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17:33. Zoofari Lodge, Taronga Western Plains Zoo, Dubbo
We are relaxing with a cool gin and tonic before dinner here at the Zoofari Lodge, where we will be spending the night inside the zoo, right next to the African plain enclosure which houses several different large African herbivores, including giraffes, zebra, and some types of antelope.
We got up this morning a bit after 07:00 and walked down the main street to Mr Bean's Coffee Emporium for breakfast. M. had the toasted muesli with Greek yoghurt and honey and a coffee, while I had the "eggs San Francisco", which was really just eggs benedict made with smoked salmon instead of ham, and a banana smoothie. It was all good, even though the smoothie was loaded with ice cream and much more like a thick shake than a smoothie, but that was fine as far as I was concerned.
We went back to our accommodation and checked out, then drove the few kilometres out to Taronga Western Plains Zoo, arriving shortly after it opened at 09:00. We drove through the huge gates near the road, which I said looked just like the gates from Jurassic Park. There were already about 50 cars parked in the entrance area car park, and people scurrying about organising rental bicycles and motorised carts. We went into the ticket building and gave our name, which was crossed off a list. The woman gave us a bunch of information leaflets and a 10% off voucher for the gift shop and cafe, then told us to simply give our name at the main entrance to the zoo to enter for the morning, and to be back between 13:30 and 14:30 to check into the lodge.
Before going any further, we spent a few minutes observing the ring-tailed lemurs and black spider monkeys, which were on small islands in a lake right next to the ticket office and could be seen by anyone without even paying an admission. A good idea, we thought!
We drove through the entrance to the driving circuit of the zoo and began our morning of checking out the animals. The first stop was the rhinoceroses, both white and black. The enclosures were well designed, with a ridge of grass running along the border for several dozen metres, allowing an elevated viewing position above the electric fences which were below the eyeline. It gave the very convincing illusion of merely being on a small hill watching the animals with nothing in between.
We parked the car in several of the parking areas throughout the morning and got out to walk the short distances to the nearby animal enclosures. The day started cool but soon warmed up as the morning cloud burned off. We saw several types of antelope, Barbary sheep, camels, giraffes, zebras, red deer, and many other large animals. At the tiger enclosure, we stopped to chat with a zoo volunteer, an older woman with a camera and the same 100-400mm lens as me. She said she was taking photos for selection to go up as the photo of the day on the zoo's Facebook page. We tried together to get some good shots of the tiger, but it stayed mostly hidden in the bamboo. We moved around to a second tiger enclosure, where another animal was sitting in a more open grassed area. It was cleaning itself in a very cat-like manner, and the volunteer remarked that you forget they're really cats until they do something like that. It wandered off a bit and then did a poop, and the woman raised her camera and said, "Nobody wants to see a photo of that!" and laughed. She decided to go off and try photographing the lions.
The lions turned of to be asleep when we went there a bit later, as was the cheetah. A sign said it was the fastest animal on four legs, but all it was doing was sleeping really fast. We stopped at the halfway kiosk to buy some lunch. M. got a spinach and ricotta roll and I got a meat pie and sauce. We were surrounded by apostle birds and ibises as we ate, looking for crumbs or handouts. There were only a handful of other people there. Presumably it is a non-busy day for the zoo, being between Easter and the school holidays.
After eating we checked out the red deer and zebras, as well as stopping at the Australian animal enclosure, which you could enter and walk around inside, with no barriers at all between you and lots of wallabies and emus. We remarked that the Australian animals were so laid back that they didn't care about people being in the enclosure with them. A ramp led up to a viewing platform for the koalas, which were naturally up in the trees. One was busily eating a pile of eucalyptus leaves right next to the viewing platform. I've seen many koalas, but they're usually asleep; this was the most active one I've ever seen.
The last stop was the Galapagos tortoises, where three of the giant animals were in an enclosure fenced off merely by a wooden palisade about 40 centimetres high. Two were close enough to be touched, and a crowd of kids were doing so, feeling the giant shells. The tortoises had very low fronts to their shells, unlike most of the ones we'd seen in the Galapagos two years ago.
We exited the driving circuit and went to check in for the Zoofari Lodge. A woman at the ticket office told us to drive around a restricted entry road to the lodge and check in there. We took the indicated road and pulled up in a small parking area, where two staff were waiting with trolleys for our luggage. A guy named Andrew escorted us to our tent-cabin, showing us the three systems available for calling for help and sounding alarms, in case anything went wrong. We were assigned the Elephant cabin, which was one of the ones closest to the African plain enclosure, visible from right outside.
After dropping our bags there, we headed to the main building where the restaurant, lounge, and bar are. It's a very nice building decorated in African style. We managed to reserve the last private table inside for dinner, before they started filling larger communal tables. There was also the option of outdoor tables. There seem to be about 40 to 50 people staying here tonight. We relaxed in the lounge for a short time, then headed back to our cabin to prepare for the first guided tour at 15:30.
Everyone assembled at the assembly area and two minibuses pulled up, one driven by Andrew and one by Emma, the other staff member who'd met us earlier. They split us up by cabin name ad we boarded Andrew's bus. He drove us first to the meerkat enclosure, which we'd missed earlier when on our own. He gave us a talk about meerkats as he fed them live mealworms from a small tub he carried. He pointed out how many people think of them as cute and cuddly, but they were actually quite vicious carnivores, as we could see by the way they snarled and squabbled over the worms. Another keeper named Kate entered the enclosure to continue feeding them and although she wore boots and gaiters, Andrew said she was insane for wearing shorts, exposing the skin on her legs to the meerkat claws.
