Western Plains' Zoofari Lodges takes camping to a new level, writes Tim Barlass.
As we sit gazing out over the zebra and giraffe-studded "savannah" from our newly built luxurious canvas lodge, my wife can't help sliding into her Meryl Streep Out of Africa impersonation.
And who could blame her? We're staying in Hippo Lodge, one of the new Dubbo Plains Zoofari Lodges, which takes glamping to another level.
Our accommodation offers king-sized bed, overhead fans, airconditioning and a fabulous bathroom with freestanding bath and "his and hers" basins.
Binoculars, mosquito nets and African artefacts complete the picture.
Beyond the glamour inside are the sweeping plains where dwarf forest buffalo, eland antelope, zebra and majestic giraffe nonchalantly graze. The only clue that we are in central western NSW and not Africa is the kangaroo interlopers sometimes hopping between these exotic African visitors.
It's the second day of a weekend stay with our teenage daughters at this family favourite, staying in one of the 10 lodges opened in March by comedian John Cleese and then environment minister Robyn Parker.
The lodges are extraordinary affairs of four canvas walls with a corrugated-iron roof draped across the top, like icing on a cake that's spilled over the edges. The raised timber floors allow air to circulate underneath to keep the lodge cool - vital during the summer when Dubbo can get to plus-40 degrees.
The lodge is spacious enough to house not only our bed but also a double sofa bed for our two girls.
There's a mini bar, several tables and built-in wardrobe with fluffy bathrobes. The canvas walls are great for authenticity, save for honeymooners, families with crying babies or those prone to arguments. There's a 10-metre gap between each lodge, but canvas walls have ears!
Outside is a splendid north-east-facing verandah overlooking the savannah plain, with two butterfly chairs, modern coloured wire furniture and cushioned benches providing ample space to stretch out and snooze to the sound of giraffe sauntering past just a few metres across the moat.
Back up the path from the cluster of lodges is a wonderful main guest house decorated like something from African Vogue, with fashionably charcoal-grey walls adorned with on-trend African artefacts such as masks and shields with authentic spears.
There's a large bar where we enjoyed pre-dinner cocktails with themed names such as Rhino Colada and Tiger Tinkle, a dining room, cosy lounge with open fire, and outside, a swimming pool and seating area. Dinner was a banquet of African-inspired dishes catering for vegetarians and children as well as meat-eaters, including a damper bread flavoured with African spices.
The communal seating on three long tables meant we bonded with our fellow safari travellers.
The emphasis of the zoo is on animal conservation, and many of the tours had talks and presentations on the threat to habitat. We're learning plenty of facts about endangered animals, and the information is delivered in a child-friendly way so that even the youngest visitor will come away with a little knowledge.
Did you know, for example, that there are only 300 to 400 Sumatran tigers left in the world? Or that at $3000 a kilogram, elephant ivory fetches the same price on the open market as gold?
While most people feel there's little they can do about ivory, apart from not buying it, as consumers there's plenty we can do. Some 40 per cent of products in a supermarket contain palm oil.
It's the production of palm oil that's encroaching on the habitat of the Sumatran tiger and also the Sumatran rhino and gorillas. The answer is to either buy products devoid of palm oil or those where it's sustainably sourced.
Understandably, the Zoofari stay features tours with the emphasis on seeing African animals close up and behind the scenes, which is what really elevates our experience above the normal zoo visit. Within an hour of checking in we were whisked off to a tour of African wild dogs (the worst enclosure to fall into, we are advised), meerkat and cheetah. The zoo is renowned for its breeding program and IVF research with rhinos threatened with extinction, and our highly knowledgeable guide, John, peppers his commentary with fascinating facts and some humour.
If your budget doesn't stretch to Zoofari you can always stay at the Billabong Camp, a cluster of tents ready to go perched on the edge of a man-made lake in the middle of the zoo. The night we stayed we enjoyed a barbecue and tried to catch yabbies in the lake before heading off with a guide into the night to get up-close and personal with kangaroos, echidnas, dingoes, koalas and possums, an experience that thrilled the kids.
We had worried that our teenage daughters, who are well and truly veterans of countless zoo experiences, would consider themselves too old for some of the tours on offer, but they quickly got into the spirit of things, touching or feeding numerous creatures.
The range of animals on this 800-hectare site is impressive, with 700 native Aussie and African animals whose every need is met by 200 staff.
Given the size of the site, getting around is facilitated by electric buggies or bicycles if you prefer to get out of the car.
There are 15 self-contained cabins planned to be ready by July.
What works really well at Western Plains Zoo is, with the clever use of lakes, moats and unobtrusive fencing, the animals are free to wander while safely contained. After all, with cheetahs, wild dogs and rhinos, it's best to keep an animal encounter strictly on your terms.
The writer and his family were guests of Taronga Western Plains Zoo.
Zoofari Lodge at Taronga Western Plains Zoo, Dubbo, is a 5hr drive from Sydney. Qantas link flies from Sydney to Dubbo daily see qantaslink.com.au.
Serengeti Lodge (peak period) $399 a person sharing, under fours $79, five to 15 $179. Billabong Camp: (peak period) $189/adult, $105/child. Family (two adults, two children) $499.