Ever wondered what happens after the sun goes down and the zoo locks its gates?
Sydney’s Taronga Zoo gives visitors the chance to see the animals in a whole new light. Moonlight, that is. Walk the grounds in the dark beside nocturnal animals, spend the night in safari-style tent, then wake up to meet more magnificent animals – all during Taronga Zoo’s Roar and Snore experience.
Roar and Snore accommodation at Taronga Zoo
A short ferry ride from Circular Quay, Taronga Zoo had my imagination running wild as to what my first ‘glamping’ experience would bring – especially at a zoo.
In the Sydney suburb of Mosman, more than 4000 animals are housed within the zoo. Through its breed and release programs, or habitat rehabilitation, Taronga puts effort towards preserving endangered wildlife – and provides fun experiences for visitors to see the animals up close at all hours.
Along with 20 other international students, we meet in the dark at the front gate, hours after the last visitors have left the zoo and the sun has set over the harbour. We’re greeted by four keepers who reassure us about all the excitement that’s in store over the next 18 hours of Roar and Snore.
Hurrying eagerly after one of the keepers, we head towards our accommodation for the night – large tents that have a breathtaking view of the city lights across the harbour.
In this two-person tent we have the choice of a full-size or twin-size bed. I volunteer to take the twin bed; it’ll be easier to cocoon myself with the heated blanket later if I’m in a smaller space.
Can’t wait to book your stay? We found the best rate for overnights stays here.
Meeting local Sydney reptiles
A short stroll down the path is a larger safari-style tent filled with chairs, benches and coffee tables. We gather in the tent for a delicious platter filled with crackers, olives, meats and many cheeses, along with coffee and hot chocolate to keep warm from the lightly pattering rain. A keeper standing by the door tells us that we’ll head to the dining hall for supper – but not before he introduces us to a few of his ‘friends’.
Cupped in his hands is a shingleback lizard, which he brings around the group, allowing each of us to glide our fingers down his large bumpy black scales, which are almost like a pinecone. Unlike many other lizards, this one has a thick body and a blue tongue.
Another keeper enters with an eastern blue-tongued lizard, which has smoother scales of grey and white with patches of black. After a quick meet and greet with the reptiles, we grab our ponchos and are led out away from our glampsite.
Exploring Taronga Zoo at night
Our group weaves through the zoo pathways and into the dining hall for supper. We’re served a buffet-style meal with choices of vinaigrette salad, quinoa salad, rolls, rice, chicken curry, roasted potatoes, roasted beef slices with mushrooms, and cauliflower soup.
Shortly after devouring the meal, Mother Nature rolls in and it starts to pour before we begin our night walk. Luckily, our ponchos came in handy, and like ghosts in the dark, we head off around the zoo paths. As we prowl, one of the keepers shines his red torch light (which is better for the animals’ eyes) into different enclosures.
Before we crawl back into a small hut out of the rain, the red light shines on a stealthy black blob we are told is a binturong. Also known as a bearcat, it has a face like a cat and the body of a small bear with a long tail to grip onto trees. An unusual fact, the keeper tells us, is that their glands release a scent that, to humans, resembles buttered popcorn.
We move on to the red panda enclosure, which welcomed three new cubs in December 2018. As our keeper shines a few red lights into the trees and on bushes, we spot two of the cubs scurrying up and down tree branches, and popping in and out of bushes.
Tigers at Taronga Zoo
Departing these adorable creatures and embracing the rain, our group moves onto what I believe is the best part of the tour – the tiger enclosures. Inside a little den, we huddle next to the glass and peer in at a sleeping Sumatran tiger, Jumilah. Jumilah is grandmother to Taronga’s three new Sumatran tiger cubs. Sharing her enclosure is her son Kembali, who the keeper tells us is still a mama’s boy and didn’t become as independent as many other tigers do when they grow up.
In the Indonesian-themed Tiger Trek exhibit, we find the rest of the tiger family: mum Kartika and her three young cubs are huddled in a shelter for the night.
Monkeying around at Taronga Zoo
With the rain still pattering down, we migrate back towards the campsite to sleep in our new surroundings – but not before a brownie and hot chocolate for dessert.
Thankfully, turning on the heated blanket in our tent before supper has made my bed toasty warm and the perfect place to retreat to after a rainy but incredible adventure through the zoo.
Before the sun has fully risen, unexpected alarms go off in the distance – the howls of monkeys! With no snooze button for the primates, I wander out to a viewing platform facing the harbour. An orange and yellow sky over the Harbour Bridge and Opera House, and I stare in awe at the picturesque scene.
Rare and nocturnal animals at Taronga Zoo
Under a clear and sunny sky, the keepers guide us back to the dining hall for a scrumptious breakfast. Choices on offer include cereal, fruit, pastries, yoghurt, granola and banana bread. Next up for the morning we head to the giraffe enclosure, where we line up to hand-feed three of the gentle giants. I step toward a giraffe with lettuce in hand and watch, fascinated, as his purple tongue wraps around the leaf.
And, of course, it wouldn’t be an Australian zoo adventure if we didn’t come face-to-face with red kangaroos and spot koalas up in the trees. To end the Roar and Snore experience, we go into the Nocturnal House to see bats, bilbies and an echidna. One of the students even gets to hold a feathertail glider, the world’s smallest gliding mammal.
Outside the building the trip officially ends, but a few of us don’t miss out on the chance to continue exploring the zoo and see many more animals that may have been hiding in the night.