As the political animals of the Macquarie Street bear pit were busy scrapping over koalas recently, a new home for these much loved and endangered animals was quietly taking shape three or so hours away.
Next week, the $9 million Koala Sanctuary Port Stephens will officially open in marsupial-friendly bushland at One Mile, near Nelson Bay, representing yet another wildlife attraction for NSW.
And it couldn't have come soon enough for animal lovers, with safaris and other wild animal experiences in south-east Asia, Africa and the Sub-Continent off limits for the time being.
It's been a tough year for zoos. First there were the catastrophic bushfires that almost destroyed the Mogo Zoo on the South Coast and led to the widespread destruction of native animals, including koalas, and their habitats. Then came the pandemic which caused the closure of all zoos and aquariums across NSW resulting in no visitors and income. Eventually $95 million in government relief was provided to keep them, and their myriad charges, alive.
Happily, the state's zoos and sanctuaries, which nowadays have strong and active wildlife conservation agendas, are back, albeit with COVID-19 safety measures in place.
One of the most recent reopenings is Taronga Zoo's showpiece 62-room Wildlife Retreat, which only launched late last year. It's now accepting guests on a limited basis.
Humans being able to stay at a zoo among the animals, rather than just visit for a day, is an international trend and an important, evolving source of revenue for zoos.
"The accommodation offerings at both Taronga Zoo in Sydney and Taronga Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo have a dual purpose," says Cameron Kerr, chief executive of the Taronga Conservation Society Australia.
"They ensure long-term sustainable income streams to fund our increasingly ambitious conservation goals while also creating meaningful connections between people and wildlife.
"We know that upon arrival, 48 per cent of our Roar and Snore overnight visitors [at Taronga Zoo Sydney] indicate they intend to make a conscious effort to do things to help conserve the environment. Following their stay, this increases to 71 per cent."
The Mayor of Port Stephens, Ryan Palmer, is confident that the region's new koala sanctuary, which includes glamping-style accommodation for guests, will boost the local $621 million tourism industry.
"We identified the Koala Sanctuary's potential not only as a dedicated rehabilitation space but also a viable eco-tourism investment," he says. "In light of the recent challenges we've faced, it's more important than ever to give people another reason to visit our beautiful region."
A few hours further up the coast, the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital is planning a major upgrade of its hospital and rehabilitation site and the creation of a separate sanctuary thanks to millions of dollars in public donations that poured in during the bushfires.
A leading architect will be commissioned for both facilities, says Sue Ashton, president of the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital and Koala Conservation Australia, though overnight accommodation for visitors isn't part of its plans, at least at this juncture.
Certainly, the potential for additional revenue from accommodation, at least when international and domestic tourism finally resumes, is immense with a night at the Wildlife Retreat at Taronga costing as much as $597 per night, including a three-course dinner, breakfast, guided tours, zoo entry and parking.
But that's a bargain compared with the cost of a suite at the Jamala Wildlife Lodge at the National Zoo in Canberra which can set you back as much as $2150 a night in a Jungle Bungalow where guests can enjoy the company of wild animals, such as lions, tigers and cheetahs, from behind a glass wall adjoining their room.
But you don't have to stay at a zoo to create unforgettable memories, as the following guide reveals.
Photo: Zoe Lonergan
KOALA SANCTUARY PORT STEPHENS
The soon-to-open koala sanctuary, a short drive from Nelson Bay, is Australia's first multi-purpose koala centre featuring a fully-equipped veterinary hospital, modern enclosures for the rehabilitation and care of the animals, and on-site glamping-style accommodation with ensuites, for visitors.
The centrepiece of the sanctuary is an elaborate 250-metre elevated walkway, installed with a special footstep-muffling surface for noise-mitigation. From the platform multiple koalas can be closely observed by visitors.
562 Gan Gan Rd, One Mile NSW 2316; Ph: (02) 4988 0990 See portstephenskoalasanctuary.com.au
Photo: Kotravellers www.kotravellers.com
TARONGA ZOO, MOSMAN, SYDNEY
Taronga is certainly the nation's best situated zoo with its stellar Sydney Harbour and skyline views. But what really sets Taronga apart today, aside from its ongoing conservation achievements, is its five-star hotel-style accommodation and its regular Roar and Snore attraction where you go on a night zoo "safari" and stay in on-site tents. At the Wildlife Retreat at Taronga, guests can view animals in and around The Sanctuary, a new home for native koalas, wallabies and echidnas with platypus housed in a pool at the retreat's entrance.
The Wildlife Retreat opened late last year but had to close due to the pandemic. Now it's reopened with family packages available. Taronga also has a new African Savannah attraction, inspired by Northern Kenya. It includes new homes for the zoo's lions and giraffes.
