I arose before dawn, getting dressed in the dark.
Have the most marvellous time. X P
A smile crept onto my lips. Uncle Luciano came to pick us up, so that he could drive Mum, Dad and I out to the airport, and we wouldn’t have to leave our car there. The sun was just starting to rise as he turned off towards the airport. We got out of the car and bid Uncle Luciano farewell, with thanks. Waving goodbye, Mum, Dad and I walked across the road and through the doors. As I was sitting in the airport terminal, I couldn’t help but think about Sloane, Patrick and baby Joanna. A Paul Kelly song was playing softly over the PA system. There was barely enough time for a coffee, before we got onto the plane. We seemed to be waiting for a while and I couldn’t stop yawning, but eventually the flight attendants gave the safety demonstration. Once they took their seats, it was just a matter of time. The plane accelerated along the runway, before launching into the sky.
“You can nod off if you want, if you need the rest.”
The plane floated above the clouds, revealing a gleaming blue sky. I snapped a photo, then decided that sleep sounded like a very good idea. For a little while, I must have drifted off. Next thing that I remember is the plane landing on the runway with a thud, and before long we were out of our seats. The cream tiles underfoot gleamed with the reflections of the fluorescent lights above, my head already throbbing. It wasn’t a direct flight to Adelaide. We were stopping over in Melbourne. It was just long enough for Reuben to pop into the airport for a coffee with us.
“I thought that you would have better things to do,” Dad remarked.
We sat down at the table, looking out at the tarmac.
“Well, I do,” Reuben admitted, “but I wanted to make the time. It’s nice to be able to sit and have a coffee while watching planes and thinking of eternal dread.”
Mum returned with coffees in our keep-cups, and vegan chocolate slices.
“Thank you,” I murmured with gratitude.
“You’re staying with Isobel Carey, aren’t you, when you’re staying in Adelaide?”
“Yes, we are,” I confirmed. “Thank you for putting me in touch with some of the keepers. It’s good to have that connection.”
“They will have been having a rough time with the loss of the orangutan baby.” Reuben looked at Dad. “Adelaide Zoo breeds Sumatran Orangutans, or at least they’re trying to. They managed to have them mate and the female got pregnant, but the baby died around birth.”
“That’s so sad.”
“Yes, it is.”
“Well, we’d better get going. My mother-in-law’s flight will be landing shortly. It was nice to see you and have a coffee with you, Reuben.”
Dad got up, and the rest of us followed. We farewelled Reuben, then moved through the airport. I glanced towards the boards, which confirmed that Nanek’s flight from Singapore had landed. She would need to pass through customs, then come over to the domestic terminal. Mum took my hand.
“Not long now,” she said, then repeated the phrase in Bahasa.
We waited, then, all of a sudden, I heard my name called. I spun around. I raced into Nanek’s arms and she wrapped me tightly into an embrace, not even caring about the busy airport around us. She told me that she’d missed me so much, and that she loved me, and I told her the same in return. I wanted to stay there, in that moment, but instead we needed to catch a domestic flight from Melbourne to Adelaide. On the plane, Nanek held my hand. She told me the story of her travels from Medan, to Singapore, to Melbourne, like they were a grand tale. I dozed, so if there were parts of the story which I missed, Nanek needed to repeat them, until our plane finally touched down in Melbourne. Thankfully we only brought carry-on luggage. We got off the plane without much fuss.
“Isobel said that she’d be at the top of the ramp,” I noted, checking my phone for the first time since the flight.
We passed through automatic doors into the terminal building and turned left. Sure enough, there was a ramp. A woman stood waiting at the top of it, bearing Isobel's smile, so we approached her.
“You must be Isobel.”
“And you must be Jumilah.”
“I thought that if I was wearing my uniform, I’d be easier to spot,” Isobel rationalised. “Besides, I’m technically at work.”
“That’s fair enough.”
We followed Isobel to the carpark. After stowing our bags in the back, we got into the car.
