Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Monkeying around on Zoo2Q

Australia’s most prominent skyline is at its glittering best at dusk. As daylight fades, and the sun glances toward the horizon, it streaks the sky with light, as if applying last-minute touches to a painting. This splendid sun-washed view is rendered even more dramatic when it’s accompanied by the violent shrieks of chimpanzees or distant hooooonk of an elephant’s ‘trumpet’. Zoo2Q is an all-new ‘adults-only’ luxe two-day guided walking package with enough surprises and adventures along the way to woo the most cynical ‘seen-it-all’ Sydneysider. 

The two-day tour starts at Taronga Zoo, which clings tenaciously to the hillside at Bradley’s Head, just a short 15-minute ferry ride from a very crowded and corporate Sydney CBD. After whizzing up to the top of Taronga via the Sky Safari cable car we meet indigenous guide Leon Burchill, who performs a heartfelt Welcome to Country ceremony, a ritual that has been part of Aboriginal culture for thousands of years.

Leon also plays a song on the didgeridoo, another requisite mark of respect for indigenous Australians, before breaking into an enormous smile and saying, ‘You’ve got your visas now. Welcome to Cammeraygal country’. 
Leon goes on to explain that the spirits of the Cammeraygal clan now know we’re here and welcome us to their land, in Sydney’s Lower North Shore. Despite the fact Leon belongs to another clan – more specifically Mossman’s Kuku Yalanji mob in Far North Queensland – he shares the Cammeraygal’s profoundly spiritual connection to the land.

Zoo2Q's indigenous guide, Leon Burchill.  
Zee-Zee at the zoo
Leon, who has worked as an actor and entertainer, has been guiding visitors through the zoo since 2006. His tour reveals the flora and fauna that has flourished for thousands of years and provides invaluable snippets of information about the area’s indigenous heritage. 

As Leon loops us around Taronga he picks out plants that offer medicinal and nutritional qualities. He also steers us to the macropods’ yard where we encounter redneck wallabies, kangaroos and cassowaries as well as a few bush turkeys (which he refers to as ‘freeloaders’) that have flown into the enclosure from outside the zoo. 

Having Leon on hand to add an indigenous perspective adds another layer to the experience: he shares stories about his spiritual animal totem, the white-bellied sea eagle, shows us how to filter silt from water using a grevillea flower, introduces us to Zee-Zee, the bearded dragon and explains why the echidna’s hind feet point backwards: “It’s to help push the dirt away when burrowing,” he says, matter-of-factly.

Monkey magic
Leon also points out the noisy pitta bird, which is on a constant efficiency drive with its distinctive ‘walk to work, ‘walk to work’ call and invites us to inhale the scent of the SouthEast Asian binturong, which whiffs of popcorn.

More wilderness awaits back at the main tent at the Roar ‘N Snore site, where, true to the spirit of luxury survivalist adventure, we are given flutes of sparkling wine and canapés to enjoy while the keepers cradle blue-tongue lizards and carpet snakes. 
After passing up the offer of a taste of wiggly mealy worms, the roast dinner is most welcome.The Zoo2Q package also includes a night tour of the zoo with head keeper Todd Rollins, where we gingerly pick our way along the path toward the lion’s den and leopard enclosure to watch the males prowl and preen.

Nearby, monkeys screech and our necks crane skyward as we hear what sounds like giant pterodactyls taking flight. 
As the colours in the sky desaturate, the noises and songs seem amplified as we observe the nocturnal creatures under the cover of darkness and listen to Todd talk about Taronga’s ‘pride’ and progress when it comes to conservation.  

 believes that through education and research we can inspire and create behaviour change to support species conservation and habitat preservation. Taronga is committed to helping animals in the wild through numerous research grants and in-situ projects," says Todd. 
After the tour’s end, we drag our carcasses up the hill to our luxury tents, where we are lulled to sleep by the squeaks, snuffles, screeches of animals.

Giraffes know how to strike a pose. 
Wild things
The view over Sydney and its Harbour the next morning inspires an air of calmness, brought on in part by the cool pinky-blue hues of the sky. Such airy musings are again shattered by a mob of monkeys who scream out an alarming volley of abuse at sun-up.

 After a light breakfast, we hotfoot it to the giraffe enclosure to feed them carrots for breakfast. If only we had time to groom ourselves with as much care as these slender-necked creatures, with features so gorgeous it’s hard to look away. 

They are like the Kardashians of the animal kingdom, all stylised poses, liquid brown eyes and long, fluttering lashes.  
As well as his encyclopedic knowledge of animals, keeper Todd has a healthy repertoire of fun facts. “Did you know that a giraffe weighs a tonne, but its poo is the size of an olive? A giraffe’s tongue is also 45 cm long and a new-born giraffe is taller than most humans. And, just like snowflakes, no two giraffes have the same spot pattern,” says Todd.

Guests at Roar 'N' Snore are lulled to sleep by the squeaks, snuffles and screeches of animals.     Photo: Carla Grossetti

It's really easy to escape the hustle and bustle on a Sydney Coast Walks' tour.                         Photo: Carla Grossetti 

The inside track

At about 8.30am we say goodbye to the tangy smells of Taronga Zoo to start our journey to Q Station. Our guide Ian Wells, of Sydney Coast Walks, has been sharing Sydney stories with visitors around Sydney for the last five years.

As well as helping us to interpret rock art that is of great significance to the area's original indigenous inhabitants, Ian takes us along a deserted track where we walk for kilometres without seeing another soul.  

Even long-time residents of Sydney agree this guided walk offers a fantastic perspective on their city. Around every other bend, Ian urges us to listen as he whispers stories about disgraced military men and interprets the panorama through the eyes of the early settlers.

As the day warms, we punch out of the grey-green bush past Chowder Bay and plonk down on Balmoral Beach, where we enjoy a picnic on the talcum-soft sand. After lunch, we hoist ourselves up and over the hills that hug the harbour until we hit Reef Beach. After boarding the Eco Hopper for a spot of impromptu whale watching, we skid across the bay to Q Station. Despite being situated just seven minutes’ by bus from the Manly Ferry, it’s really easy to escape here (despite what the convict graffiti will tell you). 

A baby humpback whale spotted in Sydney Harbour. 
A night in isolation
That glass of bubbles on arrival is made all the more seductive while watching a blood-red sun stain the sky. After getting in touch with our inner Attenborough all day, we convene for dinner at the Boilerhouse, where we hear countless colourful stories about disease and death and the haunted happenings at the former Quarantine House.

While staying in a place where hundred of people died doesn’t sound overly cheerful, in reality, the 4.5-star hotel has been loving brought back to life and the rooms are cute and comfortable, providing a soft landing after a day on the hoof.  Yeah yeah, of course every Sydney guidebook will mention Taronga Zoo, the spectacular walks along the harbour, and the seductive spooky heritage of Q Station. But the beauty of Zoo2Q is that it embroiders all these experiences together.

Under a blood-red sky... the view from Q Station.                               Photo: Carla Grossetti

Carla Grossetti was a guest of Zoo2Q. The three-day two-night package is on the 2nd and 4th Sunday of the month. Cost: $1200 per person. Exclusive tours on request. For more information, visit Zoo2Q  

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