ANGELA SAURINE and her son discover some fun and educational experiences during a stay at Taronga Western Plains Zoo at Dubbo
“I hope everyone brought their spare fingers,” our guide jokes as we approach the enclosure where the giraffes have gathered in anticipation. One by one, each member of our group steps forward for their turn feeding the towering animals. My four-year-old son Oliver is understandably a little wary, so he holds my hand as I tentatively hold out a carrot towards them. I soon feel the long, dark tongues of the giraffes encircling my fingers, but fortunately my digits stay attached. When the feeding session is over, we hop back onto the open-sided safari vehicle painted with zebra stripes to continue exploring Taronga Western Plains Zoo at Dubbo.
Zoofari Lodge at Taronga Western Plains Zoo
It’s after 4pm and the zoo has closed its gates for the day, meaning we have the more than 800-hectare attraction to ourselves. It’s one of the bonus experiences for guests staying at Zoofari Lodge, and I feel very lucky. The luxury accommodation, which is accessible by a separate gate a kilometre past the zoo entrance, aims to recreate the African safari lodge experience in Australia. And, having stayed at lodges in Kenya and South Africa pre- parenthood, I must say it does a pretty good job. After seeing a lioness and her cubs, a rare King Cheetah and Eastern Bongo antelope, our guide triumphantly cries: “It’s time for a white rhino!” “Oh, I thought we were finished,” I reply. “Are we going to see another animal?”. “It’s a cocktail!” she retorts.
Soon we are in the restaurant, sipping aforementioned beverage and dining on a tasting plate of crocodile, salami, and boerewors — a type of sausage which originated in South Africa. It’s followed by a duck salad, wild barramundi with rice and buffalo potjie on pumpkin pap, a side dish that originated in Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland). Fortunately, there’s also a more appropriate kids’ menu, and Oliver happily devours his fish and chips and apple juice. While it’s without doubt a five-star noshery, it caters surprisingly well to children. Meals come quickly, and I am relieved to see plastic cups offered to littlies. My herbivorous uncle who accompanies us is also impressed with the vegetable curry, red bean and chickpea stew, roasted vegetables and pumpkin pap on offer, declaring it the best vegetarian meal he’s ever had.
That night, we fall asleep to the sound of a chorus of frogs and the pitter patter of rain on the canvas roof of our glamping-style Bushland Lodge accommodation. We are up early the next morning for a behind-the-scenes safari tour, which takes place before other guests arrive for the day. As we drive through the large savannah enclosure, where different species of animals roam free, the giraffes come within a couple of metres of our vehicle. Sometimes, our guide says, they even lick it.
But, without a doubt, the high point of the morning is seeing the elephants being bathed. We watch on as the zookeepers gently wash them, check their skin, and feed them sweet potato, apple, banana and hay, before having the opportunity to ask questions.
Throughout the morning we learn many interesting facts. Did you know that an elephant’s sense of smell is eight times stronger than a dog? Or that the darker a male giraffe’s spots, the more testosterone it has? Or that black stripes on zebras heat up while white sections stay cool to regulate their body temperature?
While a stay at the Zoofari Lodge is definitely a bucket list experience, there is a more affordable option nearby, where we spend another night. Savannah Cabins offers quiet and comfortable self-contained accommodation, ideal for younger kids. Our modern cabin has two bedrooms and two bathrooms, one with an all-important bathtub. There’s also two flatscreen TVs, with a Weber barbecue on the deck. And perhaps best of all there is a kids’ playground, which I dare say Oliver enjoys more than seeing the animals (insert ‘heh’ emoji here). There’s also a camping option, Billabong Camp, located on the zoo circuit near the Lion Pride Lands, which also includes an after-hours tour and a barbecue dinner.
Old Dubbo Gaol
The zoo may be the town’s major tourist attraction, but there are plenty of other things for families to do in Dubbo. They include Old Dubbo Gaol, where we get to peek in the former cells, check out the exercise yards, and see photos of some of the rather scary looking inmates who had the displeasure of calling the prison home between 1847 and 1966. “Mummy I can see the baddie’s shoes!” Oliver says as he peers into one of the cells in the male block. We also hear funny and fascinating stories about escape attempts during one of the daily performances and discover what it feels like to put our head on the chopping block.
Royal Flying Doctor Service Visitor Experience
Our next stop is the Royal Flying Doctor Service Visitor Experience, where we find out more about the not-for-profit organisation that provides emergency and primary health care services to those living in rural, remote and regional areas of Australia. Oliver loves the interactive displays, which teach such things as how emergency calls work and how to make a call on a two-way radio. It feels a bit like being at NASA, with large screens on the wall showing live flight data of where RFS aircraft are around the country. An eight-minute film takes up four big screens, featuring interviews with people who have benefited from the service. “He needed a Band-Aid,” Oliver says in response to one particularly horrific head injury. “He sure did,” I reply.
Quentin Park Alpacas
But the surprise highlight of our trip turns out to be a visit to Quentin Park Alpacas, located on a farm around half an hour’s drive south of Dubbo. While Oliver was a bit scared of the giraffes at the zoo, he absolutely loves feeding the alpacas. He has a smile on his face the whole time, laughing uproariously when their tongues tickle his hands. The property is home to more than 100 alpacas, many of which have been rescued, that are bred and sold as guards to protect herds of sheep and goats. There’s also a gallery and shop in a charming 100-year-old farmhouse, which sells everything from Macca the Alpaca books and kids’ activity packs to earrings and socks made on the farm of alpaca fibre.
At the end of our stay, I ask Oliver what his favourite part was. “Everything,” he replies.
Dubbo is a four-to-five-hour drive from Sydney, Canberra and Newcastle. Qantas and Regional Express also fly from Sydney to Dubbo. It takes less than an hour.
The Great Big Adventure Pass allows you to explore Taronga Western Plains Zoo, Old Dubbo Gaol, the Royal Flying Doctor Visitor Experience and Wellington Caves on one ticket.
The writer was a guest of Dubbo Regional Council.