Our apartment here has multiple DVDs of Crocodile Hunter shows, and one disc detailed Steve Irwin's journey to the man he became, including his childhood being immersed in his parents' reptile park in Beerwah, Queensland. I got teary-eyed (surprise, surprise) along with Steve as he described the day his beloved dog was inadvertently shot during a filming with pigs in Africa, and I really appreciated his desire to get people interested and engaged with animals so that they would naturally see the importance of conservation.
The teeny 4-acre Beerwah Reptile Park is now the Australia Zoo, a 100-acre property and major tourist destination. It's a place that my children had been looking forward to visiting since we first tossed around the words 'teacher exchange' and 'Australia' one night at dinner. Our boys spent 5 or 6 weekend days last summer holding lemonade stands to earn some money because we heard the zoo offers opportunities to have an encounter with some of the animals. The idea of an animal encounter was awesome, and I looked at the cost per person in terms of cups of the flavored lemonade, which sold for $2 since they were made with real ingredients like strawberries, mango, mint (and of course, the usual lemons, sugar and water).
A dingo? 20 cups. Okay, that's doable.
A Tasmanian devil? 40 cups.
A cheetah? 75 cups, and since an adult must be present as well it jumped up to 150 cups. Um that's a lotta lemonade. I started wondering if they offered an earthworm encounter, or at most maybe a peacock?
Dreams of the Australia Zoo filled the boys' heads for nearly a year, so I was understandably a little nervous whether it would live up to the hype as we arrived that morning (for myself as well, because admission was a steep $189 [90 cups of lemonade] for our family and we've already seen a lot of animals at zoos, wildlife parks, and in the wild thus far in our year here).
We immediately headed to the elephant area because it was feeding time, something the zoo makes interactive for its guests. On the way, we spotted this lizard wandering the grounds.
We were able to choose a fruit or vegetable from the large bucket and hold it out to the waiting elephant; the kids enjoyed it without being terribly impressed, but I loved being able to have a little moment with such a gorgeous creature.
There were multiple crocodile enclosures; to be honest, I feel like if you've seen one croc, you've seen them all, but it was interesting to read the history behind each animal. We caught one of the zoo's wildlife shows, where a man got far too close to a crocodile for my comfort.
Each animal had a nice, well-maintained habitat and we enjoyed seeing some of our Aussie animal favorites.
The kids were so excited about their encounters--because of limitations in cost and age, Alex and Kenyon both decided on the giant land tortoise. Maybe not the most dynamic of creatures, but I figured it would be a good opportunity to get up close and personal with an interesting animal.
Because I had already snuggled a wombat, I took one for the team (and our wallets) by foregoing the animal encounter. And then it was Jackson's turn, and he had chosen the dingoes. They are basically dogs, so they don't look all that exotic, but Jackson is a huge dog lover and he has been intrigued by them since we've been here. The handlers spoke about the dingoes and their pack mentality, introduced the alpha to Jackson so she could sniff him, and then they settled in for some pictures. One big difference between dingoes and regular dogs is that unlike a dog who is unfailingly excited to see its owner and interact, dingoes are initially curious but then can't be bothered with humans.
He was the only person signed up for the encounter, which made for an awesome experience. The rest of us sat a little ways away, but after a bit they invited us all over to ask questions about the dingoes and working with animals in general, and to take some pictures with all three of the boys. It lived up to every bit of Jackson's expectations, and was especially good since the other boys kind of had a lame tortoise encounter.
We left the zoo happy, tired, and with a few hours' drive ahead of us to our next campsite.