Our walk to the entrance of Orana Wildlife Park was accompanied by the sounds of gibbons calling out with such exuberance that I quickly decided I wanted what they were having. There it is, then. I was converted to the wildside before I was even through the gate.
It was hard to repress a grin minutes later as we matched the sounds of their squeals to their high wire antics. And then the sudden unexpected sight of a baby Siamang gibbon solicited a maternal sigh.
This was all far more exciting than I had imagined and we were still outside the first enclosure.
A menagerie of wildlife
The African wild dogs were apparently enjoying an unscheduled tea break when we arrived, for they were nowhere in evidence. Fortunately, the first of the zebra enclosures next door contained two perfectly zebra-like creatures, completely unlike each other.
My mind was having trouble coping with the brown and creamy white version of an animal I had previously only known to be black and white.
Past the ostriches and highland cattle, we strolled towards the cheetah enclosure with mounting excitement. Orana provides s habitats that mimic the conditions these creatures would encounter in the wild, so we stared in vain for some time before eventually spotting a pair of cheetah reclining against a distant boundary fence.
Next came the gentle waterbuck and awesome water buffalo, grazing safely across a discreetly fenced lake. The Orana landscaping which allows visitors to get up close and yet remain safe is impressive and was especially appreciated when we encountered four menacing rhinos a short distance away.
The park was crowded on the day we were there, but its vast size easily absorbed us all and there seemed to be a tacit understanding to hold back, or move along, so that each group could enjoy each exhibit alone.
Fearsome lions and tigers
Soon afterwards we arrived at the giraffe enclosure at feeding time. We quickly skirted the long queue of excited families snaking along the road side and path leading to the feeding tower.
Many were holding small wattle branch offerings, but I was keen to keep far from the madding crowds. Besides, nearly an hour had passed since we began our meander, yet we were still less than half way around the park with zebras, oryx, antelope, and llamas still to see before we arrived at the lion encounter.
We could see the first pride of lions long before we came upon them. I was amazed at their immense size. I was certain that I would not be able to participate in the close-up encounter Orana also offers visitors brave enough to undertake the drive through in a mobile cage.
Later, as we approached the tiger enclosure, the tigers were pacing on either side of the boundary fence. The air was static as they alternatively paced and peeled away from each other.
We took up our observation position on the viewing platform, but our attention was soon averted by the sight of one of the tigers, now stationary and snarling through the fence wire at a small cluster of young people a few feet away.
It seemed the tiger was seriously unimpressed by a young man bent on recording the moment on his cell phone and I was left in no doubt how terrifying a tiger encounter in the wild would be.
Gentle kiwis and meercats
Our visit to Orana Park’s Kiwi House was expected to be of a more familiar and tame nature, but it was no less fascinating. We entered into almost total darkness before our eyes adjusted to reveal two kiwis nonchalantly going about their nocturnal business.
We were not as lucky in the aviary. We saw but one swooping tui. Fortunately the reptiles were more visible, even if their chameleon-like colours made them hard to distinguish from their surrounds. We even managed to see a tuatara.
After nearly two hours of walking, I was starting to get tired. The meerkats ended that. It would be hard not to fall for these watchful little creatures with their sentry-like poses. We watched them alternatively scampering and then abruptly standing to attention.
After two-and-a-half hours our walk had ended back where we began, tired but extremely impressed by the hard work of Orana Wildlife Park staff, its trust, volunteers, and patrons whose efforts have created a first-class wild encounter facility where all New Zealanders can see conservation in action.
Orana Wildlife Park in a nutshell
Orana Wildlife Park was established in 1976, and it is New Zealand's only open range zoo.
Operated by Orana Wildlife Trust, a registered charitable trust and not-for-profit organisation, the park is set on 80 hectares of park-like grounds 10 minutes from Christchurch International Airport.
The Park has been developed as an open range sanctuary for endangered animals, providing them with enclosures as close to their natural habitat as possible. Streams, moats, and banks are used as barriers to allow visitors the opportunity to see the animals in a natural manner.
Over 400 animals from 70 different species are displayed.
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