A day at Taronga Zoo

Day 8 ::: Tuesday 12th September, 2000

Taronga Zoo stone sculpture

Taronga Zoo must be in one of the best locations of any zoo in the world, although its inhabitants are probably unaware just how privileged they are. The zoo is on the north shore of the harbour - a 30-minute ferry ride from Circular Quay in all - in a district known as Mosman. The weather was perfect today, so the animals should all be out sunbathing, we thought.

When you arrive at the north shore, there are two ways you can get to the entrance of the zoo which is further up the hill. One is to walk or grab a bus, the other is to hitch a lift in the 'aerial safari' cable car. We bussed it with the intention of trying the cable car out later.

The layout of the zoo is very twisty turny, as you would expect given its hillside location, with the most obvious plan of attack being to start at the top and work your way down. However, there were special shows that only occurred once or twice a day, so we tried to fit these in to our busy schedules.

These included a Koala show, which meant you could have your photo taken near a Koala (but not touch - they're very nervous creatures), a seal display and one of the best, the bird show.

The backdrop for the zoo's free-flight bird show

The latter is held in an amphitheatre seating area looking down at the bird trainers. Immediately behind is the southern shore of the harbour with the CBD's skyscrapers, the Opera House and bridge making for a stunning backdrop. I missed a golden opportunity with the video camera. I had switched it off when moments later, an owl was sent in my direction, as in right at me. I could feel something - a wing, a foot, who knows - brush my hair as it swooped over and then settled on a perch not far behind me.

These koalas are bigger than you think ...

The zoo was staffed, it seemed, almost entirely by volunteers who evidently cared a great deal for the animals. Everywhere we went, we saw them offering some nugget of information or other to anyone who cared to listen. We passed one area where a Malaysian Sun Bear was pacing around, looking stressed. A volunteer was stood by, making notes - monitoring the situation to see whether it was pacing around more or less than the previous day, and so it would go on. The bear was rescued and obviously couldn't quite get into the whole concept of free empty space. He was not the only one though - one of the elephants also had strange habits. He would rock from side to side as if tethered by the foot, except the tether was removed years ago when he too was rescued from less favourable conditions. Old habits die hard.

While I was there, I got a call on my mobile (using a phone that my brother had kindly arranged for me) from Philby. Now, where do I start explaining the enigma that is Philby? It almost deserves a book in its own right, but for now, suffice to say he was/is a character and he was phoning to let me know that he was coming around later this evening.

We got to see some other of Australia's indigenous species, namely the echidna (which looks like a hedgehog only with a pointier nose), the kangaroo (no explanation required) and of course the duck billed platypus (no explanation will begin to explain what went wrong there!). The Platypus was kept in a room with only very subtle light during the day which was cranked up to maximum over night - they are nocturnal, so the zoo fools them into thinking night is day and vice versa. We saw a brief glimpse of the wombat, but they mostly kept out of the sun, while other animals, such as the dingos, simply didn't move as they lay soaking up the rays. I tried speaking to them in their own language, but I obviously didn't have the right accent yet as my barks fell on deaf ears. The biggest reaction I got was a slightly raised ear from one of the dingos, but it went down as quickly as it had flickered into life.

Having seen all these animals, it reminded me of something that we noticed about Sydney early on - where were all the cats? Since we arrived, we had not seen a single cat anywhere. There was no shortage of dogs, but it seemed that Aussies are just not cat lovers.

A mad Kiwi named Philby

So then, Philby. We headed back home and arrived just at the time that he was due to arrive, but of course, he wasn't there. I wasn't surprised. I would have been surprised if he made it on time, as it would probably be a first. In fact, he hadn't even been to the flat before to see my brother and Wendy, despite promises that he would.

Philby, AKA Philip Dolan to his relatives, is a Kiwi who used to be a lodger with my brother and I for around two years, all-in. We've known him since about 1992, although I personally hadn't seen him for around 5 years. He was, and always will be, a complete loon. There is no other way to describe him. Let's look at the evidence.

Philby - a md Kiwi if ever I met one.

  • Philby once took to the bumper of his VW camper with an angle grinder for no other reason than he was off his noodle on a trip and just wanted to see the sparks fly.
  • Philby wanted to paint his room black but Andy was not keen on the idea as it would be difficult to cover up later, so instead he stapled black fabric to all the walls and ceiling, then decorated the ceiling with glow-in-the-dark stars.
  • Philby would shut himself away for hours in his room with stacks of black and white card, glue, string, a sharp craft knife and with all this he would create these incredible mobiles. They looked like something that a madman locked in a padded cell would do (and that wasn't far off the truth) and yet he would give these away to people. Eventually, he started selling them and shortly before we came out to Sydney he had his own exhibition at a gallery. He's still making them today.
  • Philby would buy old hoovers and recondition them. Well, he would buy them, and his room would then be full of broken hoovers and hoover parts, but the final part of the plan never quite came good.

You get the picture.

It was great to see the mad old badger, and he hadn't changed one bit (only the long hippy hair was a shock). In fact, his latest thing was a laptop that he'd just got, and he was asking if I could help him get it working. He'd found it in a skip, which kind of suggested that it wasn't all that great a machine. He had big plans for it - he was going to get a CD-R for it, he was going to surf the net, use it for business, use it for world domination. I would be surprised if it switched on OK, but it did ... into Windows 3.1. Naturally there was close to zero disk space/memory/processor speed - even the screen was tiny. But Phil wasn't easily put off! I helped him remove some applications, some files that were no longer needed but I couldn't see him downloading music off the net and burning to CD just yet (as he was hoping to do!).

I learned that he was now living in Botany Bay, in the south of Sydney, although before that he was way up on the northern head near Palm Beach, living in the house of Madame Whiplash. She was a well known character herself in the area (there was quite a story to her), and her house doubled up as a refuge for struggling artists. She was no longer a Madame, but definitely still a character, which made her the ideal house mate for the Philbster. Botany Bay was far closer to the centre of Sydney, yet he'd not been seen much in recent months. Therefore, I didn't expect we'd see him again while we were in Sydney.