Another day is dawning in Sydney. I pull the curtains of my room aside to take in the 5:30am view. It’s moments before sunrise and the lights of the Sydney Harbour Bridge are still reflecting in the water. The harbour is flat and glassy, the day’s nautical traffic has not yet begun to ripple its stillness. Directly in front of my floor-to-ceiling sliding glass windows in the eucalyptus tree just a metre or so away, two furry, grey koalas are nestled into the branches, comfortably snoozing; while at ground level, small wallabies dot the native landscaped gardens. I’m just a few kilometres from the heart of Sydney CBD yet here at the new Wildlife Retreat at Taronga, I feel I’ve gone bush – but with all the ‘creature comforts’.
Opened in October, the 62-room eco-retreat is owned and operated by Taronga Conservation Society Australia and is located within Sydney’s Taronga Zoo complex. The retreat has been sustainably designed to offer guests a luxury wildlife sleepover experience amongst native Australian flora and fauna, on Cammeraigal country.
I’m staying in the Bandicoot Lodge quarters in a Harbour View room. I’ve checked in, at the property’s stunning circular N’Gurra Lounge where I am offered a welcome drink of iced tea infused with lemongrass, ginger, lime and honey, which I sip while seated beneath a striking ceiling artwork of suspended 3D-printed Regent Honey Eater birds. At the entrance bridge, McKenzie the platypus is swimming and splashing, becoming familiar with his new surrounds.
Designed by leading Australian architects at Cox Architecture, the property features five environmentally-sensitive lodges that overlook the wildlife habitat or Sydney Harbour. Designed to blend into the environment and to sustain a minimal carbon footprint, the lodges are connected by a number of external corridors; external walls are clad in reconstituted timber and metal and stand just two to four storeys high; and native green screens are set to grow even higher with the passing of time.
Within the rooms designed by CHADA, neutral tones and natural materials achieve a sense of serenity whilst paying homage to native Australia. Cushions and walls feature Indigenous motifs; the Wallawa skincare amenities made of native ingredients are smartly packed in large vessels to reduce single-use plastics. Clever mood lighting not only lowers energy use but also reduces glare for the animals. Upon arriving, I’m reminded to please keep noise to a minimum; and to be mindful of loud sounds or flash photography that can disturb sleeping wildlife.
The cuisine offering has a strong focus on locally and responsibly-sourced produce. Meals for the day begin and end at Me-Gal restaurant, named after the Cammeraigal word for ‘tears’. The space is tastefully decorated in a contemporary botanical theme and has hard-to-beat views over Sydney harbour. At dinner, my barramundi sourced from sustainable aquaculture fishery Coral Coast Barramundi is one of the most fresh and delicious samples I’ve eaten of the iconic Australian fish. At breakfast, after free-range bacon and eggs, I can’t resist sampling the pancakes made in the self-serve pop oven, fascinated as dollops of batter fall onto a sliding heat tray and pop out moments later as a perfectly formed pancake, alongside ceramic bowls of marinated strawberries, maple syrup and whipped cream. The N’gurra Lounge is the place to enjoy a casual barista-made coffee – or cocktails and nibbles while taking in the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House views. Try the ‘Ginger Ninga’ made with gin, lemon, bitters, lime, soda and house-made ginger syrup.
As appealing as the food, drinks and views may be, what sets Wildlife Retreat at Taronga apart from any of the other luxury places to stay in Sydney is access to the incredible array of wildlife and knowledgeable and passionate staff on hand to guide guests through the newly-built Sanctuary and the general zoo.
I take full advantage of all the tours offered to guests as inclusions of their stay. In an afternoon Sanctuary Tour, Maz leads us to the specially-designed habitat and starts with an Acknowledgement of Country of the Cammeraigal people as Traditional Custodians of the land. With a full focus on native Australian animals, tour guides and keepers Scott, Anika and Annie join Maz in escorting our group through the sanctuary where we pat a centralian carpet python; watch tammar wallabies feed; marvel at the short-beaked echidna’s super-quick tongue as it soaks up an echidna-mix; visit short-finned eels in a pond; and learn how of the 4,000 animals at Taronga Zoo, the koalas are the most expensive animal to feed due to their fussy eating habits of only ingesting about 10 or 12 species of eucalyptus leaves. It takes a team of horticulturalists and some serious logistics moving back and forth from Taronga’s eucalyptus plantation in Richmond on the outskirts of Sydney to keep these cuddly koalas content.
At 6am the next morning, a group of us join keepers Tess and Joanne for the Daybreak Walk – a rare opportunity to walk through the zoo at first light before any of the zoo’s day visitors (or the bulk of staff) even arrive. Our guides spot a cassowary roaming in the bushes; they point out native ginger as we pass roaming Guinea fowl birds making their way up to the giraffes.
We pass by Esmerelda, a 105-year-old Aldabra giant tortoise – she is older than Taronga zoo itself. It’s lightly sprinkling with rain and as we move past the elephant enclosure on our way to the bird show arena, we notice that two-year-old baby Asian elephant Jai Dee (nicknamed Dizzle) is making a splash in the water. We stop to watch and soon Jai Dee is putting on quite the performance. Our keepers Joanne and Tess are as enraptured as we are.
“We’ve honestly never seen him this animated. He’s so playful – and he knows we’re watching!” He squawks and splashes, emerging from the water and his ‘pool toys’ to run and wrestle in a mound of dirt, and then return to dive into the water all over again and wash himself off. The 6am wake up had definitely been worth it.
A second morning tour sees us heading into the Wollemi Aviary as rare Australian birds swoop, sing and circulate past us. We pass through the new space in front of some of the Retreat’s rooms where two Australian red kangaroos, Mungo and Paru, are making themselves at home in their new surroundings. In the Tasmanian Devil Conservation Centre, a male devil named ‘Gunna’ gobbles up his kibble while we learn about the facial tumors and cancer threatening to wipe out this unique species. Taronga supports more than 60 conservation and research projects in Australia and by staying at Wildlife Retreat at Taronga, guests will be contributing essential funding towards the care of Taronga’s animals and broader conservation programs in Australia and around the world.
Back at Bandicoot Lodge, it will soon be time to check out. As I contemplate packing up while sipping on mint tea, one of the resident koalas outside my room stirs on the branch during the only two or three hours he’ll be awake all day. Using his razor-sharp black claws, he shimmies down the trunk with assured agility – it’s hard to top his furry farewell and I leave feeling all warm, fuzzy – and patriotic.
Rates start at $790 per night for two adults and includes two-course dinner, buffet breakfast, immersive and exclusive Australian animal experiences and complimentary general admission to Taronga Zoo.
Find out more: taronga.org.au/sydney-zoo/wildlife-retreat