Nanek assured Mum that she had her passport, her ticket, and the belongings she’d brought. She nodded her head and, stepping out of the house and into the dark, we filed into the car. Mum joked that I could nod off in the back seat if I wanted to. I gave a weak smile as I fastened my seatbelt.
“I’ll be alright, I think,” I assured, even though I still felt exhausted.
Nanek asked Mum how long it would take to get to the airport. She assured her that it would only be about fifteen minutes, maybe quicker at that time of the morning. They were chatting in the front seat, while I retrieved my phone from my bag, to text Patrick.
Hope your gig went well last night! Won’t see you today, flying to Sydney with Mum and Nanek.
I sent the message, then clasped my phone in both hands. After a moment, I received a notification. I smiled, surprised he’d answer so quickly, but it wasn’t Patrick, but Sam.
Hi Jumilah, wasn’t sure whether it would be too early to call. Reuben mentioned that you’re travelling to Sydney today. You’re welcome to swing by Taronga if you have the time and would like. Sam.
My smile didn’t falter.
That’s awfully kind of you
I caught Mum’s eye in the rear-vision mirror. The first cracks of light were beginning to emerge from the horizon. We were driving in the opposite direction. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to go to Taronga.
“Who’s that you’re texting?” Mum wanted to know.
“Well, first it was Patrick,” I answered, choosing honesty.
Nanek cocked one eyebrow, which was the opposite reaction to what I wanted.
“But then Sam texted me.”
“Yes,” I confirmed. “He’s offered that I could come and visit today. Reuben told him.”
“Of course Reuben told him,” Mum grumbled under her breath.
“Had you told Reuben?” I asked.
“I told Reuben,” Nanek chimed in.
Mum must have been at least a little bit unhappy with her, but she immediately masked it. She flicked on her blinker.
“Would you like to go to Taronga today?”
“Well, it’s better than hanging around the airport all day.”
We turned off towards the airport.
“But I don’t want to cause any problems, we need to make sure that we’re able to get on that plane.”
“We’ll have plenty of time.”
“Alright, thanks,” I replied, thumbs starting to waggle to text back. “I’ll see whether it works with Sam’s schedule today, but it would be good. I’ve never been to Taronga before.”
Come for the grand tour!; Sam urged.
Mum and Nanek decided to skip. He told me the bus routes, so that I would be able to come across from the airport on my own.
And then you can catch the ferry back, if you’d like.
The plan sorted, we were able to get out of the car, and get on the plane from Hobart to Sydney.
When we landed in Sydney, I was able to switch my phone off aeroplane mode, by which time Patrick must have been conscious enough to answer my message.
Yeah, gig went great thanks! Bushmint Lovechild is officially a hit
I laughed out loud, attracting the attention of Nanek and Mum. Nanek asked me what I was laughing about. I told her that it was just a message from one of my friends, but I felt a little bit guilty not being more honest. Once we’d moved through the airport, I was able to catch a bus to Taronga. Alighting, the iconic entrance building stood proud before me. Sam was standing in front of it and, despite my concerns, I did recognise his face straight away.
“Welcome to Taronga Zoo.”
“Thank you for having me.”
“Come with me, I’ll show you around. How much time do you have?”
I glanced at my watch, even though it wasn’t going to tell me anything.
“I’ll need to be back at the airport at three o’clock. The flight to Singapore is at six, and then we’re onto Sumatra in the morning.”
Sam nodded his head.
“I think that we can manage that. Is there anything in particular that you want to see?”
“You tell me, you were the one who invited me to come. I’m very grateful.”
“Well, you can have my grand tour, then.”
To the right of the main building was an opening, with an archway inside printed with images of the zoo’s history.
“This place has come a long, long way,” Sam remarked. “Even since I started working here, the place has changed, for better and for worse.”
I tilted my head to the side, eyes scanning over the photos from yesteryear. Many were in black and white, of chimpanzees wearing hats, whereas others were in colour, showcasing first-time births of elephants and platypi.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, most changes have been for the best, obviously. We treat animals much better these days. The exhibits are better, we try not to hybridise where we can, we keep track of studbooks.”
I stopped straining my neck, and we passed through the building. Opposite was a tree kangaroo exhibit.
“Still, there are fewer and fewer species. There’s more middle management.”
Sam and I walked past a café and a shop filled with soft toy animals and decorative plates. I spied the tall glass windows on the other side, which looked out into foliage. There was an exhibit on the other side, more of the tree kangaroo habitat.
“Would you like a coffee?” Sam offered.
“Yeah, alright. I don’t have a cup, though.”
“That’s alright, I can get you a souvenir.”
Sam and I walked into the cafe. I liked the way that the tree kangaroo exhibit was easily visible from this part of the zoo. I spotted a female with a joey’s head poking out of her pouch. She was perched on a platform, eating. He ordered coffees for us both, confirming my order. When my hot drink was handed to me, it came in a cream and green Taronga Zoo-branded keep cup.