“Thanks so much for driving us and for putting us up,” I said as I fastened my seatbelt. “I do really, really appreciate it.”
The verbal diarhhoea, I suppose, was a symptom of my nerves, intended to cover them up. We drove straight from the airport to Adelaide Zoo, where Isobel took us through the staff entrance. I could hear the calls of the siamangs and held Nanek’s hand for reassurance. While my heart was beating faster, I felt like it was more from excitement, rather than anxiety. That would be our first destination – don’t pass go, don’t collect two-hundred dollars. We followed Isobel through the middle of the zoo. I didn’t take anything in. Isobel led us up a boardwalk. I was still a few metres away from the viewing spot, when I laid eyes on Medan. There was a little boy at the exhibit, captivated by the baby. Next to the siamang exhibit was another large fig tree, which housed white-cheeked gibbons, a breeding pair like in Melbourne. I turned around, eyes bulging at the sight of the large fig tree, shading over the tapirs’ area.
“This is quite something,” I remarked, spotting the dusky langur siblings bouncing around the leaves as well.
“Yes,” Isobel agreed. “Most people say that.”
I couldn’t help but think of Melita, the lone Malayan Tapir at Melbourne Zoo.
“Are your animals blind as well?”
“Yes, they are, unfortunately. These will be the last we’ll have. It’s a shame, but the animals’ best interests have to come first. We take good care of them for the meantime.”
“Your other siamangs, they’re with the orangutans, can’t they?” Dad wanted to know.
“Yes, they are, although at the moment, the siamangs are not in the main enclosure. We need to give the orangutans some time, when it’s just the two of them.”
We turned back around, eager to try for a glimpse of Georgia and the new infant. I didn’t know whether or not to bring up the orangutan baby who passed away.
“We’re keeping a close eye on both of them. Thankfully, today looks like a good day.”
My eyes scanned the tree. Medan moved down the branches. Bolted to the trunk was a caged area, likely the siamangs’ night dens. The door was open and, tucked into the corner, Georgia was inside. She followed Medan out, baby on her chest.
“That’s her baby girl,” I murmured, as Nanek placed her arm around my shoulders.
She repeated the expression again in Bahasa, over and over again. Isobel kept glancing down the boardwalk. A gust of wind rustled the trees. Medan marched on his powerful arms right up to the top, so that he could keep watch. Nanek recounted that that’s what he used to do, back in Sumatra, and Kakek would smile. Georgia and the baby took refugee in a fork in the fig tree.
“Is everything alright?” I checked.
“Yeah,” Isobel confirmed. “There are some other keepers coming up.”
Almost on cue, they arrived.
“Would you like to come with me?” Isobel offered to Nanek.
She accepted, and they walked away.
“Where do you think they’re going?” Mum asked me.
“They’re probably going down there, do you reckon?”
Sure enough, they appeared again before too long, walking across the moat in gumboots. Nanek went with the keepers, even though they wanted her to keep their distance. Medan swung down to the lowest branch. My breathing became shallower, but I reached for Kakek’s cross across my neck. Georgia followed, although the keepers kept their distance. I could feel my chest tightening, as the keepers set the enrichment activity, and Georgia showed her baby to Nanek. Softly, I could hear Nanek singing. In the next tree over, the white-cheeked gibbon pair seemed a little jealous, although they were next for the enrichment treats. The female, white blonde, was perched high in her tree. She reminded me of Mawar, truth be told, a beautiful and regal young female. Nanek, Isobel and the other keepers moved across, leaving the siamangs to eat. Medan and Georgia shared their food, while the baby suckled. Mum placed her hand between my shoulder blades and gently rubbed my back. Once they’d set up an enrichment activity for the white-cheeked gibbon pair, Isobel, Nanek and the keepers returned to the boardwalk. One was a man, probably a bit older than Mum and Dad, and the other was a young brunette woman.
“This is Jelita’s family, Catherine, Adriano and Jumilah Fioray,” she introduced us. “They’re the ones planning the zoo in Hobart.”
