Travelling 30 mins west of Melbourne, adjacent to the Werribee Mansion, is one of my favourite places in the whole world, the Werribee Zoo, residing on over 500 acres of the typical dry and lightly undulating grassland landscape of this area. It is an open range zoo, and because we pay an annual subscription, we get free entrance to Werribee Zoo, Melbourne Zoo and Healesville Sanctuary. This means we can pop in at any time, for as little or as long as we are up for, into another world.
What sets Werribee Zoo apart from many other Zoos is its open range nature, so that the majority of the residents (including but not limited to Zebras, Giraffes, Ostrich, Camels, Bison, Rhino’s), get to roam free while the humans are bundled into (comfortable) buses to respectfully at low speed move throughout the range.
On entry to the zoo you can explore the various walks, and as it suits, walk to the terminal to hop on the Zoo Bus. It is easy to explore the various options, depending on your energy levels, the weather, the behaviour of your kids, etc etc. The Bus tour, whereby the animals get to view the humans, is about 45 minutes in duration and you get an entertaining and informative commentary from the bus driver (whoever he or she may be).
It isnt unknown to be chased by an ostrich, have your path blocked by a camel, or have one of the more friendly Giraffes come over for a very close look. We even once sat for some time, waiting for a turtle to cross in front of the bus.
You are also quite likely, sadly, to see a lot of rabbits running about on the grasslands. The zoo is constantly fighting a battle against the rabbit plagues, but like the rest of Australia, it is not an easy battle.
Of course, animal residents such as Lions are kept separately in well designed areas (otherwise there would not be a particularly safe habitat for the Zebras etc!). The lions are obviously enjoying their home, with two litters of cubs born over the last year.
The Zoo is also quite unique in that the Werribee River flows through it, and that there are diverse natural landscapes throughout.
Werribee Zoo maintains a committed and admirable conservation policy, such as its Beads for Wildlife program which help women from Kenya earn income through their bead work, supporting residents of Africa with beading. It has also been working with the Maremma flock guardian dog to protect the Eastern Barred Bandicoot from predators and assist restoring the numbers of the (very cute) Bandicoot.
The Zoo is constantly evolving. A more recent update includes the restoration and opening of original heritage buildings including a rambling bluestone wood shed, as pictured below. The woolshed (and the term shed understates the imposing presence of this building!), is a masterpiece. As you walk in you are transported back in time to when the rural stations were a massive part of the Australian economy.
Wander through the internals, the symphony of the sounds of sheep surrounding you, and the old smell of wool and the boards, will transport you back to colonial Australia. I would love to be here at night (imagine the ghostly shearers!!)
As you wander out, you will perhaps be peered at by any of the relaxed Australian residents. (that air of lazing about being a natural feature of the Australian population!)
The Zoo has managed to respectfully merge the old and the new, with its focus always on preservation, and has thoughtfully invested into the restoration of the original old buildings of the area.
If you are lucky, you may perhaps sight a roo kindly reminding you to look out for snakes (I have yet to see any snakes, but they are a natural part of the Australian eco system, but they can be about in the heat)
There is nothing that brings peace more than a river, and the Werribee River is no exception. Walking here will likely take you away from any crowds, and you will get to stand amongst the imposing ancient Eucalypts (some of which along this river date back to the Aboriginal era), enjoying the silence. There are picnic benches here, so be sure to bring a thermos and some pound cake (or whatever takes your fancy!), so that you can spend some time enjoying the moment, or just to sit and reflect.
At this location the bird colonies are breathtaking. But true to form, also loud, and leave a bit of a mess, so that although you may be silent, they may not!
This particular area also features the wetlands with eco raised walkways. The natural, untamed, Australian bushland has been known to play host to wild, non zoo residents amongst the scrub.
The Zoo has announced ambitious expansion plans, subject to funding, which include the relocation of the Elephants from the central Melbourne Zoo to a 20hectare Elephant Sanctuary. I dearly hope that they are able to get it off the ground.
Walking back to the 'main area', the zoo is exceptionally well designed for the younger guests, with creative and interesting adventure play areas dotted throughout the grounds. There is also a cafe with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the Meerkats. Imagine having that coffee with a little Meerkat standing upright looking you in the eye!! There is a good range of food options available, and you can always do as we do to save costs, buy a plate to share and sit and enjoy the atmosphere. And if you like, you can always hop back on the bus tour for a revisit!
I have probably been to this Zoo a hundred or more times, in weather ranging from very very hot and windy, to icy cold. Each time, you get to experience something new.
Be sure to have your camera ready. There is absolutely no shortage of photo opportunities.
The walk through the zoo grounds is full of interestingly and well designed habitats and great care has been taken to provide an authentic walk through experience for both adults and kids alike. Look out for zoo keeper talks also, as well as special events such as winter evenings where you can enter the zoo for a nightime experience (together with marshmallows roasting over open fires!). We always look forward to the summer months when the African nights are held, complete with African bands and food on offer.
Zoo Update, in Oct 18 the Zoo added to its fold a mob of 15 ostriches, 10 female and 5 male. We got there early enough to avoid the crowds (easy when you live around the corner), and headed straight for the safari bus shelter. Being somewhat cold and windy, it was uncomfortable, and being optimistic I about the weather I hadnt brought jackets. We obviously shared our suffering with the animals, who as the driver mentioned, often were not a fan of cold weather themselves. So, while many of the residents were subdued, the ostriches were not.
Our driver told us that the ostriches were obviously excited by their new home, and devoting some time to exploring the boundaries, and how to move beyond them. With the girls in one area, and the boys in the savannah area below, I imagine there will be recurring attempts by the birds to meet up, and recurring action by zoo staff to keep them apart. We experienced some of the Ostriches running with the bus, which was great fun, even for the sceptical teenagers on board.
Being a tour earlier in the day, the bus itself was quite peaceful too, making for an enjoyable journey.