Privileged access to the creatures of the bush – and the jungle – comes with luxe inclusions, expansive harbour views and a conscience.
It’s every child’s dream come true, to be locked inside a zoo once the gates have closed and the visitors have all gone home. And I’m living it. There is nothing nefarious about how I have found myself within the grounds of Sydney’s celebrated Taronga Zoo after dark; rather it is all well conceived and purposeful.
The back story
I am a guest at the Wildlife Retreat at Taronga, a new 62-room eco-retreat owned and operated by the Taronga Conservation Society Australia. It’s a privileged position to be in but a necessary one: as zoos around the world attempt to stay relevant in an age when our senses are heightened to the indignation of keeping majestic animals in enclosures, it is this melding of experience and education – with luxury inclusions and multimillion-dollar views thrown in for good measure – that is designed to ensure the future of places like Taronga, not to mention the vital work it does in conservation (another essential element to any zoo’s trope in the 21st century).
With compelling and necessary stories of conservation and citizen science to tell, it is pleasing that Taronga Conservation Society Australia has put such time and consideration into the Wildlife Retreat. Sitting on Cammeraigal country at the edge of Sydney Harbour, the five low-rise lodges, sustainably designed by leading Australian creatives Cox Architecture, sit surprisingly lightly within the environment. The accommodation ‘pods’ are clad in reconstituted timber and metal, their clean, modern lines softened with ample use of tactile blonde sandstone and native plantings.
In keeping with Taronga’s focus on sustainability, land care and social responsibility, advice was sought throughout the construction phase and will continue now it is up and running; the property is targeting a five-star Green Star rating.
The convivial hub of the property is the ‘nest’, a vast central lounge that is drenched by afternoon sun, its floor-to-ceiling windows framing uninterrupted city views; when night falls the Opera House, Harbour Bridge and city skyline twinkle and dance in the inky darkness. Cosy indoor/outdoor seating areas abound, and there is a bar in the corner ready to supply sundowners at a whim.
While the design and appointments dazzle upon arrival, it is the Sanctuary that confirms the Wildlife Retreat’s intentions. A purpose-designed and built native habitat created exclusively for guests, the space allows for unique encounters with a menagerie of Australian native animals. With a guide/keeper leading the way, we weave through the space, pausing to watch as one of the two resident echidnas (old man Robbie and the younger Wednesday) laps up its dinner with its long, thin tongue, all the while watched over by a duo of shy Tammar wallabies. Encountering our totally unique animals never fails to give me goosebumps, and getting so close is a lump-in-the-throat honour.
There are animals here I have never even heard of – the red-necked pademelon for one – and those that are instantly emblematic of our country: we finish by watching one of the resident koalas waddle from one tree to another, almost as if it is looking for a more advantageous position to admire the view.
Throughout the walk we meet various keepers immersed in facts about their furry charges, and hear stories of how we can make a difference to the future of each one: advice as simple as “plant a tree” to ensure the survival of our koala population has me planning which variety of gum I am going to buy at the garden centre.
And that’s the whole point of the Wildlife Retreat: above and beyond offering up a new luxury Sydney stay, this is a brilliantly realised concept in making a real difference to the world through a hearts and mind conversion of its guests.
Each room they fill by offering up stylish accommodation, delicious food (the Me-Gal restaurant serves up a generous menu stacked with sustainable and local produce) and the opportunity to look into the eyes of a long-nosed potoroo results in another convert to the cause.
After a night spent listening to the whoops and squawks of the zoo’s birds, I rise to take an early morning tour around the grounds before the visitors arrive. While many of the animals are still slumbering, we pass by the gorilla enclosure to find two of the young males searching for their breakfast. I stand in silence and watch as they play, and feel the privilege of my exclusive access, and the responsibility that comes with it.
An overnight stay at the Wildlife Retreat at Taronga is priced from $790 for two adults and includes a two-course dinner, buffet breakfast, exclusive immersive animal experiences and complimentary general admission to the zoo. Proceeds from each and every stay support Taronga’s ongoing work caring for animals within its two zoos here in Australia (Taronga Zoo Sydney and Taronga Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo), as well as through conservation programs around the world.