“We’ve heard a lot about you, don’t you worry,” the man added. “I’m Harvey Myles. This is my colleague, Rebekah Sternberg.”
“Harvey and Rebekah work with me in primates,” Isobel explained. “We’ve all been expecting you.”
“Well, thanks for having us.”
“You’ll be here all week, won’t you?”
“That’s the plan.”
Mum, Dad and Nanek wandered off for lunch. I stayed with Isobel, while the others returned to work.
“Would you like a proper tour around the zoo?” she enquired.
“Yes, that would be lovely, if you’ve got time,” I accepted. “Maybe we should find my family first, in case they want to come too.”
“I’m sure we’ll happen upon your family. Of course, if you’d like to find them first, we can.”
“I would like to, if that’s alright, even though it’s fantastic being here.”
“Of course, let’s go and find your family,” Isobel agreed.
We walked back in the direction we’d first come. I paid more attention the second time around, to the lush jungle of the Asian rainforest exhibit, which then opened with the rotunda to the left, and a kiosk for food. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we happened upon Mum, Dad and Nanek there, which made me feel calmer.
“We got you some lunch.”
“Oh, thank you,” I said.
The five of us found somewhere to sit down and eat, in the shade. There was a gentle breeze off the river which I appreciated, which made me feel more at home. As I chewed on noodles and tofu, I glanced across the path. There was an old-looking structure, which appeared a little out of place in the modern zoo.
“What’s that building?”
“That’s the old elephant house, it’s a museum now.”
Once we’d finished our lunch, we discarded the containers in the compost bins. Beyond the edge of the grassy area was a large, but empty, exhibit, which captivated me. For a moment I started to look for an animal, but the sign in the centre and workmen finalising the planting brought a premature end to my search.
“And this is our new lion exhibit,” Isobel announced proudly. “We’ve got a male arriving from Perth tomorrow, and then the females will be coming from Monarto for a pride.”
We continued to the other side of the path.
“So, the plan from here is that we’ll redevelop all of this section as a new African section,” Isobel explained, gesturing towards the nocturnal house and some simple cages for tamarins and marmosets. “You go to the primate TAG meeting, don’t you? I think Don’s told me that.”
“Yes,” I confirmed.
“Well, then, you’ll probably know that this is where we plan to house a gorilla family troop,” Isobel mentioned. “Or bachelors, if we don’t get our way.”
“Would you get bongo back?”
“There aren’t plans for them. I reckon we’ll keep them at Monarto.”
Mum, Dad and Nanek decided to return to the siamang exhibit. As much as that sounded idyllic, I felt an itching for more.
“What’s on your plate now?” I asked Isobel.
“Well, I could give you a tour now,” she offered, and I agreed.
This time, we bypassed the boardwalk.
“We’re going to join the Sri Lankan Leopard breeding program and build an exhibit in this area,” Isobel explained.
“And how do you feel about Harold’s plans for clouded leopards?” I asked.
“Well,” Isobel responded with a laugh. “Lucky I’m not part of the carnivore team.”
“I see where he’s coming from.”
“Yeah, so do I,” Isobel agreed. “There’s a beautiful species, a vulnerable species, and with a real commitment, we would be able to learn a lot from a husbandry perspective if we could breed them. It would still be a big commitment to a species we probably can’t put on public display.”
We paused out the front of the orangutan exhibit.
“There’s just the two orangutans here, is that right? In terms of the adults.”
I knew to speak carefully about a justifiably touchy subject.
“We’ve considered adding another female. That might help with the breeding program. The last pregnancy was a surprise, even though it was a welcome surprise. Hopefully we’ll get lucky again and hopefully there will be a better outcome.”
I noticed Merah down by the door.
“We’ve got a few refurbishments planned for this week.”
“Every now and then we need to freshen up the planting, fix a few things that are broken,” Isobel explained. “These orangs are very, very clever. They know how to wreck nice things.”
From the orangutans, we rounded the rest of the Asian rainforest precinct. On the right was a grassy, caged exhibit, empty at the time we wandered past it.
