A trip to Dubbo's Western Plains Zoo

Want to get up close with the wildest animals on the savannah but can't afford the fares to Africa? Then head to Dubbo's Western Plains Zoo.

A little girl is held aloft by her mother. Her tiny hand reaches up, hesitantly gripping a carrot, her face a mixture of trepidation and wonder. With a slow arch of its long neck, a giraffe leans toward her, extends its tongue and gently takes the proffered root vegetable from the four-year-old's hand.
We're not on the plains of Africa, but rather on the outskirts of downtown Dubbo - behind the scenes at the Western Plains Zoo.
Dubbo's main tourist attraction – opened in 1977 – has been quietly modernising these past two years, and the result is a facility that is truly world class.
New on-site accommodation, including the Billabong Camp and the Zoofari Lodge, have made the zoo the perfect school holiday destination. Or the perfect weekend getaway for families looking to escape Sydney for a walk on the wild side.
Since April, and following a $2.1 million refurbishment, the Zoofari Lodge experience has just gotten a little more luxurious - and adventurous.
The all new Savannah View lodges – complete with African inspired decor, a king-sized bed and a double paddock – also feature a broad deck which gives directly onto the 'savannah' – a broad paddock in which zebra, giraffe and eland roam.
A Zoofari Lodge.
When the zoo closes, and the visitors are all turfed out, the gates close and the select few who have paid to sleep the night with the animals get locked in.
For those determined to get the full roughing-it experience, the Billabong Camp offers four man tents, camp beds, communal facilities and marshmallows around the open fire.
For those who like a few more creature comforts (no pun intended) with their camping, the Zoofari Lodge is the overnight experience for you.
Guests are greeted with welcome drinks at the large communal house and allocated one Savannah View cabins (which sleep up to 4) or one of the Serengeti Lodges (which sleep up to 6 and are set just back behind the Savannah Cabins.
You've heard of glamping? The so-called glamour version of camping? Our Serengeti Lodge made glamping look like slumming.
If you imagine how the British gentry might once have moved about the African savannah, or invoke those scenes from A Passage To India where no tent was complete without full silver service, you get the idea.
A fully-functioning en-suite, a huge queen-sized bed, a table and chairs, a kitchenette and - the best bit of all - a heated tile-floor make this a camping experience to mollify even the fussiest five star habitue.
After settling in (a process that included at least five minutes lying on the floor of our lodge and marvelling at the human ingenuity involved in underfloor heating) we jumped on the mini-bus for the twilight tour.
First stop was the lion enclosure, where four big cats prowled menacingly about their concrete and metal sleeping quarters. The kids' eyes were like saucers as our guide hurled a side of beef into the cage and we all stood in awestruck silence as the jaws of these magnificent creatures crushed and grinded cow bone.
Next was a visit to the cheetah enclosure, followed closely by an up-close-and-personal experience with the zoo's black rhino population.
The breeding program for black rhinos at Dubbo is the pride of place and the passion of the keepers for their work is remarkable.
With dusk upon us, it was back to the communal lodge where the open fire was crackling and pre-dinner drinks and hors d'oeuvres were waiting.
Dinner was outstanding. Southern African-influenced dishes came flowing out of the kitchen faster than our group could devour them. The food was both plentiful and exceptionally tasty. The service was warm and efficient.
With tummies full and darkness blanketing the zoo, it was back into the mini-van for the second iteration of our behind-the-scenes tour.
We dropped in on the Galapagos turtles, huddled under their heaters inside their enclosure, paid a visit to the bongo (a timid, quadruped native to the African savannah) and fed the hippos by torchlight - marvelling as they glided through the water of their enclosure and lumbered up onto land.
A rhinoceros at Taronga Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo.
Turning in to bed that night, we fell asleep to the mournful roar of nearby lions.
With sunrise, came our visit to the giraffes. To stand within arm's distance of these magnificent, ungainly creatures and have them take carrots from your hand as an expert guide provides a running commentary, is one of life’s great experiences. Or if not, certainly one of Dubbo’s great experiences.
Back at the lodge, breakfast was served: a hearty, country NSW affair of pancakes, eggs, bacon and sausage.
Which was just as well, as we had opted to cycle about the zoo proper on that day – and sustenance was all-important.
There’s no better way to see Taronga Western Plains Zoo than from the saddle of a pushbike. But be warned: the park is huge and the space between enclosures is significant. But think of all the pancakes and bacon you are burning off.
The Zoofari Lodge experience does not come cheap. Certainly, a night at one of the many motels that encircle the zoo would make for an overall far less expensive zoo experience: but with all meals and zoo admission included in the price, it’s an indulgence which you can justify. If only on the grounds of it being a once in a lifetime experience.
For more information about Taronga Western Plains Zoo and overnight accommodation rates, visit their website.

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