Until we visited Hunter Valley Zoo recently, I didn’t think there would be many things to do in the Hunter Valley with kids, that it is much more of an adult- and couples-oriented destination. I found this to be not entirely true. We took our Little Man up to the Hunter Valley Zoo for my birthday last October, and had a wonderful few hours there.
Our Little Man has always loved and been fascinated by animals, and this was his first proper trip to a zoo, so he was buzzing with anticipation of the adventure ahead. By the time we turned off Wine Country Drive and drove up the dirt road to the Zoo he was almost jumping out of his seat.
So what’s there to see at Hunter Valley Zoo?
The Hunter Valley Zoo is a small country zoo out in bushland at Nulkaba, a few miles from the town of Cessnock, and close to the Pokolbin wine growing area of the Lower Hunter Valley of New South Wales. The nearest city is Newcastle, an hour’s drive away, and it’s around three hours’ drive from the state capital Sydney.
Hunter Valley Zoo has a good mix of animals, with Australian favourites like koalas, kangaroos and wombats, and amazing creatures from all around the world, from magnificent white lions to slumbering alligators, and from dromedary camels to capybaras – the world’s largest rodents. As well as walking around the zoo freely, you can attend some of the scheduled talks on specific animals which run throughout the day.
Kids can get close to many of the animals, and feed the non-carnivorous ones by hand – you buy the cups of feed from reception. Our Little Man particularly loved feeding the camels, Barbary sheep and ostrich which share one of the enclosures – he thought they were all wonderful. He also enjoyed the walk-through aviary where you can feed the ravenous rainbow lorikeets. We often see these birds in the trees in our garden, but they never come close there. Here four or five of them will happily land around your hand and attempt to relieve you of the contents of your cup of feed.
How do you get there?
From Cessnock, follow the B82 Wine Country Drive north out of the town. Continue for around five minutes until you see the sign for the Zoo. It’s a couple of minutes along a dirt road, Lomas Lane, to the entrance.
Best things about it?
We had many wonderful animal encounters during the course of our visit. One of the most memorable was when we happened to bump into a keeper carrying a baby alligator across a yard – as you do – and Little Man had a chance to gently pat this amazing reptile. It was only two months old, less than two feet long, and will in time grow to the size of the sleeping beasts by the side of the lake, so he was very privileged to have this encounter.
He also hugely enjoyed seeing capybaras for the first time. These animals are a bit like giant guinea pigs, but with much longer legs. The female was a long-term resident of the Zoo, and had been joined four days beforehand by a large Venezuelan rodent Lothario named Carlos, in the hope that the two of them would hit it off and breed. The Zoo didn’t have to wait long for results, as we witnessed first-hand. Suffice to say that there are probably more capybaras in the Zoo by the time you read this. Our Little Man nearly collapsed in hysterics when he saw them together.
“What are they doing, Daddy?” At a shade over three years of age, now wasn’t quite the time for that talk.
“They’re just playing a friendly game together,” I replied, thinking this was a deft deflection of a slightly difficult question.
“No Daddy, what are they doing?” He wasn’t going to give up.
“Are you ready for your ice cream now?” Ah yes, always works, that one.
How long should we spend there?
We’d say that the attraction is best suited for a visit of between two and three hours. This gives you time to take the kids around to see all of the animals, and allows for longer time seeing the animals in which they are most interested. Children’s attention normally lasts a couple of hours or so, then it’s time to move on. A full day – especially with the baking inland heat you get in the Hunter Valley for much of the year – would be too long for most kids, and that goes for anywhere.
Any tips and advice?
We had turned up at the Zoo without any forward planning, other than we had our supplies for the day and the intention to go on somewhere for a late lunch afterwards. We arrived at around 11.00, finally leaving at 2.30 pm. We were happy to see whatever was there and awake, and there was plenty that captured the little fellow’s vivid imagination.
The only thing that could have improved our day would have been a bit more advance planning at our end. If we had checked the website in detail, and called the zoo to find out the best time of day to see the various animals, we could have planned to be there for the animals the Little Man is most interested in. So while we were there in the middle of the day, the kangaroos were all fast asleep – they don’t tend to wake up until late afternoon.
Ultimately, it’s all swings and roundabouts – you won’t get to see all of them awake and at their best, but you’ll see a lot in the time you’re there.
What about eating there?
A small range of snacks are available from the reception and gift shop area. Otherwise there are free gas barbecues, so you can bring lunch along and cook it there, which is a great way of doing things.
When we left the Zoo, we had to keep a promise to Little Man and took him for the chocolate milkshake we had promised him at the cafe at the Hunter Valley Visitor Centre a short drive up the road. After the big sugar hit came the inevitable sugar crash. As soon as I belted him into his car seat, his head rocked to one side, eyes shut tight, mouth puckered up, letting out occasional little man snores, his little fellow dreams full of koalas, kangaroos, and who knows, perhaps even capybaras.
A big thumbs-up from Mama and Dad, and Little Man loved every minute of it.
David Angel is a British writer and photographer who has been travelling and photographing the world for over 25 years. His work is regularly featured in worldwide media including the BBC, the Guardian, the Times and the Sunday Times. His images are frequently used throughout the world by tourism bodies such as Visit Britain and Visit Wales.