Wednesday, Day 4 in Australia – Taronga Zoo

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The forecast was rainy for the fourth day of our trip, and unfortunately we had already done the indoor things we wanted to do — the Australian Museum and the Aquarium. The next thing we’d wanted to do was go to the beach, but we decided instead to bring our umbrellas and head for the Taronga Zoo, figuring that if it poured there would be some indoor exhibits.

I went online and purchased tickets that I could show on my phone. The zoo is in a northern suburb, just like our apartment, but when they say suburb, they refer to what most cities would just call a neighborhood. Both the zoo and our apartment were on little points, like fjords, sticking out into the harbor. Even though we were on the same side of the harbor,  we crossed to the south side and then back again to get there. We took the ferry from the north side of the Harbour where we were staying to Circular Quay, then another ferry to the Taronga Zoo wharf. We were getting adept at this point in beeping our Opal cards (or as I called them, Quokka Cards) when we got on and off, although we were still frequently confused about how much we were actually paying, what with transfers, peak hours, etc.

When we got off the ferry, there was a city bus waiting to take visitors to the main entrance. To our left was the entrance to the Sky Safari, but a sign said we needed to prepay to take it so we took the bus. There is also a zoo entrance that is walking distance from the quay, but it was not yet open for the day.

Once inside the zoo, we consulted the map. The information booth had advised us that the “Seal Show” was to start soon, so we tried to quickly walk across the zoo to get seats at that.

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However, we saw many things on the way to distract us, like the koala exhibit. Since it was early in the day and there was no crowd, we decided to climb the winding ramp around the koalas to get a look. Little did we know that we would have opportunities for much more intimate views of these little guys during our trip.

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When I tried to take a picture of this lizard, which was strolling around, not in an exhibit, he turned his back, and Pebbles quipped, “Don’t take my picture. I am not a zoo animal!” That cracked us all up.

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We got in line for the Seal Show and managed to snag front and center seats in the “splash zone,” where we were warned we might get wet. We had raincoats so we didn’t care. Funnily enough, many of the “seals” turned out to be California Sea Lions.

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The show was entertaining, but nothing we adults hadn’t seen before. Actually, I thought I might have remembered seeing this same exact show 30 years ago when I had visited the zoo with my young cousins.

The lemur exhibit had a policy of only letting a few visitors in at a time to get pretty close. We waited, and it was OK.

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So far the weather was not bad at all — a little sun, some clouds, no rain. By this time we were hungry for lunch already. We didn’t want to eat zoo food so I used Yelp to search for a restaurant near the zoo. I’d been told that the zoo was surrounded by Sydney Harbour National Park and a great place to walk around.

We recognized the name of the restaurant that came up — it was the same place where my cousin’s wedding reception was to be that weekend! Apparently when it wasn’t hosting functions, it was a cafe open to the public, and just a short walk away. We walked out of the zoo and followed Google Maps instructions, but were disappointed to find that the directions took us not on a bushwalk but along a road. In fact, there was a blind curve on the road that we were almost too afraid to walk around, and were on the point of giving up when a lady came walking the other way and told us there was nothing to worry about. In a few minutes, we were at the National Park entrance, and we saw the cafe, Athol Hall, an old wooden house, on a grassy lawn. 

There weren’t any customers there, just a couple of staff who looked like they were busy, so we approached shyly and asked if they were open. They assured us that they were and invited us to take one of the few tables on the veranda.

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This was our view. As you can see, it started to rain lightly as ordered bloody marys and sat enjoying the view. Alone in woods on an elegant veranda, being waited on, we felt as if we were the lords of a private estate.

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We met our first kookaburra then. He was hanging out in the trees next to the veranda, watching us.

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I ordered pork belly, someone ordered fish fry, and everything was delicious. But when our food was brought out, the kookaburra swooped in to try to steal from our plates. The waiter laughed and apologized, and said he had already fed the kookaburras this morning but apparently this one was still hungry. He went inside and brought out a bucket  of duck fat, which he said was trimmed from the duck they were preparing for a function this weekend (my cousin’s wedding!) and threw pieces of that onto the lawn. The kookaburra swooped in on that and let us eat in peace.

After we ate we managed to find the route back to the zoo that actually went through the woods. It was still raining lightly, or the branches were dripping on us, but it was lovely. We heard many birds we had never heard before, and although we kept a sharp eye out for those poisonous spiders and snakes people are always talking about, we didn’t see anything scary. Just a lizard here and there. The path ended up at the ferry wharf, and this time we boarded the Sky Safari funicular to re-enter the zoo.  Another great view!

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After lunch we needed to get down to business seeing more Australian animals. We happened upon the Koala Encounter booth just before they wrapped up for the day, and I decided to pay $25 ($19 USD) for a chance to hang out with the koalas up close. The encounter came with an 8×10 photo of the event.

Oh my goodness, so worth it! We were ushered into a cage the size of our kitchen,  with at least three koalas hanging out in a tree, finishing up their meal and just starting to get sleepy.

