Western Plain Zoo here we come (in 40 degree heat!)
It was January 2022 and last year had been a big adjustment. I had arrived in Australia, alone, and had to set my life up from scratch after the mess of the Pandemic in Europe. I had enrolled in Uni and completed my first year with flying colours, but also had to work weekends to do so. It was work, study, and a little bit of lock down; that was 2021. But it was a new year, my partner had just arrived after a year separated, and we were ready to build our life in Australia. So far, the summer had been wet and unpredictable, with La Niña really pushing her influence on the East Coast, so it wasn’t a great welcome to Australia that Agata had expected. Everyone thinks that Australia is always hot, never rains, and all the animals are trying to kill you. None of those are true, fortunately, but it was particularly shitty weather this summer. So, what better way to get some sun and heat in January than to head inland to Dubbo, a 5-hour drive from Sydney and the wild, wet weather. It was going to be a family trip, with my Dad and his partner, my brother and his two teenage boys, myself and my partner Agata. My brother had organised the accommodation, a caravan park within walking distance of the city centre, and we were driving the 400kms in two separate cars; my dad and partner with us in one, my brother and the boys in the other. I'd been to Dubbo before, many (many!) years ago, so I was looking forward to it. Although the city isn’t really famous for anything apart from the Western Plain Zoo, I knew it was going to be fun.
We got into the car with the oldies and were prepared to listen to AM radio until it dropped out after leaving Sydney (with any luck). Good sound and music are taken for granted I think, as with Spotify or YouTube you can listen to anything you want, whenever you want. AM radio though, is a whole other story! Not only do you get the songs from the 60s, 70s and maybe 80s, the sound is like a listening into a tin can tied to another can by string. Anyway, the rules of a road trip are the front passenger is the DJ and the driver has executive veto power. The people in the back get no choice, and can’t even wind down their windows while on the highway, and just have to rely on air-con flowing from the front. We made do though, chatting and looking out the window, and just not complaining about the music. The drive was long, flat and uneventful, apart from a stop at Lithgow MacDonald’s to keep the kids (and the oldies) happy. We passed places like Round Swamp, Cullen Bullen, Budgee Budgee, Marangaroo and Dunedoo, but kept going to Dubbo, as although they sound interesting, I’m sure half these places are just patches of grass with cows on them. The landscape was beautiful though, different from the coast, full of pastures and open fields, the trees that were there were all eucalypt, country estates sitting on hills and just hallmark Australian bush everywhere. We finally arrived in Dubbo and found our accommodation for the next few days.
The accommodation that had been booked was a caravan park not far from the city centre. We had 2 self-contained cabins with air-con, and a patch of grass for my brother, who had a big tent that opened up on the roof of his ute and extended down to the ground like a duplex. I wouldn’t say it was cheap, but then again, no accommodation is in this country anymore. The cabins were ok, with a small sitting room, a main bedroom with a double bed, and a second bedroom with bunk bed, as well as a kitchenette. The air-con worked (thank god!), and there was a fan in main bedroom as well, so it was ok, but it was no hotel. The swimming pool was a little disappointing – it was about 5m2 and always full of children, or their parents who were also drinking poolside. No pool for me then, thank you. After the long drive, we unpacked and chilled in out cabins for a bit, then got ready to hit Dubbo for a few drinks and dinner. Although not far to walk home, we got in both cars (kids and retirees don’t like walking that much), and drove the couple of kms to the Dubbo RSL. The food was quite good, the beers cheap and the air-con was pumping, so everyone was happy. Over dinner we discussed the plan for tomorrow, and it was decided that we’d hit up the zoo for the whole day and try and see as much as possible. When you book tickets here, you get a 2-day pass, so we could always go back if we needed to. The weather was already hot and it was predicted to be 42c the next day, so I was glad that this zoo was more of a driving safari than a walking tour. The next day we got up fairly early, had breakfast in our cabins before jumping into the two cars and headed off towards the zoo!
