The wild night is calling

Jodie McEwen and family enjoy fuss-free camping surrounded by wildlife.

It's not often that the sizzling morsel of meat on your plate is from a relative of the animal grazing under your table. The incongruity strikes me as we tuck into a barbecue dinner featuring Skippy at the Australia Walkabout Wildlife Park at Calga.

Somehow it doesn't feel quite right to be eating a kangaroo steak when I'm staring at his relative, but my husband doesn't share my pangs of remorse. Instead he smacks his lips and holds his plate out for more.

We're less than an hour from our suburban Newcastle home but, surrounded by trees, it feels like we're in the middle of the bush. Only the faint drone of traffic belies our proximity to the Pacific Highway.

As we sit outside at a picnic table with a glass of Hunter Valley wine in hand, the evening is off to a promising start. Just 90 minutes ago we'd arrived at the park, a few hundred metres from the Calga interchange, about an hour north of Sydney. The children leap from the car, full of ''we're on an adventure'' elation that prompts wild shrieking and running. Our instructions were to bring only pillows, toiletries, a torch and a change of clothes. The tents, with mattresses and sleeping bags with an inner-lining sheet, are already pitched.

Sceptical, we had packed too much cold-weather gear. We needn't have bothered. Our sturdy tents look like squat green igloos and despite threatening skies and the odd shower, we're warm and dry. Cramming a family of five into a tent recommended for three or four makes it a cosy night indeed.

We're met by cheerful staff and directed to the visitors' centre, where a wildlife show is scheduled to start. The wildlife obviously didn't get the memo, though, as they wandered down the track to meet us at the camping ground. Wallabies, kangaroos, red-necked pademelons and emus tall enough to look you in the eye roam free in the park, though there are enclosures for the ones that are inclined to bite.

All the animals at the sanctuary are native and most of them are endemic to the surrounding area. As the rangers handle squirming calico bags, one by one lizards, water dragons and snakes move around the gathered group. The brave-hearted among us touch their scaly hides and some even hold the heavy python, our fearless daughter among them.

The strangest moment comes when Ranger Karen scoops up an echidna and spreads its legs, exposing the female's underside so we can see her milk-secreting pouch. It feels strangely voyeuristic, seeing the intimate bits of an echidna, but the children are fascinated and want to know whether we can have a puggle - a baby echidna - as a pet.

After our barbecue and as dusk falls, we set off to spy on the nocturnal animals. What should have been tranquil twilight birdsong is interrupted by the constant whirring of our childrens' eco-friendly but loud wind-up torches. The bats and owls certainly know we're coming.

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The posse of children is enthralled by the spotlight tour. Clustered around the rangers, they hang on their every word, absorbing biology like oxygen. The park's philosophy is ''conservation through education'' and we're witnessing it firsthand.

Hands cupped around mugs of tea, we listen to stories from the Dreamtime and toast marshmallows by the campfire. The campfire is one of my favourite parts of camping and I'm enjoying one without so much as striking a match. Like the tents, the campfire is pre-arranged.

As we crawl into our sleeping bags, we hear the cries of bats and the muffled, drum call of the emus. Wallabies and pademelons brush the sides of our tent during the night and in the morning we pat a kangaroo and her joey without leaving the tent. By the time we return home, we're feeling eco-friendly, animal savvy and at least a little more attuned to the natural world. Which is how I imagine it feels to have gone walkabout.

Jodie McEwen stayed courtesy of Australia Walkabout Wildlife Park.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Calga is an hour's drive from Sydney. Australia Walkabout Park is at the southern end of Peats Ridge Road, just off the F3 freeway between Hornsby and Gosford. When travelling from Sydney, take the Calga interchange (the second exit) from the F3 after crossing the Hawkesbury River.

Staying there

The Wild Sleep-Out experience costs $165 for adults and $105 for children, including animal and bush tours, dinner, supper, breakfast and a night in a tent. Phone 4375 1100, see walkaboutpark.com.au.

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