“Just something to remember us by,” Sam remarked.
We departed the café and headed to the left. Straight ahead was a building, disguised relatively well, but the top terminal for the zoo’s sky safari.
“Would you like a spin?” Sam asked. “It’s a wonderful view.”
“Why not?” I agreed.
“Usually visitors can only go one-way, but I think that we can make an exception.”
We approached the building.
“Hi, Sam,” a bloke with a beaming smile greeted us.
“We’re going to do a round trip, if that’s alright with you. Jumilah’s from Tasmania, I’m showing her the sights.”
The zoo worker smirked.
“Go right ahead.”
The door opened and we got into the cable car. It was only once it whisked around that I started to feel a little uneasy. Instead of looking afraid, I snapped photos. I would always remember this day, but I needed a record as well. At the bottom we passed through another terminal. The cable car practically seemed to bounce back up the hill, to survey the zoo again.
“It gets better, I promise,” Sam vowed.
I nodded my head, sensing that he recognised my unexpected nerves. It was almost like a plane taking off.
“Has one of these things ever, you know--?"
“Fallen on an elephant?”
“Not as far as I’m aware.”
Finally, we made our way back to solid ground.
“It’s just walking the rest of the way,” Sam assured me.
We turned right, to enter the zoo proper. The cable car drifted overhead, to continue its loops. Coffees in hand, Sam and I wandered down a long staircase, to the ticket gate. I could smell the zoo, and hear the rustle of leaves. To the left, over a garden, was the squirrel monkey exhibit. I couldn’t see any animals, though, because the main vantage point was around the corner. Sam spoke with the attendant on the gate, and the two of us were waved through, turning right.
“Thank you for having me,” I echoed.
We ended up skipping the squirrel monkeys, passing the koala walkabout, bird aviaries, and the reptile house, which is soon to be replaced.
“I’m not a massive fan of snakes, I will admit.”
We ambled down the slope, the vista of Sydney Harbour beyond the giraffe and zebra waterhole sparkling before us.
“Have a look at that, wouldn’t you?” Sam remarked. “Best view in the world.”
“You can’t really beat it,” I agreed, voice thin with wonder.
Sam and I found a seat, to look over the savannah, waterhole and the harbour, and finish our coffee. From one end, the barrier between the people and the giraffes is merely an expanse of water. Long grasses form a natural fence to prevent people from walking across, or children falling into the water. It’s very clever exhibit design, not that I would know that much about the practicalities involved.
“You’re not really going to think that you’re in Africa. At Dubbo maybe, but not here. The key is for the guest to have their own encounter with wildlife, to really connect with the animals. In a way that they’re not going to get trampled or eaten, of course.”
“Well, yes, that would be a bit of a downer.”
Watching the giraffes myself, I would have to say mission accomplished. Eventually, once we finished our drinks, we got up and walked down the hill. There’s a lot of walking down the hill at Taronga.
“After the giraffes, this is the money shot, I reckon,” Sam explained. “We’ve got our Rainforest Trail and tigers down that way, and marine animals that way.”
Taronga’s elephants were the first to breed in Australia, but breeding takes place at Dubbo now.
“I don’t reckon that we’ll keep elephants here forever,” Sam acknowledged. “Sure, we might hold bulls here, that would be a good use of the exhibit if need be, and there is the commercial factor to take into consideration.”
“You don’t have the luxury of Werribee being so close to town.”
“Exactly. It makes it an inherently easier decision to make. It’s even a better commercial move. Of course, that’s not what we should be considering. We should be purely ensuring that the animals have the best housing.”
“But it’s more complicated than that.”
“Yes, sadly. Besides, I for one think that this is a wonderful exhibit, in and of itself, even if it’s inadequate for a growing family of elephants.”
“So, what else would you house here?”
“Well, I would love to breed Malayan Tapirs again. They would make good use of the water. We would never house them here.”
“They’re a forest-dwelling species.”
“Yes, they’ve all gone blind in Australia. That’s why we’d stopped breeding.”
“Adelaide Zoo still has some, don’t they?”
“Yes, they’ve still got two females, but there are no males left in Australia. I don’t think that we’d ever import them again, unfortunately. Once they go, and the gorgeous old girl at Melbourne, that’ll be it, sadly.”
“You could house them in a nocturnal way, I suppose.”
“We could, but that wouldn’t be using this exhibit to best use. Unless you want to cover it up and block out the view.”
“Not everything is about the view--.”
“Have you seen this place?” Sam laughed. “I’m kidding.”
“I know that it would be difficult.”
“Greater One-Horned Rhinos here would be more practical. We breed them out at Dubbo, but we could easily keep a pair in the city. They would fit the exhibit well.”
“Is that what they’ll do in Melbourne?”
“I don’t know. You’re the one who knows Reuben’s inmost thoughts.”
“Hardly,” I retorted. “He went to uni with my parents.”
