Centralian Python were brought out for a pat. Then we grabbed our torches and headed out with the zookeepers to meet the lineup of Aussie nocturnal creatures just stirring for their busy night ahead.
Anna, the zookeeper uses a red torch to show us the animals after dark as it’s less harsh on their eyes. We were greeted by Bungil, one of two purebred dingoes (his not-so-hospitable female friend, Mogin, hung out beneath a rock ledge) who sauntered out in the hope of a snack as his night began. The little ones lined up and took turns patting the seemingly blaze wallabies (29 in total) in the Australian Walkthrough exhibit, and we watched dozy koalas wedged in tree forks slowly unfurling as echidnas, wombats and bilbies fossicked purposefully beneath. With Australia having one of the largest portions of nocturnal animals in the world, this section of the zoo is a haven of activity come dusk.
The next morning, just as the nocturnal brigade were nodding off, we awoke at dawn to the squawking of diurnal creatures rousing from their slumber, heralding the start of a new day. That was before the official wake up bell at 6am! After piles of pancakes with maple syrup, we followed Anna to meet some of the ‘exotic’ animals (ie animals who are not from these parts). First up, the Siamang Gibbons, a rowdy family of three who you hear before you see as they partake in a guttural territorial symphony (loudest at sunup but repeated up to ten times a day) with four distinct vocalisations passing between them acapella like, culminating in the big dad assuming what Anna calls the “I’m a little teapot” pose, one arm raised, bellowing at the top of his lungs, voice box ballooning with the effort. They are telling us in no uncertain terms to stay away which we have every intention of doing, especially when Anna tells us these cute looking monkey-like creatures have the potential to rip our arms off.
Like most of the animals at Western Plains zoo, there’s not a fence in sight. We are separated from these limb-tearing gibbons by a mere moat which we’re assured they’re afraid of and they can’t swim anyway. Just as well!
That’s the unique beauty of this zoo. Instead of walls and fences, the animals are held back by more subtle barriers like concealed trenches or waterways to give the impression of being on safari. Even the deadly cheetah and lions, tigers and hungry hippos seem to be in touching distance.
Which they genuinely are on our morning round. Including the Sumatran Tigers (there are six here at the moment, some, including three cubs, on loan from Taronga Zoo) which Anna feeds with raw chicken allowing them to eye us off before they’re let out of their sleeping cages for the day. These tigers have a life expectancy of more than 20 years, compared to an average ten for their brothers in the wild which are close to extinction, largely due to illegal poaching.
We swing by the Asian Small Claw Otters next, classified as vulnerable in the wild, prized for their waterproof pelts.
After we’re let loose from Billabong Camp, we’re free to roam the zoo to our heart’s content. Two day passes are included in an overnight stay, but you can usually get around in one, especially hiring bikes (including tandems) or an electric buggy. We tried both, but with two small boys spent from their night with the animals, the buggy did the trick as we were able to circumnavigate the zoo without effort, pulling over when we felt like taking a closer look at our favourite animals. A good tip is to follow the daily feeding schedule, usually with a zookeeper talk thrown in. Watching hippos get their teeth cleaned (with a hose and a toothbrush the size of a garden broom) and giraffes munching up close are experiences kids (and adults) will never forget.
Be sure to leave time at day’s end for the Safari Park Children’s Playground complete with safari jeep (which I couldn’t tear my boys out of), life size animal sculptures, and a flying fox officially rated “ awesome”.
How to get there:
Drive from Sydney to Dubbo: Approximately 5.5 hours. Time the drive to arrive early afternoon and settle into camp (or wherever you decide to stay). You can make a day of it at the zoo the next day.
Fly: Qantas and Rex Airways offer five flights a day from Sydney to Dubbo. 1 hour, 5 minutes duration.
Staying at the zoo:
Billabong Camp: tents that sleep 2-3 people including BBQ dinner and breakfast and guided Zoo tours.
Zoofari Lodge: Luxurious guest house accommodation including meals and guided Zoo tours.
Savannah Cabins: Self contained two bedroom cabins sleeping up to six people
Dubbo has a range of quality hotels and self contained apartments, many in close proximity to the zoo. We stayed at Cattleman’s Country Motor Inn just minutes from the zoo, booked that same afternoon.
What else to do:
Old Dubbo Gaol, in Dubbo’s main street, should be included as part of any Dubbo Zoo visit. It operated as a gaol for almost 120 years only closing in 1966 and offers a fascinating insight into Australia’s early prison history. The buildings are perfectly intact complete with “model” prisoners (ie talking mannequins), the original gallows and daily reenactments of real life happenings, and a riveting guided tour about the multitude of escapes (successful and not) from the prison.
More accommodation options and tourist information:
Jacinta and her boys were guests of Taronga Western Plains Zoo and stayed at Billabong Camp.
This story was first published on TheCarousel.com in May 2016