Western Plain Zoo is part of Sydney’s Taronga Zoo, and is a safari-like open zoo in which you can drive around to see the animals. Although they aren’t freely roaming around your car, like some game reserves in South Africa, it is still pretty cool and you get to cover a lot of ground comfortably (and no risk of your tyres being chewed by lions!). The zoo was opened to the public in 1977 mainly to facilitate breeding programs for its Sydney counterpart. This place is absolutely huge – 300 rugby fields full with over 4,000 animals from 350 different species. It’s incredible! It was also very, very hot, as we soon realised, a real, dry oven heat that sapped the life from you. We got to the zoo, grabbed our passes, and drove in. We had started early, but so had the heat, and it wasn’t long before it was really hot. We knew it would be like this, but I was worried how long the oldies and the kids would last. The first animals were saw were the African wild dogs, and they were already crashed out in the grass. We saw some parrots that were splashing around in one of the moats around the enclosure. The next animals were saw were the meerkats. We had to jump out of the car to see them, but as always, meercats are the cutest, so it was worth it. It was even a little hot for these creatures, even though they live in hot, arid regions, some of them were lounging around in the shade. Directly opposite these cute little furry animals was a Black Rhino. Such a difference in size, these beasts are amazing to see so close up, especially since Black Rhinos are very rare. In South Africa, I had seen White Rhinos, but never this species before. I also have to clear up the difference between these two species, as its not colour. The word white is said to have been mistranslated from the Dutch word "wijd", which means ‘wide,’ as these rhinos have wide, flat mouths, compared to the Black variety that has a pointy lip. Looking at the two, you could hardly tell the difference, but you just have to look at the shape of the mouth, and then it becomes very easy to distinguish.
We continued through the zoo, driving past heard of giraffe feeding from the tops of trees, hippos floating around in the cool water, and some gazelle grazing in paddocks. Most of the animals were out and about, despite the heat, but even some of the locals were struggling – some cockatoos were sleeping in the trees above us at one enclosure, something I have never seen before, as they’re usually not quiet at all, flying around squawking as loud as they can. We made a stop to the see the Indian Rhino, also known as the greater one-horned rhinoceros, which I’d seen up close and personal in Nepal. These 2 tonne beasts are the armour-plated version of their African cousins, and love the water. This one we saw today was walking around in the water, enjoying the cooler temperatures, but did get out and show off his big armoured bum. Although there are so many beautiful animals in the zoo, it is hard to pick a favourite. If I had to choose though, it would have been the last enclosure we saw, where there were Lemurs and Spider Monkeys together. The keeper was doing her rounds, feeding the Lemurs bananas, who held out their little hands for their meal with such patience and cuteness, and then went on to feed the monkeys some carrots. These monkeys grabbed the keeper, making her swing them around like kids, a few taking their turns, before the rest of the gang came to get their food. Some took 3 carrots, one in each hand, another with their tails, before retreating to a quiet spot to sit and munch. A great way to end the zoo visit, having ice cream and watching such human-like animals like Lemurs and monkeys.
Before leaving Dubbo, we visited the Old Dubbo Gaol, which is in the centre of the city. The Dubbo Gaol was built in 1887, on the site of the original courthouse, and used many of the buildings that were there already. These buildings were all sandstone, wills high walls around them, with a small courtyard in the middle. It closed as a gaol in 1966, re-opening as a tourist attraction in 1974. We walked around, enjoying the museum of gaol (yes, not the American spelling jail), all the devices they used to lock up, punish and bring ‘justice’ to the inmates. It’s funny, but no matter where in the world people are imprisoned, there is also a museum showing all the ingenious ways that shivs and other weapons are made using nothing but daily items. There was a solitary confinement room, separate men’s and women’s quarters, and also a small hospital. In the main courtyard, the most obvious thing to see was the gallows. I don’t know if they were authentic, but most likely there were, as Australia used hanging as capital punishment right up until 1967, a year after Dubbo Goal closed. It was a good time spent with family, even though the site was a little creepy because of its morbid past. For our last dinner, we went to a different club and all ate together, celebrating our family holiday together. The drive back the next day was relaxing, stopping again along the way for a break in the 4 hour trip, before getting home. No matter where you go, where you travel, or how much you enjoy it, its always nice coming home. Thank you Dubbo for the memories!
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MyUncleTravellingMatt. January 2022.