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It's dawn time. An unknown bird shouts its morning call. In response to an elephant’s trumpet a lion roars not too far away.
From the verandah of my tented lodge, I watch antelopes, elands and zebras grazing, giraffes stretching to grab their breakfast high in the trees and two rhinos crowding around a waterhole.
I feel like I’m in one of those tents inside the wildlife parks in Africa, but in reality, I am not too far away from 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 northwest of Sydney.
With the recent introduction of quarantine-free travel across the Tasman, New Zealanders can now immerse in this wildlife bonanza as well.
The first of its kind in Australia, this expansive refuge of woodland and irrigated grassland is home to 4000 animals from more than 350 species, some of which are endangered.
They freely wander in their self-contained hideouts without metal bars, cages and concrete slabs; clever use of lakes, moats and unobtrusive fencing separating them from visitors.
This invariably creates a pseudo-jungle scenario and an impression of being almost face-to-face with the animal world as in any wildlife reserve.
A 6km trail roves through the natural bushland powdered with various types of trees from Aussie eucalyptus and gum to African acacia.
There are multiple ways of rambling inside the expansive arena.
The energetic prefer to walk or ride bikes, while some drive their own car or move on an electric-driven cart.
During my two-day stay, I see almost every species that I had earlier glimpsed in Africa.
I spot tall giraffes elongating to reach their leafy meals, zebras nuzzling each other at a waterhole, mother and cub rhino playing hide and seek, buffaloes, elands and deer grazing in the sprawling savannah, hippos slumping in the muddy pools, elephants playfully shrugging off the dust from their bodies and a lion clan — male, female and their three cubs having quality family time.
A rudimentary part of an actual wildlife safari is the anxious wait for an animal to leave their hideout. It’s no different here, particularly when trying to spot the big cats.
After arriving at the cheetah home, I don’t see any of them, but a passing zookeeper tells me two are hiding in the grassland.
My nervous wait is very similar to holding breadth to trace a predator at a wildlife reserve in Africa. And when the two cheetahs actually appear on the scene, my mind goes back to Serengeti in Tanzania, where I waited for almost an hour for a cheetah to come out from the bush.
Then it was long-distance viewing; this time it was much closer and better.
It was a similar experience with the Sumatran tiger hiding in a waterway.
We wait pretty long to see a full-grown male tiger slowly wading out from the water and then majestically posing in front of us for photographs before vanishing again into the bush. Truly, a highly rewarding experience.
For anyone who hasn’t been to Africa, this zoo offers some thinned sights , sounds and smells of the wildlife setting from that continent.
This Africa sensation heightens when staying overnight at the unique Zoofari retreat where everything is African inspired, from the style of the cottages and the meals provided, to having a book on African wildlife and binoculars in the room for a closer view of the animals.
Each of the 10 individual air-conditioned tent-like cottages feature a private ensuite and a shaded deck for animal viewing. .
This accommodation is always in high demand, so needs to be booked well in advance.
The two-day, one-night package also covers zoo admission, two exclusive guided tours on an Africa-inspired safari truck — one in the night followed by another early in the morning..
There are few other staying options inside the zoo. Tucked inside native bushes near the Animal Viewing Lodges are five Bushland Lodges, which offers similar accommodation facilities but no animal viewing from the room. For the adventure-minded and budget-conscious travellers self-contained Savannah Cabins and Billabong Camps are ideal. Both are located not far from the main zoo arena.
Accommodation inside the Zoo: Check www.taronga.org.au/accommodation for Zoofari Lodge bookings.
Dubbo City Accommodation: There are plenty of motels in the 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.