Lion, up close, chewing on a bone.
Next we went to a staff-only area, the lion night enclosure. This was a smaller enclosure, fully fenced around and above, where the lions spend the night before being let out to the free range enclosure during the day. One impressive male lion was there and another keeper gave him a large cow bone through a complex box system on the side of the fence so that she was never exposed to the lion's claws or teeth. Andrew said it was fasting day for this lion. Normally he got about seven kilos of meat every day, but ever fifth day or so they gave him nothing but a bone or even just toys to chew on.
After seeing the lion up close, Andrew took us to the black rhino breeding complex, which is all in a non-public area. They have pens for a dozen rhinos. First we went into a shed where they organised the rhino care, which had several whiteboards listing each rhino, their current weight, any medical issues, what behaviours they were working on with them, and what each of their individual diets were. Andrew showed us a section of hollow square steel bar which was used to form the pens, and then another section showing how much of the current fencing was badly corroded and thus in the process of being replace. He asked why it was so corroded, and then explained it was because the rhinos mark territory with urine, and that is a powerful corrosive agent. From there we went to an enclosure where we got up close to Kwanzaa, one of the male rhinos. Andrew fed him some twigs and branches with foliage on them and talked about how rhinos can eat almost anything that grows. They feed them here on Australian native plants and they do just fine.
This concluded the behind the scenes tour for the afternoon and Andrew drove us back to the lodge, telling us that dinner would begin with canapés at 18:15, and to meet again after dinner a 20:10 for the night tour.
We rested for the hour until dinner in the lounge area, getting some gin and tonics to drink. A bit after 18:00, staff started walking around with trays of canapés: spicy meatballs, little puffy samosa-like things, and grilled feta in honey. The dinner was very casual, with people drifting to tables as they noticed food being brought out and placed on each table. There was a large platter with four different meats on it: a spicy chicken, peach glazed ham, roast lamb, and smoked rib eye fillet. There was also a very spicy cherry sauce and two salads, one quinoa, red onion, and fig, and the other lentil, onion, lemon juice. There were roast stuffed tomatoes and a selection of baked veges for M. It was all really good. An interesting thing about the dinner was that although it was very classy stuff, obviously expertly prepared, the serving staff seemed to be animal keepers, and were wearing standard khaki zoo uniforms with shorts and heavy duty work boots.
Zoofari Lodge dinner.
For dessert there was a choice of white chocolate mousse, semifreddo with pistachio praline, or roast fruit with spices, meringue, and cream. We chose the semifreddo, which was delicious. After eating, we retired to the lounge area again for half an hour or so before the night tour of the zoo.
At 20:10 we assembled with everyone else and climbed on board our buses again. This time we had Kate, one of the women who had been helping serve the dinner earlier. She was apparently fairly new at the zoo as she joked about having to learn everything and follow the other bus. The first stop for both buses was the African elephant enclosure, where we saw Cuddles, who was, as Kate explained, the only and last African elephant in Australia. Since African elephants are not endangered in the wild any more, there is no further breeding program for them in Australia, and so none can be imported any more. Instead, zoos will only have Asian elephants from now on, once Cuddles eventually dies, which could be another ten or more years.
Cuddles was hiding initially as our guides called her over for some food. They used high powered torches to illuminate the enclosure and Cuddles herself once she finally appeared. The tossed her a large plastic bottle which had peanuts inside. She needed to pick it up and shake them out into her trunk to get at them. The guide from the other bus explained that it was important to give the animals some mental exercise rather than just present their food directly to them.
Leaving Cuddles, the buses separated and we went first to Happy the hippo. Kate explained that hippos normally emerged from the water to graze at night, so they fed them at night. She tossed him a block of cut grass and Happy emerged from the water and strolled over to much on it, taking several minutes to gobble it down while Kate talked about hippos. She said they secreted a reddish substance from their skins which protected them from the sun and acted as an antibiotic if their skin got cut. Small fish enter their mouths to clean their teeth. And they poop in the water, but wiggle their tails as they do so, so it breaks up rather than forms floating clumps.
Tiger, tiger, burning bright.
Leaving Happy, we continued on to the tiger night enclosures, where the other bus was just leaving. The other guide said none of the tigers were cooperating tonight, both hiding in the back of their enclosures. Kate said oh well, we had to try and maybe we'd be luckier. As it turned out, we were very lucky, as when we arrived one of the tigers was sitting close to the front and eating a big chunk of meat. Even behind the second safety fence set back from the main fence, the tiger was only about four metres away and we got a good close look at him. And it got even better as Kate then fed him more small pieces of meat, holding them in tongs through the bars of the fence. The tiger came right up to the fence, less than two metres from where we were standing, and grabbed the meat. Kate pointed out the crossbars welded onto the tongs to make it sure they couldn't be pulled through the fence. She said the added those after one set of tongs disappeared into the tiger enclosure a while back.
That formed an amazing conclusion to our night tour, and Kate drove us back to our cabins to turn in for the night. We had showers and set the alarm for 06:30 for tomorrow's dawn tour.
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