“We’ve had dingoes there, wild dogs, hyaenas, I even think the capybaras were in there for a little while,” Isobel explained. “It’s the place we put carnivores when we don’t know where to put them.”
“What’s going to go there next?”
“I’m not sure,” Isobel admitted. “The carnivore keepers would know. If they don’t know, ask Don. Now, if Don has no idea, then nobody does.”
We continued on, slowing down as we approached an exhibit on the left, surrounded by rendered walls with a glass window looking into the animals’ area.
“This is our sea lion exhibit,” Isobel noted. “Our much-maligned sea lion exhibit.”
As if on cue, a female Australian Sea Lion emerged from the water and came over to the glass.
“Oh, hello,” Isobel gushed. “This is Emma, she was actually born here. Emma and her brother, he passed away, sadly, they were the last two pups we’ve had here.”
I surveyed the exhibit.
“It’s nothing flash. We’ve been wanting to get it upgraded for a while, but there’s nowhere to place them in the meantime. These are two very special sea lions.”
There’s a pool. With no underwater viewing, I can’t tell exactly how deep it is. Still, it didn’t seem to be particularly deep. The male emerged from the water. Therefore, the pool must have been deeper than I thought.
“What sort of sea lion exhibit would you build in its place?”
“I’d extend it all the way to the Envirodome, with an underwater viewing window in one side,” Isobel outlined. “That way, you could almost keep the deck, and increase the land space.”
“Right,” I replied. “That sound really cool.”
“Thank you,” Isobel responded with a smile. “That’s not the plan, though, and the masterplan is good, it really is.”
We moved across the path. Opposite the sea lions was a small meerkat exhibit.
“I’m starting a certificate in captive animal care and I have to decide where I’m going to do my prac experience.”
In the bottom corner of the zoo, where I could hear the river, we entered the Envirodome.
“This is pretty cool,” I remarked.
After doing the rounds of the building, we exited. We walked back towards the zoo entrance.
“In this area, we’re going to build a mixed South American exhibit. It’ll have tamarins, marmosets, squirrel monkeys and birds in the canopy.”
For a moment, I closed my eyes and tried to imagine it.
“Jumilah, are you alright?” Isobel checked.
“Yeah, yes,” I answered, opening my eyes again. “I was just picturing what the big exhibit would be like, in my mind.”
“It will be very impressive once it’s built.”
“Yes, it certainly sounds like it.”
It would be sad to lose aviaries, but the exhibit built in their place would not only house birds, but mammals as well.
“I’ve got to take you through the pandas before you go.”
The zoo had closed by that point, so Isobel needed to unlock the gate on the way through. On the right was an exhibit for red panda, although they’d already gone to bed for the night.
“This might not be the best view of things.”
“That’s alright, I’m here all week.”
“Would you add more to this exhibit?” I queried. “Like tahr, or snow leopards, or something?”
“Well, the entrance we came through, that’s being modified in the near future.”
She waved her hands around to demonstrate.
“They’ll be building a walk-through aviary. You will walk through the Himalayan birds, then enter the panda complex housing Giant and red pandas.”
We paused outside the first exhibit. The keepers were yet to put the pandas away for the night.
“How much longer do you think that the pandas will be here for?”
“Well, we’ve got them for another couple of years. I don’t think the agreement will be renewed.”
“What do you think you’d house here next?” I wanted to know.
“If we’re keeping with the Himalayan theme, then your previous suggestion of snow leopards wouldn’t be too bad an idea,” Isobel noted.
Even though I felt tired, I leaned against the railing and watched Funi closely.
“We would have loved to breed these pandas, but unless there’s a miracle, that’s not going to happen.”
We passed the dayroom, to the other open-topped panda exhibit.
“They’re certainly unique,” I remarked.
“Yeah,” Isobel agreed.
I watched the panda amble across his exhibit, eventually heading back to his night dens. On our way back, I happened upon a garden. The iris flowers were mesmerising, petals white with slithers of purple and yellow, atop tall stems. I paused to soak in the blooms.
