Last week my daughter and I went on an overnight Zoo Safari where we camped out amongst the animals on the shore of the magnificent Sydney Harbour.
Spending the night in a luxury tent in a zoo seemed a wonderful idea when we booked it a couple of months ago in the heat of summer. However, our trip away together fell on the coldest Sydney Winter night in many years: the tent was not heated as I had imagined a luxury tent would be; the showers and toilets were as far away from our tent as it was possible to be; the coffee was lukewarm and instant; and the eagerly anticipated hot breakfast the next morning did not materialize!
Still, the view from our bed was incredible, and we had the privilege of witnessing the magic of both twilight and dawn over the Sydney skyline across the water.
We also experienced a fascinating two and a half hour late night hike through the zoo, with only the Keeper’s single torch and the moon to light our way. Apart from the intense cold, for which we were both hopelessly ill-prepared, it was a magical experience to be treated to the sights and sounds of the normally elusive nocturnal creatures moving about and interacting with each other.
The lions were also a delight. Though it was late at night and they were on the sleeping platform, they were wide-awake, frolicking around and swiping playfully at one another while following the light of the torch as it moved around their faces. Only the old king was keeping to himself and frowning disdainfully at the youngsters.
It was heartening to see the shift in focus of the zoo from public entertainment to education and conservation. Most of the animals seemed content in their exhibits and there were many young endangered animals that had been successfully bred in the zoo.
Interestingly I found that although I had to leave my camera behind for the night hike, and at first I felt that I would not enjoy the experience without my camera, I was able to focus on all of my senses rather than just my eyes, and the whole experience was greatly enriched. The sounds of the male tiger persistently calling to the females, the chimpanzees arguing and fighting over where they would sleep, the grunting of the elephants and the night calls of the birds will stay with me for a long time.
My daughter and I were absolutely enthralled, listening in the dark to the Keeper as she related stories of working with the animals during her many years at the zoo. Through her stories we gained an insight into the everyday lives of the zoo inhabitants, learning their nicknames and personality traits and seeing them as unique individual characters.
I decided that night that I would photograph the animals the next day as portraits, focusing on their eyes and facial expressions. I wanted to try to communicate the essence of who they were as individuals rather than just animals in the exhibits.
The next morning, after a freezing night in the tent where the icy wind managed to get in through the tiniest gaps to chill our bones, we were awakened at dawn for breakfast and a morning walk through the zoo, this time with my camera!
The animals were hungry and full of energy as they waited for breakfast. Again I felt so privileged to see them interacting with their keepers and each other.
It is said that the eyes are the windows to the soul. It is also said that animals have no souls. After looking into the eyes of these zoo creatures with my zoom lens, I believe that we know very little about what animals think and how they see the world. They are indeed unique, each animal with its own individual personality, displaying different likes and dislikes, and relating to the world in its own way.
The overnight safari was a fascinating and rewarding adventure, and although I am still adamant that animals should not be fenced in, I believe that modern zoos are doing much in the way of educating the public about the necessity of the conservation of these wonderful creatures that share our planet.
Regal Male Lion
Baby Asian Elephant taking a rest
Gorgeous Female Red Panda
Tiny baby chimp playing in the sun
Wise old Kodiak Bear
Gorillas at Breakfast
Australian Fur Seal
Sleeping Snow Leopards