BLESS YOU, THEMBI

An up-close en­counter is not to be sneezed at

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - Escape - - DESTINATION | VICTORIA - MERCEDES MAGUIRE ES­CAPE ROUTE

Peo­ple pay a lot of money to get up close to the wildlife. But ev­ery now and then you get an ex­pe­ri­ence money can’t buy. Af­ter a morn­ing ex­plor­ing Wer­ribee Open Range Zoo in Vic­to­ria – whose proud mantra is that it’s not a zoo, but a zoo-based con­ser­va­tion sanc­tu­ary – we had the op­por­tu­nity to hand-feed the six res­i­dent gi­raffes.

The guide ex­plained these pam­pered an­i­mals have their own heated bed­room to re­treat to when the weather cools.

And she warns the un­pre­dictable gi­raffes are eas­ily fright­ened, so hold­ing aloft a tempt­ing car­rot or branch full of leaves is no guar­an­tee these grace­ful an­i­mals will ap­proach. But Thembi’s tummy won out over his shy na­ture and he wan­dered over, his long grey tongue snaking out to grab the prof­fered food. Gi­raffes of his size weigh roughly 1500kg and can eat up to 80kg of food a day.

Then, out of nowhere, Thembi sneezed. Nine-year-old Evie was in the fir­ing line. “Now there’s an ex­pe­ri­ence money can’t buy,” a guide said as we tried to clean the mega-her­bi­vore’s nasal waste from her hair and jacket. “That’s good luck, you know,” said another.

Evie re­mained un­con­vinced.

Wer­ribee Open Range Zoo is un­like any other in Aus­tralia; it aims to be one of the world’s lead­ing con­ser­va­tion or­gan­i­sa­tions. From a vis­i­tor’s point of view, it of­fers a chance to see an­i­mals in a more nat­u­ral habitat than your usual zoo, with­out cages.

The fam­ily-friendly off-road sa­fari is the best way to see the an­i­mals. The one­hour ride will of­fer up views of bi­son – the first an­i­mals to ar­rive at the zoo 30 years ago – Mon­go­lian wild horses, hip­pos, an­te­lope, gi­raffes and camels, in­clud­ing Vera who thinks she’s a dog and will give chase if your sa­fari ve­hi­cle slows down.

If you’re short on time, a half-day is enough to ex­pe­ri­ence the zoo, just 30 min­utes out of the Melbourne CBD.

With only 48 hours in Melbourne, we chose a cen­tral ac­com­mo­da­tion base, Oaks on Mar­ket, where we left the car in the park­ing sta­tion to walk to many of the city’s most pop­u­lar ar­eas.

The two-bed­room, self-con­tained apart­ments are large and have a full kitchen and laun­dry though we chose a full buf­fet break­fast at the ho­tel’s Oak and Vine restau­rant to fuel up for a full day ex­plor­ing. Oak and Vine’s din­ner menu in­cludes kids’ meals, with dine-in and room ser­vice of­fered.

The first stop for this fe­line-lov­ing fam­ily was Melbourne Cat Cafe – Aus­tralia’s first – opened in 2014 by Anita and Myles Loughran, a 20-minute walk from Oaks on Mar­ket. The two-storey cafe is hid­den down one of the city’s famed laneways, Guild­ford Lane. Greeted by the re­clin­ing reception cat, Lynx, who likes to suss out guests, we take a one-hour slot and head to the down­stairs room where many of the 15 res­i­dent cats sleep, lounge and play. Not all are up for a pat or cud­dle, but all are cu­ri­ous and some can be coaxed out with the twirl of a cat toy.

Most of the vis­i­tors to the cafe (with cof­fee, tea and snacks on the sec­ond level) are women in their 20s and 30s, but Anita says they get all kinds of vis­i­tors – a group of bikies even turned up once decked in full leather. And while chil­dren are wel­come, lit­tle ones un­der eight are dis­cour­aged.

Af­ter vis­it­ing Wer­ribee Open Range Zoo the next morn­ing, we took the ad­vice of Oaks as­sis­tant man­ager Nishty Man­nick and headed to Papa Gino’s in Ly­gon St for an au­then­tic Ital­ian lunch. Ly­gon St, just north of the CBD in Carl­ton, has dozens of good Ital­ian out­lets, rang­ing from fam­ily-friendly cafes and restau­rants to up­scale op­tions and bars.

THE WRITER WAS A GUEST OF OAKS HO­TELS & RE­SORTS

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