Dubbo and the Western Plaains Zoo
Deep in the heart of the country the roar of a majestic male lion splits the dawn, and in the distance the monkeys, frightened out of their sleep, start chattering nervously. The lumbering giraffes rouse themselves and head to the waterhole for a drink, and the elephants have the same idea. Its just another day under the sunny New South Wales skies... wait a minute! New South Wales? Whats going on here? Isnt that supposed to happen in Africa? Well, no. This is Dubbo actually, a large town deep in the New South Wales countryside, and home to the infamous Western Plains Zoo, one of Australia's most endearing tourist attractions.

If youre after a typical Australian country holiday, with big skies, wide open spaces and smiling faces, then you will find it in Dubbo. Located in the central west tablelands, the nearlying countryside offers extensive opportunities for touring and enjoying the landscapes, and there are a number of smaller towns nearby that make for interesting day trips, such as Orange, Bathurst and Gilgandra. But its the Western Plains Zoo, lying just south of the town, that is the big drawcard to Dubbo.

Covering over 300 hectares and home to more than 1500 animals from around the world, the zoo is explored via 7 kilometres of sealed roads or 6 kilometres of bushland walking tracks. Cycling is a popular option, as the distance between enclosures is fairly large. This is a tribute to the naturalness of the zoo setup, because it means the animals live in large enclosures. In fact keeping the animals in surroundings that closely represent their natural ones is a priority of the zoo, and its refreshing to see a lack of ugly fences and unsightly walls. The animals are viewed from raised earthen platforms, seperated from the enclosure by a moat or a ditch... sound dangerous? Dont worry- safety is a huge priority here and they wouldnt be built like this if there was any danger.

The zoo is divided up into the five different continents, each section containing animals from that particular continent. Obviously the African section is the most popular, as it contains the crowd pleasers such as the lions, giraffes, and a large herd of African Elephants. But theres good representation form the other continents too, so take a good look round. There are package deals available where you can overnight in the zoos accommodation, and they include tours for the day and meals, as well as discounts on souvenirs.

There are a lot more attractions in Dubbo than just the zoo. A hot favourite is the Old Dubbo Gaol, which since 1974 has counted more than 2 million visitors! This preserved incarceration centre offers fascinating insights into the dark history of the prison system through displays of original artefacts and a hologram exhibition. Of particular creepiness is the Hangmans exhibit, which includes the gallows, the block and tackle, the prisoners hood and ropes of varying length. Its spine chilling stuff.

Staying on the historical level, head out to the Dubbo Military Museum, which is about 4 kilometres south of the Zoo turnoff. Kids are especially well catered towards here, as there is a bunch of old military equipment in a field for them to play on, as well as a putt putt course and a corrugated iron maze. Of particular interest to most military history buffs (I cannot count myself in that number Im afraid) is the well maintained Neptune Bomber, whose cockpit is open to the public. On the same road as the Military Museum is another historical attraction, Dundullimal House. This colonial slab hut is said to be the oldest of its kind in existence today, and provides an insight into 19th Century Australian colonial life.

A popular way to spend a morning is to jump into your hirecar and head out to one of the vineyards and boutique wineries that lie just outside the city. A favourite of mine is the Red Earth Estate, 8 kilometres south of Dubbo on Camp Road. Enjoy a free wine tasting session of the hot climate wines at the cellar door here, and follow it up with a platter of fine cheeses, dried fruits and local produce in the vineyard gardens. The chief winemaker Ken is on hand to answer any questions you may have about the wine making process.

Almost smack in the centre of NSW, Dubbo is about a 5 hour drive (400 kilometres) from Sydney, and 10 hours (850 kilometres) from Brisbane. It makes a great base for a holiday, as there is so much to explore in it and nearby. It is also a good final destination for a roadtrip from either of those two centres I mentioned. There is plenty to see on the journey from either city to Dubbo... but that is another story!

Gavin Wyatt