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Scenes from the 1985 film Out of Africa kept flashing in my mind when I toured Kenya and Tanzania a few years ago. Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, the stars from that classic film, strike me again when back in a wildlife environment recently.
As dawn breaks out, I stand in the veranda of my lodge and watch antelopes, elands and zebras grazing, giraffes stretching out to grab their breakfast high in the trees, and two rhinos crowding around a waterhole. While birds chirp freely, a lion roars not too far away. The morning sun starts colouring the dry savannah that stretches out before me.
I feel like I’m at one of those tented accommodation outlets inside the wildlife parks in Africa, but in reality, I am not too far away from my home in Sydney.
I am at the Zoofari Animal View Lodge inside Taronga Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo, located in the Great Western Plains region of NSW, about 400km north-west of Sydney.
This 300-hectare oasis of woodland and irrigated grassland is home to 4,000 animals from over 350 species, some of them endangered. They freely wander in their self-contained hideouts without metal bars, cages and concrete slabs; clever use of lakes, moats and unobtrusive fencing separate them from visitors. This invariably creates a pseudo jungle scenario and the impression of being almost face to face with the animal world, like in a real wildlife reserve.
With many COVID-19 travel restrictions in place currently, the not-too-far and easily connected Dubbo has emerged as an ideal destination for a few days escape from urban life. The key attraction here is the natural sanctuary which bestows a taste of Africa right in our own backyard.
The Africa mood escalates when staying overnight at the unique Zoofari retreat. Everything is Africa-inspired, from the style of the cottages and the meals provided, to books on African wildlife and a binocular in the room for a closer view of the animals. Each of the ten individual air-conditioned, tent-like cottages features a private ensuite and a shaded deck for animal viewing, and contains a king-size and a double sofa bed to sleep a family of four.
The 2-day, 1-night staying package additionally covers zoo admission, two exclusive guided tours on an Africa inspired safari truck – one in the night followed by another early in the morning – bike hire, and dinner and an a-la carte breakfast served at the adjacent guest house, where the well-stocked bar will quench your thirst whenever needed.
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There are other staying options inside the zoo. Tucked inside native bushes near the Animal Viewing Lodges are five Bushland Lodges, which offer similar accommodation facilities but no animal viewing from the room. For adventure-minded and budget-conscious travellers, self-contained Savanah Cabins and Billabong Camps are ideal. Both are located not far from the main zoo arena.
During my two-day stay, I come across almost every species that I have encountered in my travels to Africa. While meandering a 6km circuit through the natural bushland of various types of trees from eucalyptus and gum to African acacia, I spot giraffes, zebras, elands, antelopes and rhinos grazing in sprawling savannah, African wild dogs resting under a tree, hippos slumping in the muddy pools and elephants playfully shrugging off the dust from their bodies. However, the adrenaline pumping thrills come from the big cats – lions, cheetahs and tigers. The long pause to see them appear on the scene reminds similar waiting spells inside the sanctuaries in Africa and in India to spot the famous Royal Bengal Tigers.
This zoo provides much more than animal displays. It is also an education base, a research hub, and a world-renowned wildlife conservation centre for species from throughout the world. Since opening in 1977, the zoo has successfully bred a number of animals, including black rhinos, Asian elephants, lions, hippos and more.
A motivating part of the journey here is the learning experience. The omniscient zookeepers provide interesting information about the animals – their habits, behaviours, diet, mating, gestation periods and many more facts and figures, like the difference between black and white rhinos and why African elephants have much bigger ears compared to their Asian counterparts.
First of its kind in Australia, this zoo is also an ideal venue for the family to relax and enjoy. Inside the sprawling complex there are two cafes and plenty of places to rest or enjoy a picnic in the sun or under shady trees.
For anyone who hasn’t been on a wildlife safari tour to Africa or India, this zoo offers the sights, sounds and smells of a natural setting, adequate to ignite thoughts of travelling there in the future to see animals in their own natural environment.
Getting there Dubbo is well connected by road and air. However, a relaxing way to reach there is by rail (www.nswtrainlink.info). The 6.5-hour journey from Sydney Central station offers passengers a great vista of rural Australia.
Getting around the Zoo While the energetic prefer to walk or ride bikes, it is possible to drive your own car or ride on an electric cart to be booked prior.
Accommodation inside the Zoo Check www.taronga.org.au/accommodation for Zoofari Lodge bookings.
Dubbo City Accommodation There are plenty of motels in Dubbo city from where the zoo is only a short drive away. Clean and tidy Shearing Shed Motor Inn (www.shearingshedmotel.com.au) is a good choice.
Eating Out There are many good cafes and restaurants in the city. Popular among locals and visitors for good food and service is Royal Indian Restobar (www.royalindiarestobar.com.au).