experience - Roar'n'Snore, Melbourne
Written by Brian Johnston
Australia’s oldest zoo celebrates its 150th anniversary this month. Visitors can experience an unusual take on zoo life, sleeping over among the chorus of animals.
Sundown is closing time at most zoos, but not in Melbourne – at least, not during the zoo’s innovativeRoar ’n’ Snore programme, which runs between September and May on selected nights.
Guests stay at the 1940s former Elephant Exhibit, where, after the zoo closes to the public, they dine with the zookeepers over a buffet barbecue dinner in the now heritage-listed elephant house.
The experience offers plenty of opportunity to see animals, too. After dinner, you’re taken on a tour to see nocturnal creatures such as wolves, flying foxes (the world’s largest bat), porcupines, and Malayan tapirs. You might also see animals such as lorises – a small Asian primate – not normally on display.
Then be prepared to camp. The zoo provides tents and mattresses, but you’ll need to bring your own pillows and a good sleeping bag, as spring and autumn nights are chilly. Overnight the zoo resounds to the chorus of hoots, roars, and strange animal noises in the darkness, culminating at dawn in the call of gibbons and big cats, and the screech of parrots.
Next morning, you have the chance to meet the zookeepers and enjoy a behind-the-scenes tour of the zoo that may include , amongst other delights, hand-feeding giraffes – whose long tongues are a startling blue colour – getting into the tree-kangaroo enclosure, and feeding penguins.
Opened in 1862, the Royal Melbourne Zoological Gardens is the oldest zoo in Australia and, after you Roar ’n’ Snore, you’re free to explore. Among its varied exhibits are a gorilla rainforest, a butterfly pavilion, an unusual collection of Central American coatis (part of the raccoon family), and an orangutan sanctuary visited via a treetop boardwalk. The zoo's biggest exhibit, Wild Sea, showcases marine mammals, birds and fish, while Baboon Lookout provides uninterrupted views of baboons interacting in family hierarchies.
The zoo has daytime meet-the-keeper and behind-the-scenes special tours and, for its anniversary year, has also introduced a Keeper Kids experience aimed at young children wanting to learn about the work of a zookeeper.
Overseas visitors to Melbourne Zoo will be particularly interested in seeing the country’s best collection of native wildlife, including the distinctly bizarre creatures in which Australia seems to specialise. These include rare tropical tree-kangaroos, hedgehog-like echidnas, and platypuses, furred egg-laying water mammals with duckbills and webbed feet. Few associate the world’s hottest continent with penguins, but you’ll also see native little blue penguins, at 30 cm tall the world’s smallest penguin species. Kangaroos, their smaller wallaby cousins, koalas, emus, and wombats are among other native species on show.