In late October, we headed away with some good friends of ours for a three-day trip to Mudgee and Dubbo.
Our plan, apart from sampling and buying some fantastic wine in Mudgee, was to stay at Taronga Western Plains Zoo, in its exclusive Zoofari lodge, at which ten luxurious tents, complete with mod-cons, overlook the savannah, where African, Asian and even Australiananimals roam.
You know you know you are in Australia when an eland — a large Africanantelope — chases kangaroos away!
On day one, we headed to Mudgee, where we stopped at my favourite winery and stocked up on premium shiraz. A nice dinner in town, followed by an overnight stay nearby, concluded the day.
On the following morning we headed up to Dubbo and went straight to the zoo. Our official check-in was at 2pm, but we had time to roam the zoo via our inclusive two-day zoo pass.
Having been to Africa twice and spent time with truly wild animals in their natural habitat, a zoo can never quite come close; but Zoofari is an experience designed to emulate, as closely as possible, the safari experience.
Upon arriving at the zoo, our first stop was naturally the lion enclosure. Unfortunately the lions were not terribly active or welcoming, so photography was not a terribly successful pursuit. Incidentally and somewhat ironically, it is easier to photograph lions in the wild than in captivity.
One pleasing image I did capture at the lion enclosure was not an image of a lion, but an Australian pied cormorant, which was perched on a log over the lion enclosure’s moat in the morning sun.
Australian Pied Cormorant
Being a fan of big cats, naturally, we needed to visit the cheetahs. We fortunately timed our arrival to see the keepers feed the cheetahs, which consisted of a king cheetah mother and several sub-adult cubs.
Contrary to popular belief, the king cheetah is not a separate species of cheetah, but rather, is a cheetah which has a rare fur pattern mutation as a result of a recessive gene.
The light was quite harsh, and the cheetah were very active — particularly as food was being provided — so photography was quite challenging, but I did land this pleasing image of the king cheetah.
The king cheetah is quite rare, so it was a pleasure to see one, and capture pleasing images of her.
Following the big cats theme, high on the agenda was a visit to the Sumatran tiger.
Now, I do not have many images of tigers, so I was keen to capture some pleasing tiger portraits despite the difficulty of broad daylight.
Again, we timed our visit to co-incide with the keeper’s talk and a feeding session, so this Sumatran beauty was very alert and more often than not, looked in our general direction, which is always what a wildlife photographer wants.
As the biggest of the big cats, the tiger is a very impressive big cat.
After lunch, we roamed the zoo and found our way to the siamangs. I had never seen one before, so we spent a bit of time watching them play, and I snapped away, trying to land a pleasing image of one of them.
Not long afterwards, we headed to Zoofari lodge and checked in.
With adjacent tents, we soon joined at our tent for some afternoon lounging. It was a taxing experience to sit on the back deck, overlooking the savannah, whilst consuming premium shiraz and munching on potato chips. It is a tough life, but someone has to do it.
These were the appalling, slum-like conditions we had to endure during our overnight stay:
Animal View Lodge
It was tolerable.
What cannot be seen in this image is the open door overlooking the savannah. We decided to keep the doors and windows open so that we could hear the incredible sounds of wildlife at night, just as we experienced in South Africa and Kenya.
In the late afternoon light, we had the pleasure of watcing the giraffes grazing on the savannah, while these two particular giraffes (of the four inhabiting the reserve) shared a sticky snack.
Sharing a Sticky Snack
During our lazy afternoon on the deck, we were visited by a peacock, which was only too happy to munch on our snacks, and sit very close with us on the deck overlooking the savannah.
In the early evening we headed to the communal dining room, where some wine tasting, and later, dinner, were served.
After dinner, we got to experience a night tour of the zoo, whereby 4WD vehicles drove us around the zoo in complete darkness. We visited the lions, hippos and rhinos in their night enclosures, which are not accessible to the general public.
As can be imagined, photography was just not going to happen, as it was pitch-black; but it was great to be close to these animals in the darkness.
After a good night‘s sleep, the following morning saw another early start, with a pre-breakfast tour of the zoo — again, behind the scenes — during which we got to visit the cheetahs and see them from a different location; feed a giraffe; spend some time with the meerkats; and partake in an exclusive visit to the elephant ‘maintenance’ shed, in which the keepers bathed and fed the elephants in preparation for their entrance into their exhibition enclosures for the day.
Here is an image of one of the meerkats on sentry duty.
After the tour, we returned for a communal breakfast, before making our way back to the lodge to pack and check out.
On our arrival at the zoo the previous day, we had booked ourselves onto a rhino encounter. Once the tour guide arrived, we found out that we were the only people booked on the tour, so we got an even more exclusive tour of the rhinos and spent a great morning learning about the zoo and how it operates — a much more personal tour than would have been otherwise possible.
After the conclusion of our Zoofari experience, we made another round of the zoo, before embarking on the long trip home.
All in all, it was a fantastic weekend, and I did manage to land some pleasing images of the wildlife which inhabits Taronga Western Plains Zoo.