Heading into the Christmas holidays, parents all around the country are scrambling for ways to keep the kids occupied and when a Play Station and iPad just won’t cut it, there’s Billabong Camp.
Surrounded by the animals at Taronga Western Plains Zoo, Billabong Camp promises a wild adventure that has all the thrills of camping, without any of the effort.
I booked in for the overnight camping experience with a troupe of six adults and four children and began the five hour drive from Sydney to Dubbo on a Saturday morning. The road trip led us through the lush Aussie farmland and vineyards past Bathurst and Orange, making what could’ve been a boring journey a site for the senses (some good 90s music playing on the stereo didn’t hurt, either).
Arriving at the Zoo, campers are led to a private car park and given the opportunity to ‘check in’ to their abode for the night, a permanent, spacious canvas tent complete with a bed and powerpoints. Situated overlooking a picturesque billabong, we all quickly realise this is not your traditional camping experience.
After unpacking bags and charging phones, we are invited to wander the zoo’s exhibits which are stretched across 6km of tracks. The best way to get around is to cycle and bike hire is available for less than $20 a day from the zoo, but if you prefer to ride in style and comfort, I recommend bringing your own mountain bike to navigate over the rocky hills (my pick was this gorgeous Reid Vintage 7-Speed in mint green).
Checking the keeper presentation schedule, our little army of bike-riders head straight to the tortoise feeding and get up close to a century old tortoise that has a shell the length of an adult human. Following a few close calls with children trying to climb over the enclosure, we gather everyone up and ride to the next exhibit on the list, the ring-tailed lemurs.
The lemurs brought squeals of delight from the younger children who pointed out that they all looked like King Julian off Madagascar (who new Pixar was so educational?). For the next twenty minutes, the adults got a chance to relax while the kids sat transfixed by the energetic and playful lemurs.
Once 5:30pm hits, we make our way back to Billabong Camp where we are greeted by pre-dinner cheese, dips and crackers. While the adults crowd around the food, the zoo keepers entertain the children with their own private animal talk and touch show some Australian snakes, echidnas and lizards.
Dinner is served under the stars and is an outback BBQ buffet with salads, chicken, fresh bread and sausages (because what’s a BBQ without a snag or two). Once again, the kids are happy to chat amongst themselves, leaving us to relax and enjoy some adult conversation.
Next on the agenda is a night walk through the Australian bush exhibit where we’re encouraged to spot the native animals by torch light. The highlight is finding the newborn joeys and spotting the elusive (but very cute) echidnas.
Arriving back to camp by 9pm, we’re met with hot chocolate, tea coffee and warm lamingtons. Exhausted and satisfied, we all make our way to our tents to sleep to the calls of the zoo’s nocturnal animals.
Day two of Billabong Camp starts at every reasonable 7am with a continental breakfast including pancakes, cereal, fruit and yoghurt, eaten outside watching the sun creep above the horizon. Then, campers are split into groups and head out on a guided morning walk to see some of the Asian wildlife exhibits, including otters, rhinos and apes. Our zoo keeper feeds a Sumatran tiger to the gasps from the timid group members and we experience the defensive song and dance of the siamangs (which was an intimating cross of the New Zealand Haka and a Broadway musical).
After the hour long walk, we head back to the camp site to pack our things and check-out. However, instead of heading straight home, we hop back on our bikes and continue to make our way around the zoo exhibitions, picking up where we left off yesterday. From lions, elephants and giraffes to meerkats and koalas, we got to experience animals in a natural environment, a refreshing alternative to the small caged enclosures many zoos have.
The Billabong Camp experience combines all the fun and excitement of camping under the stars, but with none of the packing, set-up, cooking and cleaning. Prices are from $450 for a family of four and include all meals, tents, sleeping mats and zoo entry. For more information, visit https://taronga.org.au/billabong-camp