Spending the night overlooking an African savannah is a life-long dream of ours. While a family trip to Africa is on the bucket list and many eons away, we discovered that it is possible to have an incredible local experience that is as close to Africa as it’s possible to get, without actually leaving Australia.
We recently spent the night at the luxurious Zoofari Lodges at Taronga Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo. The 15 African-style lodges are at the edge of a large “African savannah” paddock where giraffe, zebra and eland roam freely.
We stayed in one of the Animal View Lodges which have verandahs opening up to the savannah view and fit four people. If you have a larger group, the Bushland View Lodges sit just behind these cabins and fit six people in each, with a queen bed, two singles and a sofa bed.
The lodges are all brand new, with gorgeous features and facilities, including a king split bed and pull out sofa bed, private ensuite, coffee and tea making facilities, mini-bar, fridge and shaded veranda with outdoor furniture. All bedding, linen and towels are provided.
Surrounding the lodges is plenty of bush, which adds to the feeling of being glamping on a safari, and it’s just a short stroll from the lodges up to the equally luxe Zoofari Lodge Guest House, where guests can relax in the pool, with a drink at the bar, or playing games in the lounge area.
All guests of Zoofari are given two day admission to Taronga Western Plains Zoo, with check in at the lodge between 2pm and 3pm in the afternoon. We chose to spend the night before at a nearby motel and arrive at the zoo before the gates opened the following morning.
We spent the morning and lunch time driving and cycling around the zoo (you can read more about our experience and tips for visiting Taronga Western Plains Zoo here), and then drove our car out of the zoo and around the corner to the Zoofari Lodges at check in time.
Our assigned cabin was called “Bongo”, after the endangered African antelope, and we became the “Bongo” family for the duration of our stay.
During cooler weather, there is often an afternoon behind the scenes tour of the zoo for Zoofari guests, but we visited on a scorchingly hot and our tour was instead scheduled for 8pm in the evening. In the mean time, we relaxed and enjoyed the gorgeous facilities. We watched the giraffes munch on snacks and the water buffalo and ostriches roam around the paddock, then wandered up to the guest lodge for a cool drink.
The guest lodge has an excellent swimming pool, but due to an unfortunate leg grazing incident by my daughter earlier in the day, we were house-bound. I was a bit worried she’d go stir crazy in the lodge, but it was set up incredibly well, catering for both adults and kids at the same time.
While the guests without kids sat around the bar and had a cocktail, or lounged on the verandah and read a book, we found plenty of colouring in and toys for Cheese to play with, and she even learnt the rudiments of chess.
At 6pm complimentary wine tasting was served, along with canapés. After sampling delicious wine from the local region (I really enjoyed some sweet wine from Mudgee), we sat at our assigned seats at 6:30 to enjoy dinner – an African-style banquet.
Before the meal, I had a quick chat with the chef about dietary requirements, as she wanted to make sure that my daughter and I were able to find enough food to eat. The banquet is very meat heavy, so if you’re not big on meat I would advise doing similar. I really appreciated the level of concern shown for ensuring there was enough food for both myself and the picky child. The chefs in the end made special kids meals for the little ones present – fish and chips for Cheese, and nuggets and chips for another little fellow.
The dishes were brought out on large platters to share: salmon pesto pasta with chick peas, roast veggies (these were amazing!), Moroccan lamb with three berry couscous, garden salad and African rump chicken. I was served the three berry couscous on its own as well as two giant stuffed mushrooms on plates just for myself.
As each platter was eaten, more were brought out, so there was an endless amount of food if you were feeling particularly hungry. Dinner was included in the price of the Zoofari experience, but any drinks were an added extra cost. We found the price of drinks to be pretty reasonable however – the happy hour special cocktail was $10, regular cocktails $14 and a glass of wine $7.50.
Dessert was served after the dinner platters were taken away – again, African-style dishes for the adults such as cake and pudding, with plain vanilla ice cream and topping for the kids.
When dinner was well and truly over, we watched the sun go down over the savannah from our balcony, and it was suddenly time for the night tour. (Please excuse my lack of photos of the meal and night tour, it was too dark to get any decent shots.) The tour left at 8pm sharp and started with a visit to Cuddles, the only African elephant in Australiasia. Our tour guide, Stephen, had an enrichment toy filled with food for her. A little rattle of the toy and she came lumbering our way, so we were able to see her right up close.
While African elephants are not yet endangered, their numbers have been decimated in recent years due to poaching for their ivory tusks, at a rate of around a hundred a day. Eliminating the demand for ivory is the only way to stop poaches – remove the market and you remove the threat to the elephants. It’s tough hearing about the plight of these amazing animals and feeling helpless to do anything about it, but education is always the way forward. We need to know, and we need to teach our children, too.
After visiting Cuddles, we were taken to meet the hippos, who were happy to chow down on the food we brought while we learned about them and the work the zoo does in animal conservation.