“We used to have flamingoes, the last in Australia.”
I glanced ahead, to an empty exhibit just in front of us, with a pond inside.
“Now, they’re all gone. We can’t import anymore.”
“How did the flamingoes get to Auckland?” I asked. “Or were they before the ban?”
“No, they weren’t, there is a loophole in New Zealand.”
“You can import eggs and handrear the chicks. I’m not even sure if we’d be able to do that here. I don’t think we would anyway, the expense would be too great, not to mention the time and resources involved with raising them.”
“Right, I see.”
We left the zoo, Isobel driving us back to her place.
“Well, this is rather lovely,” I remarked.
Isobel started cooking.
“Settle in, get yourself comfortable, take your pick of the rooms upstairs.”
Dinner was served at the table.
“You have a very nice house,” I remarked as I sat down.
“Thank you,” Isobel replied. “I live here with my mum, but she’s away at the moment, so we’ve got free reign of the house.”
She’d cooked a delicious vegetable curry. While we ate, there wasn’t much conversation, our mouths consuming with devouring the curry and naan.
“You know, we haven’t given the baby a name yet. Maybe, we were thinking, that you could help with that.”
“Does it need to be a G name, to match Georgia’s?”
“No, not necessarily,” Isobel answered. “That’s more of a Melbourne Zoo thing, we don’t really do that here. Of course, it happens sometimes, mainly with the baboons, and if you’d like to pick a G name, that would be lovely.”
A smile came onto my lips, looking at Nanek as I had a thought.
“I know that it isn’t a G name, but it’s close,” I mentioned. “What about Jelita, after Nanek?”
“I’ll talk to the primate team,” Isobel assured, “but that sounds perfect.”
We finished our meal. Mum and Dad started to pack the table away, to lighten the load on Isobel. Once everything was clean and tidy again, we migrated from the kitchen to the lounge.
“What’s on the agenda for tomorrow?” I asked.
“Well, there’s a lion arriving from Perth.” Isobel removed her shoes. “I’m not a carnivore keeper, obviously, but it might be nice to pop around, to see what’s happening.”
“Well, if it’s not rude of me, I might go to bed soon. Thank you for such a beautiful day.”
“Anytime,” Isobel assured.
I scampered up the stairs. Upstairs, I showered and changed into my pyjamas, then came back down, where Isobel was setting up the lounge for me to sleep there, Mum and Nanek sitting at the table again.
“I hope this isn’t too uncomfortable.”
“It’ll be wonderful, thank you.”
I lay down and placed my head on the pillow.
Isobel bid her own farewells, heading off to bed herself. Mum told Nanek that she would like her to stay in Australia if that is going to be what keeps her safe. Nanek replied that she’s torn, between her children, between going it alone and working in the national park. I couldn’t bear to be eavesdropping on the conversation. When I opened my eyes, Mum and Nanek realised that I wasn’t yet asleep.
“It’s alright,” I assured. “You can keep talking.”
I felt a little drowsy, and figured I’d nod off soon anyway. For a second, I closed my eyes, until my phone tolled on the coffee table. Reaching over, I grasped it, somehow without falling off the lounge. I flicked through Instagram for a little bit, posting a video I’d taken to my story. Smiling one last time at Medan swinging in the trees, I placed down my phone, drifting off to sleep a happy woman.
Jumilah Fioray is a recent high school graduate from lutruwita, Tasmania. Her parents, Catherine and Adriano Fioray, met at the University of Melbourne in the 1990s and returned to Hobart after finishing their degrees, where they raised their daughter and worked in agriculture. Jumilah's passion for conservation reflects her grandparents' work running a sanctuary in Sumatra.
Abbey Sim is the founder of Huldah Media. She is a creative writing, law and theology student who lives on the lands of the Dharug people in Sydney, Australia. Abbey has long had a passion for the weird and the wonderful of stories, sport and zoo animals. 'From the Wild' is her first anthology.