Dubbo's animal attraction just the tip of the iceberg in the bush

Visitors can cycle right up to the enclosures at Taronga Western Plains Zoo, Pictures: Michael Turtle

Visitors can cycle right up to the enclosures at Taronga Western Plains Zoo, Pictures: Michael Turtle

When a cockatoo screeches while I'm watching a group of giraffes, the incongruence startles me slightly. Am I in Australia or Africa?

My brain quickly remembers the hours of driving I've just done to the NSW Central West city of Dubbo and I realise that of course I'm in Australia. But here at the Taronga Western Plains Zoo, you are supposed to feel like you could be in the savanna of a different sunburnt continent.

Minutes ago, I was looking at a black rhinoceros, and soon I'll come face to face with some zebras. With boundaries of fences and moats, rather than cages, the enclosures feel large enough to at least give the impression of the natural environs of the animals.

A herd of Asian elephants at Taronga Western Plains Zoo.

A herd of Asian elephants at Taronga Western Plains Zoo.

Even with the hot sun and the dry grass, it's no safari, but getting around feels a bit like one.

The vast area makes walking a tiring option, so you can drive your own car between the different animal habitats or hire a bike to easily zip between hippos and gibbons, or cheetahs and elephants.

There's also accommodation within the zoo with views of the animals or, nearby, the Rhino Lodge is a great glamping option for families or groups and has a good restaurant on site.

One of the glamping tents at the Rhino Lodge near the zoo.

One of the glamping tents at the Rhino Lodge near the zoo.

In these COVID times, I find Dubbo to actually be quite busy, mainly because the zoo is such a popular destination for families. But there are other things here that make it worth extending your stay.

The Western Plains Cultural Centre has a gallery with regional art and a museum about the history of Dubbo; heritage buildings in the centre of town give you a taste of the Victorian colonial times; while the National Trust's Dundullimal Homestead is a living illustration of rural life at the time, with its sophisticated slab house, sandstone stables, and timber church; and there are also fascinating Indigenous cultural tours with Native Secrets.

Late last year, Dubbo got a new tourist attraction - the Flying Doctor Visitor Experience. The impressive space blends augmented reality, enormous video screens, live flight tracking, real equipment, and even an entire aircraft to tell the story of the medical service that has saved thousands of lives in rural Australia.

It's especially poignant to watch the video interviews with people who have been directly affected by the incredible work of the Royal Flying Doctor Service.

The Flying Doctor Visitor Experience includes screens with live flight data of the
RFDS planes.

The Flying Doctor Visitor Experience includes screens with live flight data of the RFDS planes.

"It's a really great way of understanding how people work and live and survive out in rural and remote Australia and how the Royal Flying Doctors is incredibly important for them to be able to do that," RFDS head of tourism John Larkin tells me.

Even if you're just passing through Dubbo, there's the excellent Outback Trek Cafe at the visitor experience that is worth stopping for.

But I also feel like every Australian should take the opportunity to learn more about how challenging life can be in remote parts of the country - and how vital the flying doctors are.

With the opening of the RFDS Visitor Experience a year ago, the Dubbo tourism industry launched a visitor pass that included it and the region's three other main attractions.

You'll get a considerable saving with the Great Big Adventure Pass if you visit the Flying Doctor Visitor Experience, the Taronga Western Plains Zoo, the Old Dubbo Gaol, and Wellington Caves. And, if you're visiting for at least a couple of days, I would recommend going to all these sites anyway.

The Old Dubbo Gaol was the site of eight executions and was in use until 1966.

The Old Dubbo Gaol was the site of eight executions and was in use until 1966.

The Old Dubbo Gaol still feels imposing even though its high red-brick walls are now surrounded by supermarkets and shopping malls in the centre of the city.

The site was first used as a lock up in 1847 and was expanded over the years to include the single-level sandstone buildings of the main yard.

Hearing the tales of the eight people who were hanged here and seeing the depressingly small cells, I can only imagine it was once a horrible place - yet the interpretive signs and character actors for tourists make it an enjoyable attraction these days.

Wellington Caves could also have the potential to be a depressing experience, descending into the pitch-black bowels of the earth. Yet both the sparkling limestone formations and lively commentary from the guide should make this a highlight of your visit to the region.

A guided tour walks past Altar Rock at Wellington Caves.

A guided tour walks past Altar Rock at Wellington Caves.

The main cavern, known as Cathedral Cave, has a huge 15-metre-high stalagmite known as Altar Rock where church services are still sometimes held.

As we walk through other caves, glittering in the torch beams, guide Isaac George points out interesting shapes and small fossils. Although it's the larger fossils found here that really put the caves on the map - the bones of a diprotodon, for example, which was a wombat-like animal the size of a hippo that became extinct about 44,000 years ago.

Isaac doesn't have that kind of history with Wellington Caves but he is the fourth generation of his family to work here and was born on the site.

Guide Isaac George is the fourth generation of his family to work at Wellington
Caves.

Guide Isaac George is the fourth generation of his family to work at Wellington Caves.

"Having such a rich family history here, and just having free roam, it's a great place to grow up as a kid, exploring with your mates," he says.

That's the vibe the whole Dubbo region gives me during my time here - the kind of place where you can roam and explore with your mates or your family.

From the caves, to the zoo, to the flying doctors and all the city's heritage, it feels like a bit of a playground in the bush ... or even the savanna?

What to do

Where to eat

  • A trendy cafe in the centre of town, Press has healthy food for breakfast or lunch.
  • The Outback Trek Cafe at the RFDS takes a sophisticated approach to traditional breakfast and lunch meals.
  • And close to the zoo, The Lodge Restaurant at Rhino Lodge has large family meals.

Where to stay

  • Dubbo has a lot of motels but the Bluegum Motel is probably the nicest.
  • Rhino Lodge offers a fun glamping experience with on-site restaurant near the zoo.
  • Or stay in a room at the historic Ranelagh House, which was built in 1875.

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Michael Turtle was supported by Destination NSW. He will be bringing you new ideas each week for travel within Australia. You can see more details on his Travel Australia Today website for things to do in Dubbo.