Bradleys Head Road, Mosman, Sydney. Ph: (02) 9969 2777. See taronga.org.au
NATIONAL ZOO & AQUARIUM, CANBERRA
This once rather obscure zoo and aquarium which opened in 1990 on the fringes of the capital punched way above its weight by being the first in Australia to introduce deluxe on-site accommodation. The compact zoo's collection has a strong African and Asian focus and includes African lions, tigers and alligators as well as native Australian wildlife
After having had to reduce the frequency of its tours and the number of participants due to the pandemic, the National Zoo & Aquarium is launching an "introductory tour", led by an expert guide, for day visitors from November 1. The 40-minute tour costs $45 and includes entry.
999 Lady Denman Drive, Yarralumla, ACT. Ph: (02) 6287 8400. See nationalzoo.com.au
PORT MACQUARIE KOALA HOSPITAL
One of the Mid-North Coast best-kept secrets and only a short drive from the centre of Port Macquarie, the Koala Hospital achieved international recognition for its efforts in recovering badly injured marsupials in the bushfires. Sadly, many of the rescued koalas from the blazes were ultimately unable to be saved. Today visitors can stroll among the enclosures which adjoin the hospital and meet, up close, the rehabilitating patients, some of whom, heartbreakingly, are blind permanent residents.
A major upgrade to its hospital and rehabilitation facility is in the works thanks to a $5 million grant from the NSW government. A further $8 million in publicly-donated funds from the bushfires - the original target was a modest $25,000 - is being spent on wildlife water drinking stations and the creation of the world's first wild koala breeding program, which will be open to public, a separate site near to the zoo. The ambitious project is designed to help rebuild the badly depleted koala population in NSW.
Corner Roto Place and Lord Street, Port Macquarie. Ph: (02) 6584 1582 See koalahospital.org.au
Photo: Taronga Western Plains Zoo
TARONGA WESTERN PLAINS ZOO
One of regional NSW's most popular and impressive tourist attractions, Taronga Western Plains Zoo near Dubbo in the Central West enjoys the one thing its urban counterpart lacks - space. Although not nearly as luxurious as the Wildlife Retreat in Sydney, there is plenty of onsite, family-oriented accommodation including fully-equipped cabins and glamping tents.
Aside from the regular babies born to its menagerie of animals, the newest addition to the zoo is the $10.2 million Waterhole precinct. Set at the halfway point of the circuit that visitors travel when exploring the zoo, the Waterhole features an open-style cafe with integrated animal exhibits, including meerkats. A special play area, where children will be able to cool down, will be popular as the weather heats up.
Obley Road, Dubbo, NSW. Ph: (02) 6881 1400. See taronga.org.au/dubbo-zoo
The writer was a guest of Destination NSW and Taronga Sydney and Western Plains Dubbo zoos. He visited other featured attractions at his own expense. Some aspects of the zoos may be affected by COVID-19 measures and regulations. See visitnsw.com
Mogo Zoo keeper Sam Ion with a park giraffe. Photo: James Brickwood
FIVE MORE ZOOS AND SANCTUARIES YOU SHOULD VISIT
MOGO ZOO, MOGO, SOUTH COAST, NSW
After a valiant, and successful, effort in rescuing its precious animals during the South Coast bushfires last summer, this privately-owned near Batemans Bay, has reopened for the second time in 2020. It boasts the largest collection of exotic animals on display in the country. See mogozoo.com.au
FEATHERDALE WILDLIFE PARK, DOONSIDE, NSW
This zoo, popular with overseas tourists before the pandemic and situated at Doonside. just under 45 minutes from the Sydney CBD, specialises in native Australian wildlife such as koalas and kangaroos. There's even a quokka selfie encounter for visitors at 11 am each day though be considerate of the little fellas. See featherdale.com.au
SYDNEY ZOO, BUNGARRIBEE, WESTERN SYDNEY, NSW
One of the newest zoos to open in recent years prior to COVID-19, and now a major rival to Taronga, Sydney Zoo is located in the heart of the western suburbs where most Sydneysiders reside. Although Australian animals feature the focus is on wildlife from Africa and Asia including lions, elephants, chimpanzees, orangutans and tigers. See sydneyzoo.com
AUSTRALIAN REPTILE PARK, SOMERSBY, NSW
The name of this zoo is something of a misnomer since its animal exhibits extend well beyond reptilia. Established in the late 1940s by naturalis Eric Worrell, the park, just off the Pacific Highway at Somersby near Gosford, nowadays the Reptile Park features both "scaly and furry" creatures. Expect to encounter everything from crocodiles to Tasmanian devils. See reptilepark.com.au
WILDLIFE SYDNEY ZOO, DARLING HARBOUR
Home to Australia's answer to Africa's big five (namely koalas, kangaroos, crocodiles, wombats and platypus), this is perhaps NSW's most conveniently located zoo (at least for humans). For $67 per adult and $47 per child, you can buy a three attraction pass offering the option of visiting the zoo as well as the adjoining SEA LIFE Sydney Aquarium, Madame Tussauds or Sydney Tower Eye. See wildlifesydney.com.au