Western Plains Zoo, Dubbo

This story will appear in a different form in the excellent magazine Out & About With Kids. Visit www.oawk.com.au.

A visit to Western Plains Zoo, in Dubbo, is almost a right of childhood. Since taking delivery of a wheelchair accessible van, we determined to take our kids – Mary, 10, and Daniel, 8. But when one member of the family (me) uses a wheelchair, and another (Daniel) has autism, it takes more than determination to make such a trip happen. It takes planning, a sense of humour and a bit of luck.  

After a lengthy search, we found an accessible cabin in the Big 4 Parklands caravan park. It had everything we needed, as well as being less than 2km from the zoo. There’s a pleasant pool, and an incredibly popular jumping pillow. The grounds are all accessible—there’s even accessible camping (with shared accessible bathroom facilities).

In Dubbo, we were joined by family friends and their three kids. Don’t let anyone tell you teenagers are sullen and unhelpful! When it comes to chasing an adventurous 8-year-old, who has no sense of danger, a fit 16-year-old is an absolute Godsend. Patrick, as well as his brother Ivan and sister Niamh, were amazing in their ability to engage with Daniel, which was as refreshing as it was helpful.

Photo by Julia Loughran

It rained most of our first day in Dubbo. The next day, as we ventured to the zoo at 6am for the early morning feeding tour we thought it might end in disaster. I had visions of my wheelchair bogged in the mud. Surprisingly, though it was quite muddy, and most paths are dirt, nothing was impassable. We were able to access all exhibits and, more importantly, see all the animals.

The morning tour is great because you have an experienced guide and see the animals when they are most active. Despite the best efforts of our guide to keep us together, Daniel decided to explore a less-trodden path. My wife, Ruth, and Patrick gave chase.  By the time they caught him, the group had moved on and they were lost. It’s at this point you realise how big the zoo really is. Aided by phone instructions from our amazed guide ‘how did you get there…’ they eventually met us at the end of the tour. They saw parts of the zoo the public never sees!

The zoo is impressive. Most enclosures are surrounded by water, meaning there is uninterrupted viewing of animals from every angle. Because most animals won’t cross the water barrier, fences are light and the animals come right up to you.

Photo by Julia Loughran

Before we went, people had warned us ‘other than the zoo, there’s nothing in Dubbo’. We didn’t find that to be true at all.

The city of Dubbo is incredibly accessible. In the main street I couldn’t find any shop with stepped entry, which is great for prams as well as wheelchairs. It helps that the geography is flat, but you can also see there’s been a conscious effort to remove steps, which is to be commended.

The Old Dubbo Gaol is an excellent attraction and well worth the $10 entry. It also has surprisingly good access for a heritage building. We especially enjoyed the lifelike animatronic models which tell stories of famous inmates. It’s an enjoyable two hours.

Dubbo is also blessed with some very attractive parks, walks and cycling tracks. Elston Park (also known as the Water Park) had water spraying equipment that was of great interest to Daniel.

Despite best laid plans, the combination of a father using a wheelchair and a son with autism can lead to some interesting events. Such as the morning Mary and I were watching Daniel on the jumping pillow and he got away from us, darted into a nearby caravan (unseen even by the owners, who were eating breakfast in the annex) and emerged with cheeky grin and two Easter eggs. You can only apologise, explain as best you can and move on.

Caravan parks are friendly places and people tend to understand you are doing your best.  The Big 4 Parklands in Dubbo is no exception. It was the perfect base for a great family holiday.

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