A Weekend At... Taronga Zoo, NSW

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Dec 07, 2016

by KIRSTEN GALLIOTT, Editor-In-Chief

Forget talking to animals. Sign up for Roar & Snore to learn about them, sleep alongside them and even feed them breakfast. By Kirsten Galliott. 

The first thing we notice is the smell. Pungent? Yes. Unpleasant? Certainly. But this is the Himalayan tahr’s home and, well, the nimble-footed mammal can be as rank as he likes. “He makes his own cologne,” explains our guide, Jess, of the male pacing about in front of us. “His shaggy coat absorbs a lot of the urine.”

It’s 7pm and Taronga Zoo Sydney is deserted, except for some 4000 animals and the 40 people who’ve gathered for its wildly popular Roar & Snore sleepover – and to hear specifics about the bodily functions of some of its inhabitants. Over the next few hours, we learn that the dominant zebra has the largest bottom; a python’s scales are made of keratin (the protein that our nails and hair are made of); and the fennec fox’s version of air conditioning is to use its tail to cool itself down. (I’ll spare you the details about the pygmy hippo, the “McDonald’s thickshake” consistency of its bowel movement and what it does with it. Needless to say, my kids love every too-much-information moment.)

Roar & Snore has been running for 16 years and has evolved from a basic tent-and-BYO-sleeping-bag adventure to a much slicker operation. After arriving at the zoo and taking a detour to see the tahrs, Barbary sheep, zebras and foxes, we head to the camp site to drop off our bags. We’re impressed to find actual beds in our tent – it’s big enough to sleep two adults and two children – and there’s a small landing at the tent’s entrance where guests can sit and enjoy the harbour views. (“The animals have some of the best views in Sydney for the New Year’s Eve fireworks,” says Jess.) Then it’s into the main tent for a glass of wine and some cheese and a chance for guests – a mixed bag of families, young couples, and mothers and daughters – to stroke a python and cuddle an iguana.

Dinner is a buffet affair of lasagne, grilled chicken and sides that won’t win any awards but keep the kids happy. We’re not here for haute cuisine, though – we have our Zoo Night Safari to experience. Walking through the animals’ domain in the dark is eerie but exhilarating and the opportunity to hear from our enthusiastic guides is both educational and entertaining.

Over the next couple of hours, we venture down to the bottom of the zoo to see the marine mammals – seals and penguins – before heading back up to the centre to meet Mary the “high-maintenance” sun bear, who has her teeth brushed by zookeepers. Then we’re up for some monkey business when we check out the antics of the white-cheeked gibbons and François’ langur.

It’s lights out at 11pm and we fall asleep with the harbour as our night-light and the screeching primates as our alarm clock. The kids sleep soundly but we toss and turn, unused to our surroundings.

Although they call it glamping, it’s not exactly luxurious. The next morning we’re up at 6am, sharing toilet and shower facilities with other guests. But after a basic breakfast we have our two best animal encounters. 

First up is an audience with the four resident giraffes, whose necks can be a third of their overall height, explains zookeeper Johnny. “They have the same number of neck bones as us.” 

Johnny’s got a pile of lettuce for them and we dutifully line up for our chance to feed these graceful beasts. “They see in colour and eat more than 100 species of leaf,” he explains, while 13-year-old Zarafa (“the troublemaker”) wraps her long, slimy tongue around the leaves in my hand. “Don’t worry,” says Johnny, “they have front teeth only on their bottom lip.”

We’re in luck on our second behind-the-scenes tour: Gung, a 15-year-old male Asian elephant, is being put through his paces by his trainer. They call it “enrichment”, which helps animals retain behaviours from the wild. “We’re going to give him a workout,” says our guide, Tim, while the trainer encourages Gung to push a log against the wall, rewarding him with a banana (“a big treat”). We stand transfixed as the 4000-kilogram elephant stands up on two legs then applaud when he kicks a soccer ball off a truncated witch’s hat. “In the wild he’d kick dirt or rocks,” says Tim, “so we’ve modified the behaviour.” 

Standing up on two legs “is important because he’s a breeding elephant and those legs need to be strong”, explains Tim. “When we get the girls in, they don’t always stand still. We like to make sure he’s fit enough to do his job.” 

And, with that, Gung relieves himself and we’re right back to where we started. Peuw. 

SEE ALSO: A Weekend In… Port Stephens, NSW