You don't have to travel to Africa to find the Big 5, a few of them can be found right here in country New South Wales in the heart of Dubbo at Taronga Western Plains Zoo!
Last time I went to Taronga Western Plains Zoo I was about 5 years old, I don't remember too much of my visit back then except for the footage my mum captured on her video camera, but when the opportunity came up to go back and actually spend the night there I did not hesitate to say yes!
Taronga Western Plains Zoo is a little under 5 hours drive from Newcastle and while it may be long travel time, the drive is very scenic as you pass through rolling mountains, small towns and vast landscapes of farms and countryside, there are plenty of rest stops along the way but not a whole lot of petrol stations, so be sure to fill up before you leave the comforts of the city.
Arriving into Dubbo in the early afternoon it's hard to miss the signs pointing the way to the Zoo, I was getting so excited by the second! Checking in at the admission desk of the Zoo, I was given directions to the accommodation. The accommodation itself is separated from the Zoo and is about a 2km drive up the road. Your stay in the lodge includes dinner and breakfast, Zoo entry, complimentary bike hire to get around the Zoo, exclusive behind the scenes guided tours and discount vouchers to use at the Zoo's cafe and souvenir shop.
There are a few accommodation options but I was spending the night in one of the Animal View Zoofari Lodges. Entering the code through the security gates and making my way up the driveway I spotted some giraffes and could not wipe the smile of my face, this was only a small taste of what was yet to come and I was already beaming with excitement!
Parking my car and being greeted by one of the friendly staff members, I was shown my lodge and explained what to expect that night and the following morning. Dropping my bags I was in complete awe of how beautiful this lodge was! It's literally like a giant tent with canvas walls but a lockable sliding door, there is a lounge and large bed, a mini bar and in the bathroom, a huge bath and shower, but that's not even the best part, walking out onto your deck, you have the best seats to experience and view the African Savannah where you can be greeted by giraffes, zebras, ostriches, rhinos and antelopes walking right in front of you!
I didn't have long to really take in the beauty of this lodge as the first activity on the itinerary was coming up. At 4pm you travel in real safari style on a bus like vehicle which is even marked in a zebra print! These tours are exclusive to guests of the lodges only so you're treated to real behind the scenes action with a knowledgable guide. In the afternoon tour we visited one of the Asian Elephants, a Black Rhino, the Hippos and my favourite the Lion Pride Lands exhibit where we saw four gorgeous and active lions and lionesses! The guide tells you all about these animals including their personality, their history in the Zoo and how their species are being impacted and endangered out in the wild.
Arriving back at the lodges at 6pm we made our way to the guest house for drinks and food. Complimentary wine tasting was on offer but I ordered myself a cocktail (or two!) and helped myself to the canapés which included crocodile, a vegetable cob loaf, sausages and honey glazed feta with crackers all of which were delicious but for dinner we were absolutely spoilt with choice!
We were treated to an African inspired banquet dinner served share plate style with very yummy dishes including buffalo meatballs and spaghetti, beetroot and pumpkin salad, lamb back strap with roasted vegies, Moroccan chicken thighs and salmon. The food was so fresh and you could taste the love and passion infused in the food cooked by the chef. To top it off came the dessert, my favourite part to any meal! There was a selection to choose from but to be honest, the second I heard the chef say chocolate tart with berries and cream I was already sold and didn't quite pay attention to what else was on offer but I think there may have been an apple and rhubarb crumble pie in their somewhere. Their menu is always changing so it's a surprise either way!
The guest house is a beautiful space to hang out and chat with the other guests to see where they came from and their travels. There's an outdoor seating area surrounding a fire pit, or cosy up near the indoor fire place on the lounges, there's even a little corner with colour in pages to keep the kids occupied.
After dinner I got chatting to a family from Sydney, we lost track of time and didn't realise how late it was, but as they say, time flies when you're having fun! Heading back to my lodge for a shower before bed, I was expecting to doze off the second my head hit the pillow, but I was buzzing with so much excitement for what was in store the next day!
I had my alarm set for 6am to freshen up before the morning's sunrise guided safari tour at 6:45am. I'm so use to the sun cracking the horizon this time in the morning back in Newcastle, but because Dubbo is surrounded by so many hills, the sun doesn't start to peak until around 7am, so with some time to spare before the tour I was treated to a breath taking country sunrise, the colours were unreal!
Waiting for our safari bus at the meeting point, I caught a glimpse of some kangaroos grazing in the frosty field and captured this beautiful mumma kangaroo who had the most adorable joey tucked into her pouch!
For the second tour during my stay, we visited the Giraffes, which we got to hand feed carrots to, White Rhinos, Cheetahs, the Elephant Barn and the Lemurs, again learning about their lives here in the Zoo and their morning routine.
After a couple of hours we made it back to the lodge for breakfast which is served buffet style and includes the classics like breads, spreads, cereals, yoghurt, fruit, scrambled eggs, bacon, sausages, mushrooms and pancakes along with juice, tea and barista made coffee.
Checking out at 10am it was sad to say farewell to this very stunning lodge that I had the absolute pleasure of staying in for the night. It's definitely not goodbye for me, only see you later because this place is well and truly on my list of places to come back to!
Once the check out admin was all sorted I was super keen to get out and start exploring the Zoo! Taronga Western Plains Zoo specialises in large animals so this place is huge and very spread out but the great thing is you have a choice on how you would like to wander around. You can hire a bike or cart, drive your own vehicle or simply walk, the circuit is a one way loop so it's very easy to navigate. If I didn't have a 5 hour drive back to Newcastle I could have easily spent all day here but was able to see the whole place at a steady pace in a few hours but like I said, I will be back to this beautiful Zoo again one day!