Next on the tour was meeting endangered bongo, whom we hand fed carrots. Feeding a bongo is quite the gooey experience, as they love to have a good lick of the hand after eating the food offered. Pretty extraordinary, to be up close and feeding such a unique animal in the dark! We learned that there are only 200 of these herbivores left in the world due to the destruction of their habitat to mine for coltan, a metallic ore used in mobile phones. It was a stark reminder as to how we are destroying the wild even without realising it, and we were urged to recycle our mobile phones so the coltan can be removed and reused.
Our last stop on the night tour was to visit the white rhino, the second largest land animal. Using a red torch we were able to see him even in the dark, as we listened to the sad story of how the rhinos are being poached into extinction for their horns. Taronga has a breeding program in place to assist in the regeneration of the species, but the rhinos are particularly difficult animals to breed, making it a long, hard process.
Back to the cabins and to bed, it was an incredibly peaceful nights sleep until the sun came up just before 6am and the light began to stream into the cabin. There aren’t many things more beautiful than watching the sunrise, and seeing the glowing red ball rise over the savannah and highlight the animals eating their breakfast was breathtaking. A few classic Aussie wild animals joined the African ones, so our savannah included kangaroos, cockatoos and even some bush bunnies all enjoying the dawn light.
The morning behind-the-scenes tour kicks off at 7am sharp. Mindful of the kids who aren’t able to last till afterwards for breakfast, we were given milk and cereal to tide her over.
Our first stop was also the highlight, hand feeding carrots to the giraffes. They are behind a fence for our protection, their long necks enabling them to learn over and extend their long blue tongues to take the carrots from our hands. Looking up and seeing a gigantic giraffe head coming towards you is quick an unnerving experience, particularly for the younger members of the group.
Cheese was a bit scared to feed one on her own (not surprising considering how small she is compared to them), but placing her on my hip made her feel bigger and more confident, and she declared “feeding the blue tongued giraffe” to be her favourite part of the Zoofari experience.
After the giraffes we met the black rhino, of whom there are only 2000 left in the world. Unlike the placid white rhino, the black rhino is more aggressive – he even looked angry through the bars, which I was extremely grateful for. Our guide fed him a large plant brand near the fence so we could watch him eat as we learned about the story of the rhinos.
From the rhinos we moved on to the lemurs. The Madagascar lemurs are the most endangered animal on the planet right now due to the destruction of their rainforest through illegal logging as well as hunting. It’s so sad to hear, and we watch the two lemurs at the zoo play happily in the early morning light, unaware of the plight of the rest of their species.
The meerkats are up next on the agenda, one of our favourite animals. Meerkats have exploded in popularity after the Meerkat Manor TV series, as well as a TV ad that we are apparently the only people in Australian to have not seen. If you’re aged 10 or older, you can book in for a meerket encounter later on in the day.
The last stop on our morning tour is to meet the elephants up close as they’re are having their morning beauty routine. Every day the elephants are washed thoroughly and given a bit of a pedicure, which we were able to watch up close inside the elephant enclosure. The elephant keepers were happy to give us some information on the elephants and answer our questions about their care and habits.
We were all basically starving by that stage, so it was back to the guest lodge for a big buffet breakfast. Unlike most buffets, this one has food being constantly cooked out the back and brought into the dining area, so everything is constantly fresh and hot. The guests enjoyed scrambled eggs, pancakes, toast, granola, yogurt, cereal, bacon and breakfast buns that included poached eggs, spinach and roasted baby tomatoes (there was also a version with a sausage in it if you preferred it with meat). It was an absolute feast and we ate up, knowing we had a long drive ahead of us.
After breakfast it was time to pack up and check out of the lodge by 10am. Many guests stayed on the next day to explore the zoo using the complimentary bikes or hiring a Zoofari electronic cart ($89 for the entire day, exclusively for Zoofari Lodge guests).
It was sad to say goodbye to our amazing cabin and the lovely people who we met during our stay, but oh what an experience we had!
In 2017 Taronga Western Plains Zoo will be opening a new Pridelands exhibit with 20 lions roaming over five hectares, and the option to drive through it on a small bus. We hope to return for this exhibit opening and stay again in this gorgeous, unique accomodation.
More Information On Zoofari Lodges
Rates for one night accommodation in an animal view lodge starts from $309-$399 per person for adults, from $49-$79 per person for children aged 1 – 4 years old and from $149-$179 for kids aged 5 – 15 years old.
Bushland View Lodges start from $269-$359 per person for adults, from $49-$79 per person for children aged 1 – 4 years and from $149-$179 for kids aged 5 – 15 years old.
Rates are for one night accommodation and are fully inclusive of:
Two day admission to Taronga Western Plains Zoo
One night accommodation at Zoofari Lodge
Exclusive behind the scenes tours with a Zoofari Guide
African style canapés, banquet dinner and dessert
Standard bicycle hire for two days
10% discount at the Zoo’s Souvenir Shop
10% discount voucher for Bakhita’s Café
10% discount on additional Animal Encounters
Zoofari Lodges at Taronga Western Plains Zoo Dubbo
Obley Rd, Dubbo NSW 2830
Heading to Taronga Western Plains Zoo? Read our tips on having an incredible experience.
We stayed as guests of the Zoofari Lodges. All opinions on this incredible experience are our own.
Christine is the editor of Adventure, Baby!