“Right. That’s the connection.”
“Did you not know that?”
“No, obviously I knew there was a connection. Reuben’s always got a project, and your grandmother and her animals are his latest project.”
I tried not to seem dismayed by the way that Sam put it, but his tone wasn’t dismissive, so I didn’t challenge him on what he’d said.
“You learn something new every day.”
To the left, we moved away from the elephants. Dealing with the slope, escalators run down to Great Southern Oceans, the marine precinct opened over a decade ago. Giant statues of blue whales were suspended overhead, Sam pointing them out.
“These whales were in the foyer of some office building in the city.”
“They make quite the impact,” I remarked, “especially considering that you’d probably ever house the real ones.”
We travelled down the escalators, the giant blue statues hovering above us.
“Yeah, we wouldn’t, certainly not at Taronga. I don’t believe that we’d ever house whales in Australia. They’re phasing them out in the US.”
“It’s the right thing,” I stated, “but then again, we house elephants in captivity and I don’t think that I inherently disagree with that.”
A grin came onto my lips.
“My cousin, Luke, he loves elephants.”
“Does he want a job?” Sam asked with a laugh.
“I thought that zookeeping was meant to be difficult to get into.”
“Well, it is, but we do happen to have a vacancy with the elephants at the moment. Elephants and capybaras, it’s an interesting division.”
“Well, if you were going to get elephants into Tasmania, then maybe Luke would be set, but I think he’s fine for now.”
I checked my watch. There wasn’t much time left before I needed to return to the airport, to meet my next flight. We made our way towards the ferry wharf. The marine precinct is very impressive.
“You know, they use to have elephants at the Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart, they had at least one, I know.”
I vaguely knew that, but I didn’t know much. Hobart had had a zoo, but it had closed a long time ago, in another era of keeping and caring for animals in captivity. Attitudes have shifted enough in recent years, let alone in the decades since there were thylacines living and dying near the Queens Domain. I don’t know whether our property would be considered city or country.
“I know that there’s been conversations. Why do you think that I asked you here?”
We found somewhere to sit down.
“What do you think?”
“I think that we get some people walking through these doors wanting to start their own zoo, and we should tell all of them to get lost.”
“Because most of them will never make it.”
We got up, and continued walking towards the ferry wharf. There’s quite a bit of bush at the bottom of Taronga, much more than I thought there would be.
“But,” Sam went on, “there’s not much they can do about that. That doesn’t mean that there’s no point trying. If you tell them all to get lost, then some might just tell you to get lost back.”
I could smell the saltiness of the harbour.
“I’m going to tell you that, if you want to work with animals, you should find a place that’s hiring.”
I suspected that Sam was right, when he said it.
“And then here’s the question,” he proposed, “are you going to tell me to get lost back? Are you going to tell me that I have no idea what I’m talking about?”
We reached the bottom of the stairs. I could see the ferry approaching. Checkmate. I needed to leave. Mum and Nanek were waiting.
“You should, that’s all I’m saying,” Sam urged. “Really, tell me to get lost. Tell me that you know better.”
“That’s not what I was planning to do--.”
“Your grandmother and grandfather did good work--.”
“I respect you, Sam, I really--.”
“I’m not going to tell you that you’re going to make it, because I don’t know that for sure, but talk to the council. Talk to me, talk to Reuben, although he’ll tell you to get lost again for good measure, just to get the last word.”
I laughed, sadly.
“Go to Reuben, come to me, get work experience and work out what would be feasible for your land, to start off with. Probably native animals, there would be specs for exhibits online. Work with your parents and put some plans together, ask your grandmother.”
My eyes bulged.
“Don’t just tell me to get lost, show me. Have a safe trip.”
The ferry arrived at the wharf, tooting to hurry me up.
“Thank you. I’ll give you a call.”
I rushed away, head in a daze. Get lost, Sam, I thought to myself. He waved from the wharf, I waved back. Get lost, get lost, get lost. I turned away from him, gripping to the guard rail. My phone rang, and I told Mum that I was on the way. I would be back to the airport before she knew it, to catch a flight with her and Nanek. I’d had a good day, I promised her. I would tell her more when I got to the airport; we had the whole flight to talk. After the morning sunshine, cloud cover had come across. We said our goodbyes when I was in the middle of Sydney Harbour, cool wind off the waves rustling my hair.
From Sydney International Airport, Mum, Nanek and I boarded a plane to Singapore, where we’d spend the night in the airport hotel. The place has Wi-Fi, so I managed to log onto Messenger, which allowed me to tell Patrick that we’d landed safely, and that I’d had the best day at Taronga Zoo.
I reckon that we might do it, you know
Patrick responded with laughing emojis.
Start a sanctuary at home; I answered, as I realised that I’d never told him.
What, like your grandparents did in Sumatra. No way! That would be awesome.
Yeah; I agreed. It would be.
I went to sleep with a smile on my lips.
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.