Jaguar, lions featured in new night tour at Aussie zoo

AAP – Thursday, 12 April 2007

MELBOURNE: Peering through almost pitch blackness, the khaki-clad zookeeper held a finger to her lips and told us we would have to be quiet if we were to catch a glimpse of the next creature, whose home was just around a corner of palm bushes.

Both our guides had turned off their low-glow torches for the approach to the enclosure; one of them had gone on ahead to try and spot the creature lurking inside.

But no matter how hard our 15-strong group tried, we would have struggled to sneak up on the fully-grown jaguar inside; as it was, she was already waiting, absolutely still, as our feet crunched along the gravel path leading up to the fence.

As her eyes stared straight back at us from a well-chosen corner, the zookeeper tentatively turned on her light, which emitted a red glow designed not to harm sensitive night vision.

There was a murmur of ooohhs from parents and children alike, then a few whispered facts about one of the world’s most dangerous beasts.

Although her cage was easily four metres high, this jaguar had been known to leap up and pull unsuspecting creatures through gaps in the wire mesh above; supplementing her diet with a possum or two.

Then there was a rattle above us; a possum began crossing the enclosure roof.

Almost collectively the group held its breath, sure they were going to see the described scenario in its full gory glory.

When the possum reached the other side, I wasn’t sure whether the sighs were of relief or disappointment.

This was just part of an evening called Roar `N’ Snore; where visitors can see what happens when the sun goes down at Melbourne Zoo, camp out and then catch the animals before the gates open again the next day.

Although not an original idea, it is a good one: during hot summers many of the zoo’s animals sleep during the day and come out in the cool of the night. So why not make visitors do the same?

Besides the magnificent jaguar, we crept past dozing lions splayed out on grass underneath a footbridge, looking as peaceful as kittens, and a sight unique for many: elephants asleep.

Lying on their sides with huge bellies against a hillside, elephants are awake for 20 hours a day – so there is virtually no way you could see one like this during the day visit.

Visitors to Roar `N’ Snore sleep in fixed tents set up outside the old elephant house on the edge of the park, so you go to sleep and wake up again with the noise of the animals not far away.

I spent a while lying in my sleeping bag listening to the sounds of the zoo’s animals at play.

Next morning we were roused early for breakfast: not just our own but also that of some of the animals.

We ate again in the elephant house and were soon hand-feeding giraffes from a raised platform; they wrapped their long tongues around carrot sticks to shrieks of delight from the children for whom sleeping at the zoo sounds like a dream.

Roar `N’ Snore is just one of Melbourne’s attractions which doesn’t begin and end at the shops.

While the city is known as a mecca for fashionistas, the heart of many a true Melburnian lies in the sporting arenas which jostle for space to the south and west of the CBD grid.

While these monuments to sporting passion are all readily accessible, it is well worth using the services of a guide to add detail – and nobody knows more than Anthony Grace, founder of Melbourne Sports Tours.

A former transport worker who used to take detours to go past sports stadia, he now puts his “lifetime of research” to use by taking busloads of sports fans to stroll by the side of the turf at Flemington, go onto the MCG pitch, and be driven round the Albert Park F1 circuit – all before lunch overlooking the pitch at Telstra Dome.

The half-day option means choosing between a tour around either the Rod Laver Arena or the MCG. I chose the latter and got to marvel at the world’s best cricket library and walk through the exclusive members’ restaurant.

Sports fans will find the tour worthwhile because of the details: Anthony points out AFL training pitches and stops at the athletes’ village built for the Commonwealth Games.

From dreams of children and men, my final stop in Melbourne was a place of haunted nightmares.

The Old Melbourne Gaol is a spooky place at any time of day, but at night it takes on an atmosphere of its very own: it is believed to be the city’s most haunted building.

Home to Australia’s most notorious criminals of the 1800s, the bluestone institution is where 136 people – including folk hero Ned Kelly – were hanged.

It was often inmates who were the hangmen, as they received special privileges, and it is an actor in the guise of one of these grisly figures – Michael Gately – who takes visitors around on the Hangman’s Night Tour.

By the light of a single candle, Gately’s ghost portrays the life of prisoners who were often driven insane by conditions and eventually faced death on the end of a rope under a thick wooden beam still in place today.

Staff say if you are quiet enough you might be able to hear the screams of ghosts of men who met such fates. But only if you dare.

IF YOU GO: Roar ‘N’ Snore operates on selected nights from September to May; it costs $150 adults/$99 children 5-12 ($NZ170 adults/$NZ115 children).

Details: call (03) 9285-9355 or visit www.zoo.org.au

The half-day sports lovers tour with Melbourne Sports Tour costs $95 including all admissions and lunch; other packages are available – call (03) 8802-4547 or visit www.melbournesportstours.com.au.

The Hangman’s Night Tour is run four nights a week and costs $25 adults or $16.50 for children from 12-16. It is not recommended for children under 12. Bookings essential through Ticketek on 13-28-49 or at www.ticketek.com.au

The writer was a guest of Tourism Victoria, Melbourne Zoo, Old Melbourne Gaol, the Adelphi hotel and Fountain Terrace.

http://www.stuff.co.nz/stuff/4024009a34.html

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