An African safari in Australia? Yes, you read correctly. Located around 40 minutes from the Melbourne CDB lies the Werribee Open Range Zoo. Just one of many things to do in Werribee, the zoo is set on 225 hectares and impeccably themed. You could be mistaken for thinking you'd stepped into the African Savannah. We set off keen to see some of the wildlife, in particular the rhinos that I'd wanted to revisit after a run in with one in Nepal a few years back.
The sound of drumming caught our attention as we passed through the entrance gates. You see, Werribee park zoo isn't just a zoo, it's an immersive experience and we were lucky enough to visit on aStorytelling Sunday. I had heard of Storytelling Sundays before and was expecting perhaps a hut and a book. What we were met with was a mini African village, vibrant and alive with the sound of drumming, an artisan carving limestone statues and an Ethiopian coffee house.
We were immediately drawn to the drumming. The vibrancy of the instructor was infectious and an enthusiastic crowd of all ages had gathered under the grass hut to have a go at the bongo drums and straw maraccas. The bub loves anything with a beat, so we'd knew he'd be keen to have a go. He was mesmerised and loved having a hit of the drum. I'm thinking a bongo drum may be on the Christmas list this year!
On the outskirts of the main village, the sounds of singing met our ears, so we wandered over for a look. Sporting a guitar and interspersing his singing with jokes, another performer had a captive audience. I've not met anyone who can't help but join in with 'a wim a way' when in the jungle is sung, and today this was also the case! We had a boogie with the bub in our arms as the singer humorously sidled up those walking past and encouraged them to join in a chorus. His mood was so happy and the whole crowd had smiles on their faces.
Whilst taking a break from singing, you can also hear traditional stories at this hut, including how the hyena got its spots. Depending on the theme of the story, a set of keepers will also rove the park during the day with additional interactive activities that support the story being told. It was time for us to move onto the wild dogs (not to be confused with hyenas) so we didn't hang around for the story, but we would love to return another day.
Planning your visit
The Werribee safari tour is the 'must do' when visiting Werribee Zoo, however as there is just so much to do it's essential you collect a map on entry. Your map will list all of the key attraction times, like the hippo talk, so you can ensure you go on safari and see your favourite animals.
We were keen to see the hippos being fed, so we decided to head there before going on the safari bus. Conservation and giving the animals choice to do as they please is one of the main priorities of the zoo which means that sometimes the animals will be close and you'll get a good view and other times they'll be having a break away from human eyes. We loved this philosophy and also that the viewing areas gave us a good view whilst being a reasonable distance back from the animals.
The bub was entranced by the hippos. They lumbered out of the mud to eat some delicious straw as the keeper gave a short talk about their habits in the wild and how the zoo is working towards protecting them in their natural habitat.
Designed with families in mind, Werribee park zoo is punctuated with play spaces, such as Hippo Beach and, all importantly, baby change rooms can be found in multiple locations around the park including Hippo Beach and the Safari Station. After a quick nappy change the bub was ready to continue to explore so we headed over to the lions who were lazing on the hill.
A fantastic feature of this exhibit is a jeep that has been partially wedged into the plexiglass viewing window. It is a great spot to view the lions, take a snap and if you're brave get up close to the lions who often like to sleep on the bonnet! We're scaredy cats so we happily stopped and posed with the lions safely asleep in the distance.
The bub loved all of the opportunities to get out of his pram and interact with the exhibits. For us, this is a wonderful feature of Werribee Zoo as it meant we could enjoy an extended visit. The wide well paved paths also mean that when little ones tire, you can pop down the hood on your pram and enjoy a stroll through the lush gardens whilst the babe sleeps.
The Werribee safari tour cannot be missed. It is your opportunity to enter the exhibit as such and enjoy a face to face safari experience. Werribee Zoo is unique in that it is the only open plain zoo in Melbourne. Your journey will commence at the aptly named 'Safari Station' where you'll hop aboard your open air bus. We found great seats up the front, although they all looked rather good.
The safari itself lasts for 40 minutes and takes a meandering path through several enormous open air exhibits. There are a mix of species in each area, selected from those that would usually co-habitate in the wild. This allows the animals to interact and be stimulated in way more similar to the wild rather than with human introduced toys or objects.
There's a strict animals have right of way rule, so don't be suprised if you have to stop several times for a flapping ostrich or herd of antelope. I mean it wouldn't be a trip to Ireland without stopping for some sheep on a laneway anymore than it'd be a safari without stopping for the wildlife, right?!
I've been on other zoo safari experiences before and found the guides a little too talkative and the speakers a little too loud. Well, not on this safari. The guide was well informed, personable and the speaker volume was spot on. If it wasn't for his hint to look out the left I may have missed these beauties above. The landscape has been designed with the African plains in mind so the animals camouflage quite nicely. Their exhibits are huge so it also means they have great choice to where they choose to roam and with whom they choose to hang out with.
The safari bus sticks to a set path and slows down when approaching animals that are a little close which makes for some great pictures and allows the animal to choose how much interaction they'd like that day. The only rule is no touching, humans are way too germy!
Towards the end of the trip we came upon the zoo's three resident rhinos having a bask in the sun. It was a great reminder of my time in Nepal when I came face to face with one in an open backed jeep. Luckily these guys were far more sedate and the safari bus a little more robust than my last experience! Rhinos are just one of the threatened species that the zoo house and work to build numbers of in the wild. Their conservation efforts are supported every time you visit.
Although he's a little too young to know all of his animals just yet, the bub was engaged in all of the bright colours, patterns and by the moving animals. At 8 months old the 40 minute journey was at the boundaries of his attention span and next time we may visit mid week and enjoy a toddler safari ride.
We were having so much fun it was nap time before we knew it. The bub was tired after all of the excitement of the safari, so we popped him back in his pram so he could have a sleep. He was soundly asleep in minutes, freeing us up to check out the gorillas and then take a stroll through the Australian exhibit and wetlands.
The round up
Having a chance to stroll with the bub asleep allowed us to really take in all of the details of the park, because that is what it is. A gorgeous interactive safari park with animals to boot. It's not just the themed signage and clever use of vehicles as viewing platforms, its the open picnic spaces, the common village areas and the sheer number of staff that are available to talk to you or get you involved in an activity. Werribee Zoo is a happy place for its staff, animals and visitors. It's a place you want to come back to because it is ever changing with a large range of special events that are held throughout the year.
It can sometimes be easy to overlook, but there is just so much to do in Werribee. It was our first visit to the zoo and we thoroughly enjoyed visiting on Storytelling Sunday, which runs every Sunday in May and June. It's a perfect reason to get out and enjoy a little winter sun and with every week and every animal encounter a little different than the last time, it's a place you'll revisit with excitement.
We were guests of Werribee Open Range Zoo however all opinions are our own.
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