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We enjoyed watching them eat, and noticing the wooly texture of their fur up close.

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Only four people are supposed to be allowed in the encounter, but when the staff saw Erik standing on the outside, they let him in as well.

After our time with the koalas elapsed, we went through the Australian Walkabout, where relatively gentle animals roamed free and zoo visitors walk past them on a path. When we came in, a zookeeper was demonstrating how he — not us — could scratch a kangaroo’s chest, but not too much, or it would bite him. The keeper said that one of these kangaroos had been “Trouble” lately. Then he walked away, and I got a pretty good idea who Trouble was.

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Trouble came onto the path and started curiously sniffing the human visitors. Of course we all loved this and took the opportunity to pose for selfies with the animal.

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Then, IT happened. I asked for Toth to pose with Trouble so that I could take his picture. Toth had “his” cell phone, an old one of mine, in his hand to take his own pics. But as I was getting ready to snap the photo, Trouble stood up and looked Toth in the face, and then laid one paw on each of Toth’s shoulders. They were the same height. Toth dropped his phone onto the path and the battery flew out.

I ran over and put a protective hand on Toth, and the kangaroo hopped away. I kissed Toth’s cheek in relief. I had just applied lipstick for my closeup with the koala, so I left a red mark on Toth’s cheek.

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Right about then, the zookeeper heard the commotion and came towards us. He saw me holding onto Toth, and the kangaroo hopping away, and noticed a slash of red on Toth’s cheek. “Is he OK?” the keeper asked, running over. I assured him that my kid had not just been slashed by a killer roo. Just lipstick.

That was the high drama point for the day, but our fun was not over. We finally got to see a quokka!

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Quokka are an adorable, lesser-known marsupial. The first European to lay eyes on one called it “a rat as big as a cat,” but I think they’re much cuter than rats, don’t you? Seeing a quoakka had been one of our goals for this trip, and here he was! Sadly, the zoo only has one quokka, and he looked lonely.

This spider is not a zoo exhibit. Just an ordinary Australia spider hanging out. Yep.

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Besides checking out zoo animals, we also tried to figure out where in the zoo my cousin’s wedding would be that weekend, but as we had forgotten the exact name of the area form the invitation, we couldn’t find it. Oh well, at least we had had a trial run getting here so we wouldn’t be late for the big day. We took the bus home instead of the ferry, affording us another look at regular Sydney (or rather northern suburb) neighborhoods. After awhile, we recognized the neighborhood where we had grocery shopped, and since we were getting low on supplies, I decided to hop off the bus and shop some more, alone. Separating from the group was a little scary, since we had only one device for mobile Internet access among us. I took it with me, so we would not be able to contact each other until they were back in the glow of the apartment’s wi-fi.

I shopped at a higher end store, Cole’s this time. I love grocery shopping on vacation, throwing all kinds of luxury items into my cart with the knowledge that we are still saving money by not going to restaurants. I got a trio of pates and a beet/feta dip that I wish I could find in the US. They also had a lot of ready-made entrees, so I got a family-sized shepherd’s pie.

I left the store with two fists full of plastic bags, and saw that the sun was getting low and the weather was fine again. I could see the Harbour Bridge, and I knew that our apartment was just at the end of it, so I skipped taking the train home and just walked toward the bridge. Eventually I came to a dead end in front of something called the Kirribilli Club. I saw a path going into the bush, and figured this might be a way down to the edge of the Harbour. Once I got there, I knew I could walk directly to our apartment.

But the path didn’t lead straight down to the Harbour. Instead, it zigzagged down a hill, like a terrace, and as I went down, the sights and sounds of the city disappeared. Instead of hearing people calling to their dogs in the park next door, I heard a cacophony of birds. Soon I could barely see the sky overhead, only tree branches, and birds were so active in those branches as the afternoon wound down that they would shake droplets of rain onto my head. I passed a little clearing with a table and chairs. Huge tropical flowers were everywhere. I was a little confused, but delighted, at the completely foreign atmosphere I found myself in. When the bush cleared enough for me to look down the hill, I saw that below me was not the harbour but railroad tracks. So even if I followed this path all the way down, I saw that it was not going to take me to my destination. After walking a few more minutes, without seeing any other humans, I began to feel nervous and decided to follow the next set of wooden stairs up. As I ascended, I saw the tops of buildings to the north first, the company names glowing against the darkening sky. That was the funniest feeling of all, walking half-in, half out of this mysterious bit of bush in the city.

When I mentioned it later, some local people told me the garden had been created by Wendy Whitely, the wife of a famous artist, as a tribute to her late husband and to their son who had also died. When I looked it up, I realized I must have been only on the outskirts of Wendy’s Secret Garden. If I had continued on I would have seen some sculptures, and somewhere in there are buried the ashes of father and son.

As the sky darkened, I walked through Milson’s Point, where I stopped to get ice cream for the kids as I’d promised, and arrived home with all the provisions to make everyone’s dinner. I was happy to see that they’d gotten home safe, and happier still that I’d had the chance to explore and the good luck of happening upon a secret garden on my own.