I’ve just been on a wildlife safari – not in Africa but literally on Sydney’s doorstep. Having been born in Africa, I’m no stranger to close animal encounters, but I have to say that our adventure in Dubbo at Taronga Western Plains Zoo was the best wild animal experience I have ever had.
This zoo is completely different from any regular zoo experience. Taronga Western Plains Zoo, a short five-minute drive from Dubbo City Regional Airport, is a 300-hectare open-range sanctuary giving visitors the privilege of seeing the wildlife in their natural habitat. There are no cages – the animals are contained by tasteful fences and river moats and they all have massive terrains to wander around.
We hired an electric buggy to explore the zoo ($69 for 3 hrs and $99 for a full day). It seats six and can even accommodate a baby seat for kids under 3 years old. Drivers must be over the age of 21 with a full driver’s licence. Carts can be hired from the Hire Centre on arrival. You can also hire bikes (or bring your own), walk or drive through the zoo in your car.
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There is a clearly demarcated 6-km one-way route through the zoo – passing through all the wildlife along the way. There are signposts indicating the homes of the various zoo- inhabitants and it’s quite easy to park nearby and go animal spotting.
Hit The Wildlife Jackpot
In a more traditional safari, you can drive around for hours before catching a glimpse of the big cats. Even as a grown-up, I found this to be pretty tedious and boring – I’m an instant gratification type of gal. What I loved about Taronga Western Plains is that you can hit the Big Five jackpot (ie lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo) all within hours. So much more enjoyable in my books…and perfect for younger kids.
Plan Your Route
Make sure you plan your visit so that you can attend as many zoo keeper talks, tours and animal feeds as possible. There is an interactive map on the Western Plains Zoo website so you can easily plan your route. Check out the daily schedule of tours and talks so you can map out your itinerary and buy any tour tickets before you start your adventure.
At the talks, we found the zookeepers to be very knowledgeable and passionate about their animals and they were happy to answer our kid’s never-ending flow of questions. Definitely, don’t miss the African Wild Dogs feed. They look just like your average cross-breed street mutt, but boy, when they get their chicken lunch, the fangs really come out. The cheetah, rhino, tiger and hippo talks were also a firm favourite.
Hand Feed Giraffes
But I would say that the most memorable moment was hand feeding the giraffes. The Giraffes In Focus experience costs a mere $7 and for this, we got a close-up meeting with giraffes and a bunch of carrots to feed these majestic animals. It was mesmerising to see these giant animals up close and their tongues are just massive. I really did feel privileged to have had this beautiful encounter.
Inside The Lion’s Den
We were super lucky to be visiting during the opening of the new Lion Pridelands area, with eight African Lions (including four juveniles) prowling around. We boarded apurpose built, fully enclosed safari truck for a ride deep into the heart of big cat territory and admired the lion pride from custom designed African Maasai village shelters. The cheeky cubs pounced on the glass-walled hut – quite a thrill with only a (VERY thick) pane of glass between you and those massive paws. The kids could have hung out here the whole day. The Pride Lands area has an authentic African flavour with and even has a walk-through goat enclosure.
Join the Pride Lands Patrol daily at 11am ($29 adult / $19 child) or the premium experience where you can see the lions feed at 9.45am and 2.40pm daily ($39 adult / $29 child – in addition to Zoo admission).
Meet The Meerkats
There is also the Meerkat Encounter, where you get to meet these adorable creatures and find out more about them ($79 per person) and a Big Cat Encounter where you get a thrilling up-close experience with a Sumatran Tiger. ($59 per person)
During our exploring, we learnt more about the impressive breeding program at the zoo and it is heart-warming to see the dedication of the Taronga team to stop extinction and strive for the continuation of these animal species. They work closely with zoos all over the world to share knowledge and make sure our great-grand kids (and beyond) will also have the opportunity to interact with wildlife in their natural habitat.
Tour The Savannah
Another exciting adventure is the Savannah Safari ($10 per adult and $5 per child) where we hopped on board an open windowed safari van for a tour of the Dubbo Zoo plains. We got to see giraffe, zebra and buck grazing happily and learn more about their habitat and behaviour from our guide.
Where To Eat
There’s a large cafeteria-style Bakhita’s Café on the zoo site where you can pause and have lunch or coffee during your visit. There are also kid-friendly meal options and light snacks. And don’t forget to stop off at the fabulous shop filled with souvenirs, clothes and adorable fluffy toys.
You can also enjoy a picnic with your own food at the Zoo and there are a number of barbecue and picnic areas dotted around the circuit. Our choice of picnic spot is the one at the Savannah Visitor Plaza near the Safari Park children’s playground.
Where To Stay
To make your visit even more special, I would recommend staying on site at the Taronga Western Plains Zoo. There are three choices of accommodation – camping, cabins and luxury glamping so just pick the option that suits your budget and holiday style best.
The Billabong Camp is a permanent camping site within the zoo and your rate includes a BBQ dinner feast, morning and night bush walk, breakfast and 2-day zoo admission.
Savannah Cabins are self-contained accommodation on the zoo’s doorstep. The cabins are fully equipped and feature two bedrooms and two bathrooms and perfect for family stays.
The most luxurious option is the Zoofari Lodge which consists of 15 African-style glamping lodges which can sleep four or six and have a fully-equipped en-suite with mini-bar fridge and tea/coffee making facilities. The Zoofari experience includes a scrumptious dinner banquet, a spectacular safari night drive, a dawn wildlife tour (where you get to feed the giraffes and watch the elephants have a morning bath) and a gourmet breakfast.
How To Get There
Dubbo Zoo is accessible by car, rail or air. You can fly direct from Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Canberra, Newcastle, Cobar and Broken Hill to and from Dubbo City Airport.
What You Need To Know
The zoo is open 9.00am – 4.00pm daily.
The entry fee starts from $43.20 for adults and $25.20 for kids aged 4 – 15 years. Children under 4 are free. Keep in mind that this is the online price – the gate price is a bit more expensive.
The entry fee includes two consecutive days’ admission, to give you ample time to explore all the Zoo has to offer.
Visit the Taronga Western Plains Zoo Website for more info.