Australian Traveller pays a visit to the highly “zen” Butterfly House in Coffs Harbour.

Zen & the art of butterfly maintenance




Coffs Harbour local Susan Stephenson looks for the answers to life’s great questions among the beating wings and caterpillars.


The road to enlightenment, so the Zen masters say, may be found by studying those who have trodden the path before. My husband and I prefer to drive, however. And so our car winds off the Pacific Hwy to the Butterfly House, just south of Coffs Harbour.

While most insects have us reaching for a can of bug spray, butterflies have inspired devotion and passion in humans throughout the ages. Sometime in the fourth Century BC, Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu supposedly wondered if he was a butterfly dreaming he was a man, or a man who had dreamed he was a butterfly. More recently, proponents of chaos theory suggested that the flapping of a single butterfly’s wing in China could cause a tornado in Cheltenham. We’re not sure what all the fuss is about, but we’re willing to open our minds.



Something brushes against my cheek.Startled, blinking furiously, I cross my eyes as an Orange Lurcher lands on my nose. There goes my inner peace and tranquillity.

One of the great things about travelling is the opportunity to share in others’ enthusiasms. That’s just what happens today. Tony is the resident expert, hovering among the creatures he cares for. “I was one of those annoying kids with lots of bugs,” he explains. “I grew up in southeast Queensland and wandered around the bush, gradually developing a fascination with butterflies and their larvae. I’m not a lepidopterist, more a tour guide, but a stationary one.” It’s clear he enjoys answering questions and sharing his love for these beautiful creatures.


When not interacting with visitors, Tony is either cleaning so viruses can’t harm the butterflies, or feeding hungry caterpillars. A larva will eat eight to ten times its bodyweight per day. “Basically,” grins Tony, “a big, honkin’ larva will turn into a big, honkin’ butterfly.” He shows us some Aristolochia tegala leaves rapidly being shredded by some Cairns Birdwing caterpillars. These guys really like their vegetation. I’m sure I can hear them munching. I spot feeding trays with red, blue and yellow discs containing a sweet solution so that nectar-feeding butterflies can find their colour of choice.


Watching one erratic flit of green, I reflect on its possible message for the universe. Once a butterfly breaks free of its chrysalis, what happens? Males are hell-bent on slurping nectar and mating; females search for host plants for egg laying. Hmm. Surely not much spiritual significance there for us pilgrims?


Nevertheless, I can feel serenity seeping into my consciousness. I remember Nathaniel Hawthorne’s belief that happiness is like a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.


I breathe deeply, still pondering the link between Zen and butterflies, when something brushes against my cheek. Startled, blinking furiously, I cross my eyes as an Orange Lurcher lands on my nose. There goes my inner peace and tranquillity. “Don’t move,” orders my husband. (I freeze, worried. Are some of them killers? Am I about to become butterfly fodder? I wince at the thought of its wing-flapping even now wreaking havoc on the other side of the world.) “Turn this way,” he says. “I want to take a photo.”


Tony happens by. He laughs as I try to dislodge my brightly coloured friend with mighty nose-wrinkling. I relax and we wonder if the male lurcher could be sipping my sweat. Boy butterflies need sodium to attract females, so perhaps I’m helping the little guy get his jollies.


I’m entranced by the movement and colour inside the enclosure. Butterflies swoop and dance above our heads like delicate hovering kites. Temperature and vegetation conjure a rainforest environment, perfect for Lepidoptera, but hot and humid for humans. Tony advises us to have a break outside then return. That’s no hardship. The Butterfly House provides a woodwork gallery, small café, sparkling clean restrooms, craft activities for children and a gift shop full of butterfly memories. An outdoor maze and picnic area lure visitors further afield.


After cooling off, we find Tony with his “babies”. He shows us a male Varied Egg Fly, newly emerged from its chrysalis, wings all bunchy and moist. He explains the difference between genders in the Cairns Birdwing as a female displays her bright red thorax. A child approaches and Tony encourages him to touch some wings and pupa cases in a special box. In every word and movement our stationary guide displays his love and respect for butterflies.


When we leave, we both feel as though something important has happened at the Butterfly House. We’ve learned about a fascinating species, shared another human’s passion and benefited from relaxing in a very Zen-like atmosphere.


And is it just my imagination as we drive away, or is that the faint sound of one wing flapping?

DETAILS // Coffs Harbour Butterfly House
Where // 5 Strouds Rd, Bonville
Website //
Phone // (02) 6653 4766
Open // 9am-4pm, Tuesday to Sunday
Cost // $10 adult, $5.50 children

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