Where the wild things are
Photography: ANTONIA PESENTI
There are many reasons I haven't previously slept in a zoo - including, most importantly, the fact I'm not a wild animal. But Taronga Western Plains Zoo in the New South Wales town of Dubbo offers zoofaris, where guests can stay in luxury lodges in the heart of a wildlife park and wake up to both the roar of a tiger and the hiss of a coffee machine. It sounds like a suitable retreat for a city-soft mammalian biped like me.
The lodges are canvas-walled chalets with bar fridges, bathrooms and air-conditioning. Each is named after an animal. Mine is "African wild dog". My neighbours are "Zebra" and "Eland". In Africa, apparently, the wild dog preys on the eland.
"We'd appreciate it if you didn't eat any of the other guests," says Emma the cheery zoo guide. My companions don't look like the gourmet food I've been promised - although two small children might be slightly less chewy than the others. "We love little kids here," says Emma, "and so do the lions, the tigers, the cheetahs…"
Emma warns us to keep our doors closed and food wrapped. I laugh at the idea that I might be burgled in a zoo - which is a little short-sighted, as it turns out. In the eight years Emma has been at the zoo, the giraffes have twice tried to break out, a lion has escaped its enclosure, an elk has jumped its fence, several baby elands have wandered off and an echidna spent three months on the run before it was found in the black rhino enclosure.
A zoofari private minibus tour leaves late afternoon, just before the zoo closes its gates to regular customers and the animals go "off exhibit". I imagine life in a zoo is a bit like a Gary Larson cartoon, and as soon as the people go home, the animals all stand up on two legs, light cigarettes and play cards.
In fact, they eat. We visit my dog-sakes, the African wild dogs, fierce and beautiful hunters that tear open a kangaroo carcass as if it were a paper parcel. Then we watch the meerkats as they are fed mealworms. The meerkats watch us. We watch the meerkats. Eventually, the meerkats stare us down, and we move on.
Our lodges are built next to the zoo's "African savannah", where eland mingle with zebras, hippos, giraffes and a mob of western grey kangaroos, who come out for a free feed. Our minibus is painted with black and white stripes, and the zebras often assume it's another zebra, and try to herd it to make it stand with them.
Dinner is served in the Main House, in a dining room adjoining an African-themed bar. I eat a spicy beef salad and thick salmon steak, which is much more tempting than the other guests, who, apparently, taste like chicken.
At 8.15 we're taken on a night tour that includes a visit to the black rhino. The black rhino, like 42 per cent of species at the zoo, is endangered. It's poached for its horn, which can be ground into a medicine or used as an aphrodisiac. But rhino horn is made of the same substance as human hair and nails, so followers of traditional medicine could drink a cup of their own toenails and obtain exactly the same effect.
When I return to my lodge, I crack open a beer, kick the towels off my bed, throw myself onto the mattress and telephone my partner. While I'm talking to her I look around the room for my iPhone battery charger, but it's disappeared, along with my daypack, my laptop and my dirty washing. "Oh s***," I say to her, "I've been burgled."
I don't know if it's monkeys, elephants, African wild dogs or a rogue tourist, but they've stripped the room of everything that wasn't nailed down and then… made the bed. Something doesn't add up. That's when I realise I've walked into "Zebra", the lodge next door.
THE FINE PRINT
Zoofari Lodge costs from $309 per person, twin-share.
The inaugural Dubbo Festival, a celebration of the arts, culture, film and music of the Dubbo region, runs from 7 to 30 September. A highlight of the festival is Carnival of the Animals (15 September), which includes a street parade and mobile zoo.