Beauty of the beasts, up-close

Beauty of the beasts, up-close
Suddenly two cheetahs come out from their hideouts, their spotted pelage blending easily into the high, dry grasses. They run around a little bit to reveal they are the world’s fastest land mammals. When they spot us, they slow down and come near.

Their slender bodies, deep chest, small, rounded head with black tear-like streaks on the face are only metres away. They climb up to a set of rocks to see us better.

The beauty of the beasts makes onlookers like me silent. Nothing can be heard other than the clicking of camera shutters and the occasional verbal expressions like wow, awesome and splendid. Experience was similar when, earlier, we saw a lion’s family — male, female and their three cubs — having quality time. At one stage, when the naughty cubs were fighting amongst themselves, the male, easily recognised by its mane, roared, perhaps to discipline the kids. That explosive noise made the deer bell, crows caw, elephants trumpet, birds screech, wild dogs howl and small children in our group cry.

By now you must be thinking I am on a wildlife safari trip in Africa, chasing animals on an open savannah. Not really. I am experiencing this thrilling wildlife encounter at the Taronga Western Plain Zoo in Dubbo, located in the Great Western Plains region of NSW, about 6 hours north-west of Sydney.

For many local Aussies and international visitors who haven’t adventured wildlife at a natural sanctuary in Africa, venturing into this 300-hectare oasis of woodland and irrigated grassland (which offers sights, sounds, smells and even tastes of Africa) is a unique and unforgettable experience every day of the year.

Caring environ
The thought that wildlife and people can share this planet inspired the establishment of this open-plan zoo in 1977, the first of its kind in Australia. Its animal collection has grown from 35 to several hundred from five continents today. Since the opening, the zoo has earned the reputation of a world-renowned centre for its care of wildlife, breeding programmes (especially of endangered species like black rhinos), conservation programmes, and wildlife parades.

A six-km circuit meanders through natural bushland and around large, open-style exhibits, concealed moats dividing animals from the visitors. This invariably creates the impression of being almost face to face with animals as in any wildlife reserve.

There are multiple ways of wandering inside the arena. The energetic prefer to walk or ride bikes, while other options are to drive your car or move on driven carts.

I come across almost every species that I had glimpsed in Africa — from giraffes, zebras, buffaloes and hippos to rhinos, elephants, cheetahs and a pride of lions. In Africa, I couldn’t spot a black rhino as they have now become rare, while here, they are only metres away. Here at close range, I photographed a large-size Sumatran Tiger moving around like the jungle king, at times shrugging off the heat by jumping into the waterhole. Opportunities of photographing the animals are excellent here.

Seeing some of the captured images, my friends don’t believe that the beasts are sheltered inside a zoo environment.

Super snippets
A motivating part of the journey here is the learning experience. The omniscient zoo-keepers during pre-set feeding times provide interesting information about the animals — their habits, behaviour, diet, mating, gestation period, and many more facts and figures. For instance, the difference between varieties of rhinos, or why African elephants have much bigger ears as compared to their Asian counterparts.

The poaching figures of elephants and rhinos surely generate anger and the urge not to buy anything that’s made of ivory, rhino horn or tiger skin. A lovable activity here is feeding some of the animals — carrots to the giraffes or a piece of meat to the hungry tiger, surely not using hands, but a piece of tong.

This zoo provides much more than animal display. It’s also an education base, a research hub, and a wildlife conservation and preservation centre for species from around the world. All the same, it’s a venue to relax and enjoy, powdered with eucalyptus, acacia and native vegetation. There are options of staying inside the complex as well, so as to wake up by the roar of a lion, and to be greeted by a giraffe!

Fact File
Getting there: Fly Air India from Delhi to Sydney, from where Dubbo is well connected by rail, road, and air. While Rex Airline (www.rex.com.au) has 1hr,10m-flights daily, a relaxing way to reach Dubbo is by jumping aboard the XPT train service (www.nswtrainlink.info) from the Sydney Central station.

It’s popular with outsiders as this rail journey takes 6.5 hours, but offers passengers a great vista of rural Australia.

Accommodation: Inside the zoo, Zoofari Lodge is an intimate retreat offering a private and luxurious African-safari-style experience (taronga.org.au).

There are other motels in Dubbo from where the zoo is only a short drive away.

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