As I gently stroked the surprisingly velvety feet of an echidna, I realised how fitting it is that its image should grace the reverse side of the Australian five-cent coin: because this newly-hatched puggle was so small it could indeed fit comfortably on the coin.
A puggle of course is a baby monotreme – either a baby echidna or platypus, the only mammals that lay eggs. The echidna puggle is quite hairless, its sharp protective quills not developing until later.
Getting up close and personal with an echidna was one of the great experiences I enjoyed at Taronga Zoo’s Roar and Snore programme, where visitors stay overnight to experience a different perspective of the zoo, learning how it operates behind the scenes and interacting with many of the animals.
It was obvious that Taronga Zoo had changed quite markedly since my last visit a couple of decades ago. For one thing, there is less roar than previously as the big cats have gone, although the Sumatran tigers will be returning to a brand new home once construction is completed.
Many of the larger and herd animals have been sent to Western Plains Zoo near Dubbo in the mid-west, where they have more room to roam and can be viewed in a more natural environment. Taronga, meanwhile, has got a lot greener. There was much more foliage than I remember; certainly fewer cages than previously, and the presentation of the residents has improved.
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Roar and Snore, participants stay in tents which afford stunning views of Sydney city. This is glamping, with solid floors and real beds, and at the centre of the glamping site is a common area where guests gather for drinks and nibbles with the chance to meet and greet a couple of reptilian residents.
It was a pleasure to meet both the spotted python and the shingle back lizard. The spotted python is a member of the children’s python group and seemed to be friendly enough. Tall, overweight humans are not usually part of the python’s food group so I felt quite comfortable having a pat and found its skin was very smooth, soft and dry, not at all scaly, or cold but quite brilliant to touch.
The shingleback, on the other hand, had much thicker skin embossed with undulating patterns. The head and tail look remarkably similar, a defence mechanism that lets it turn itself into a U when confronted by a predator, so the would-be-assailant gets confused about which end to attack and usually retreats.
To wander around the zoo at night, albeit within a relatively large group, is a fascinating experience. Understandably, it is dark where you walk because wild creatures are not used to having street lights in their native environments and the zoo likes to make it as natural as possible. Our guides use red lights to illuminate anything of interest without startling the animals and, in many instances, the lights weren’t even perceived.
Not all creatures are included in the zoo’s list of attractions. Many native animals have also made their homes at the zoo, primarily because it is a wonderful source of easy-to-locate food. As we watched the spotted deer being fed, a local bandicoot crept in to scavenge a morsel or two. There seemed to be plenty to go around, so the deer didn’t mind.
By the time we finished our evening expedition, it was almost 11 pm and after a hot chocolate and a brief chat, I was soon sleeping soundly on the comfortable bed and didn’t rouse until it was time for an early breakfast.
Low clouds over the city obscured the tops of most of the high rise buildings in the morning but gradually lifted as Sydney came to life. Cameras were out as we admired this ever-changing vista, but our focus soon shifted from the view to the echidna and ring-tailed possum that came to greet us. And so began my echidna fascination.
Our trudge to the main entrance was interrupted by a stop to watch the male elephant, Gung, perform his daily exercises. Although many of the exercises are similar to circus tricks, such as standing on his hind legs, they are not designed for human entertainment, but rather to help Gung maintain his muscles in peak condition. Elephants have soft padded feet that allow them to move silently, and also to hear. Yes! In the wild, elephants communicate over many kilometres by emitting very low frequency, sub-sonic rumblings which they pick up through sensors in their feet and trunks.
There were many highlights of the Roar and Snore experience, top among them the knowledge I acquired about so many different species, from tiny Feathertail Gliders, which are just the size of a half grain of rice when born, to the fact that giraffes rarely drink because of the difficulty of lowering their mouths to waterholes. The enthusiasm and knowledge of the zoo staff were both admirable and entertaining; Taronga Zoo is such a delightful and memorable place to overnight. Definitely worth experiencing sometime.
Have a fabulous experience – https://taronga.org.au/sydney-zoo/accommodation/roar-and-snore
Disclosure: The writer enjoyed Roar & Snore with assistance from Visit NSW