Surely there isn’t another wildlife sanctuary in the world that is in the middle of a thriving city, perched above a stunning harbour, with some of the best views in the country?
Now you can even stay for the weekend and hang out with some of your favourite critters at Sydney’s wildest accommodation offering, Wildlife Retreat at Taronga.
As the sun sinks towards the horizon and Sydney Harbour is bathed in a pink and golden glow, there’s a rustling in the bushes beneath the sprawling veranda where we sit with a glass of sparkling wine. I put my finger to my lips, eyes wide open.
Comically, an echidna ambles out of the scrub like a Texan cowboy, hips swinging rhythmically, completely unphased by the many heads now appearing above him, gawking. A rock wallaby and a potoroo hop across the pathway as though they’re off to a party together. A koala slowly makes it way to a more comfortable branch for its wide bottom, and a pair of kookaburras land a few metres away on the lounge’s balcony, laughing at the animal parade that they’re obviously quite accustomed to witnessing.
I’m expecting Dr Doolittle to walk in with an elephant, a family of giraffes and lion or two. But we have to take a walk to see those later on our evening tour of the zoo – made all the more special because the day visitors are leaving, excited children high on ice cream chattering about their many encounters as they head out the gates. “When are we coming back mum? I want to see the Komodo dragon again!”
Now we can explore the nursing home before us, with some other guests who are also staying at Wildlife Retreat at Taronga.
Our guide happily introduces the first of the home’s residents – the echidna that was confidently swaggering around the grounds earlier. Now he’s been offered a small bucket of bugs so he’s bottom up with his head snuffling around, licking up treats like there’s not tomorrow.
“This is where our elderly animals come to retire,” he says. “It’s their nursing home, where they’re taken care of in their old age’ he jokes. “They face no predators, we watch them closely, and they can relax here, knowing that they have their own space. So, keep your distance and respect that you are walking around in their home.”
A few wallabies join our group and as we wander about the grounds, we meet the sleepy koalas, potoroos, and a pair of shy Cape Barren geese who have only just checked in.
Afterwards we’re taken on our tour of Taronga Zoo, where we meet the giraffes, watch the lions roar to one another from close quarters and get up close to some playful monkeys (the ones with yellow arms – name?) that seem to have been hired to entertain us. Or, I guess, they have that much fun all the time.
Dinner at Me-Gal
The Wildlife Retreat at Taronga is built upon Cammeraigal country, and so in honour of the Aboriginal people from these parts of Sydney, the restaurant is called Me-Gal – after the Cammeraigal word for ‘tears’.
This is in reference to the saltwater surrounding the restaurant’s stunning waterfront location, and you’ll only have tears of joy when you taste Me-Gal’s superb menu was created by Executive Chef Gursu Mertel, who focusses on sustainably grown produce.
Gursu, who is originally from Turkey but has travelled the world honing his craft, enjoys experimenting with native ingredients and so there are always some enticingly different dishes available alongside some more classic Australian favourites.
Me-Gal won the Marine Stewardship Council 2020 Winner for Best Sustainable Seafood Venue and was awarded 2 Chef Hats by the Australian Good Food Guide (AGFG) for 2021.
Gursu’s signature dish – which features smoked scallops, tomato consommé, fennel bronze, sea grapes, Prosecco and lemon myrtle soubise, ice plant, quinoa, chia granola and salmon roe – was recognised by the judges. Tasting it, it’s no wonder it impressed.
We also enjoy the gin-cured Tasmanian salmon with mountain pepper berry, mayonnaise, compressed cucumber; the pan-roasted free-range chicken ballotine with cavolo nero, mushroom cream, macadamia nuts and a corn salsa.
The beef tenderloin with a smoked eggplant purée, potato fondant and broad beans, topped with a red wine jus is a favourite, as is the Tasmanian honey-glazed duck accompanied by pan-roasted mushrooms and served with a pumpkin purée and a red wine and orange jus.
We share a butter popcorn and caramel tart with lemon cola jelly, Davidson plum dust and vanilla ice-cream, and then decide you only live once, and also order the Bailey’s orange and praline tart with orange segment, cocoa and cream.
After relaxing with a pot of tea in the cosy yet expansive restaurant (describe it) we feel much like the koalas who have been dining on gum leaves all day, and so decide to call it a night.
We wind our way back through the retreat, that has been designed to be cloaked in foliage within a few years. It’s going well so far, with the green walls, outdoor corridors made for climbing plants, and vine-covered rooves blending in beautifully with the surrounding bushland. Sleep comes easily, with the distant roar of a night-owl of a lion lulling us to sleep.
The next morning, awaking to sun streaming into our room, we decide that you could not get a more quintessentially Australian view if you tried – a koala already slumped in a gum tree, a couple of Big Red kangaroos lying about near the lifts, and the Harbour Bridge proudly arching over a sparkling harbour where the green and gold ferries take people off to work and play.
Wildlife Retreat isn’t the only awesome accommodation option at Taronga. Check out our story on the Roar and Snore experience.
A message from the Taronga Zoo team:
Imagine a shared future, where wildlife and people don’t just live together, they thrive together. That’s the future that your gift to Taronga can make a reality. Any donation made today will allow Taronga to continue to breed threatened species, carry on vital scientific research and deliver conservation programs here in Australia and across the globe. taronga.org.au/donate