Monday 16 November 2020. Today, a fine, sunny Monday, two Handels visited Melbourne Zoo – Australia’s oldest – for the first time in over a year. It had recently reopened after an eight-month coronavirus hiatus. We have been to the zoo many times over the past fifteen years but never tire of it. After entering, we attempted to greet the Collared Peccaries, but they weren’t there, so we moved to the Aldabra Giant Tortoises, originally from the Seychelles. These extraordinary creatures are ponderously slow and prodigiously old (they can live up to 200 years old reportedly). One chap began to shuffle over to us, but then lost interest and headed elsewhere. They are certainly among our very favourites.
Next, the Great Flight Aviary, located within the Australian Bush habitat. We don’t always visit the aviary, but when we do it is inevitably a highlight. There are many beautiful species of birds to be spotted, some gregarious, some shy. The aviary is divided into habitats: wetland, bushland and rainforest; one walks along a boardwalk from one zone to the next. One or more Southern Cassowaries live in the aviary. They are extremely elusive: only once have we spotted one.
From the Great Flight Aviary the trail leads through the Australian Bushland habitat, where one finds Southern Hairy-nosed Wombats, Tasmanian Devils, Kangaroo Island Kangaroos, emus and Southern Koalas. Of the Australian animals, the wombats are certainly our favourites. Their enclosure is extensive and interesting: at one point, visitors pass through a glass-sided tunnel, exposing a section of the wombats’ burrow to view.
On the way back to the Main Trail, we passed the giraffe and zebra enclosure (they happen to be Rothchild’s Giraffes and Plains Zebras), never among our favourites. It’s difficult to say why. These beautiful, large, charismatic beasts should be terribly interesting, but somehow they’re not. Overfamiliarity perhaps. It would certainly be different were we to see them bounding together across the plains of western Kenya…
Next was Lion Gorge, where all the dangerous animals of the zoo are now collected (apart from venomous snakes etc, which still live happily in the Reptile House, and the Sumatran Tiger population, split between the Trail of the Elephants and the Lion Gorge). We rushed past the poor African Wild Dogs in our haste to see the more charismatic exhibits. They’re really quite unattractive, but they do have a very fetching call, something like a peep. The lions, on the other hand, are magnificent creatures. Though decidedly dangerous, they are regal and proud, and not afraid to be the centre of attention as they laze on their platform. The Snow Leopards, on the other hand, rest in the most inconvenient places possible. They secrete themselves high up on ledges, behind corners, under rocks, always just out of view, causing visitors to twist their necks alarmingly as they fruitlessly scan the enclosure. However, just this once, one deigned to put itself on view.
The Trail of the Elephants is probably most people’s favourite habitat. It really is excellent. Over the twenty years or so since its opening the forest has grown to the point where it really does resemble the Thai jungle it simulates. And the Asian Elephants are remarkable, adorable creatures. I do not doubt they are highly intelligent. Their eyes, like those of apes, big cats and many other animals, are so full of emotion they could pass for human eyes. Today they were enjoying a mudbath. A little further on, the Sumatran Orangutans, were, as usual, thoroughly endearing. And animate. They are always fiddling, playing, swinging, climbing. Except when they come to say hello. Everybody loves them – how could one not? Melbourne Zoo’s ongoing campaign to raise awareness about Indonesian palm oil production and its impact on orangutans is laudable.
After racing through the Gorilla Rainforest (glancing briefly at Ring-tailed Lemurs, Black-and-white Ruffed Lemurs, Pygmy Hippopotamuses, Western Lowland Gorillas, White-cheeked Gibbons and many species of monkeys), we finished our visit at the splendid Japanese Garden, my favourite spot in the whole zoo. All sorts of lovely species of plants – rhododendrons, azaleas etc – and many others grow in harmony with the precepts of Japanese gardens, together with features such as rocks, statuary and a fish pond stocked with Koi and turtles. A pagoda in the middle of the garden makes a wonderful place to have lunch or just have a rest. As an added bonus, the Siamangs have recently been moved into the garden.