In Yarra Valley, Alan Teh Leam Seng visits Healesville Sanctuary that specialises on native Australian animals
THE two men dismount upon reaching the top of the slightly undulating hill. Fully aware that their movements are being watched, the brothers walk carefully to the edge and begin to survey the surrounding area.
This is the sacred land of the indigenous Wurundjeri people. It is the men from this tribe who have been following them ever since they crossed the Yarra River. The Ryrie Brothers found out about this place during their stay in Melbourne.
The brothers recall the bartender’s words. “Cross the river and you will come to Birrarung — the place of mists and shadows. The water is sweet and plentiful while the grass is green and nourishing. That’s the best place for cattle grazing but beware of the Wurundjeri!”
One of the men bends down and grabs a handful of the soil. He brings it to his nose and inhales deeply. The smell instantly reminds him of their ancestral home, the Scottish Highlands. He also notices that the place is relatively cooler than the other parts of Australia even though it is the middle of summer.
Fully satisfied, he stands up and signals to his brother, giving him his nod of approval. The men quickly unload the food packets they had brought along and leave them on a nearby fallen tree trunk. This is their way of showing a friendly gesture to the Wurundjeri men who are still watching them from behind a large Eucalyptus grove. Soon they are going to be neighbours, good neighbours.
THE LAND THEY BUILT
Fast-forward to present time, I look out onto the distant gentle slopes from my window at the iconic Chateau Yering Historic House Hotel. So much has changed over the last 180 years. Fruiting grape vines now cover the very same landscape that the pioneering Ryrie Brothers initially reared cattle on, back in 1837. It was only several years later did they begin their effort to initiate Victoria’s first vineyard.
Chateau Yering Historic House Hotel is a beautifully furnished Victorian mansion located less than an hour’s drive from Melbourne. The entire estate is gigantic but there is a little corner that remains my firm favourite — the heritage garden. Here, guests can enjoy a quiet walk or sit among the blossoming rose bushes after a hearty breakfast.
Taking full advantage of the wonderful early autumn weather, I venture out into the vineyards to see the Chardonnay grapes. It feels wonderful to stand in the middle of the plantation with the sun in my face. I slowly begin to understand the reasons why the Ryrie Brothers abandoned their initial cattle aspirations.
The mild, dry and sometimes humid summers here are usually followed by nice cool autumns. It is the perfect weather for grapes. The long growing season allows the fruits to develop to their full potential, acquiring their distinctive varietal flavour and complex structure which makes the products from Yarra Valley famous the world over.
Yering Station Restaurant is located just beside the vineyard. This uniquely designed glass and steel structure allow guests to enjoy their meals while having unparalleled view of the distant Yarra Ranges.
Even though the restaurant specialises in classic French cuisine with a modern twist, I decide to try something local. My Australian lamb rump is tender and flavourful. I love the accompanying fresh garden vegetables that are cooked to perfection. They help cleanse my palate and give me a brand new experience with each mouthful.
My next destination after lunch is a short 30 minutes’ drive away. That is just enough time for me to catch forty winks. I arrive at the Healesville Sanctuary fully recharged. I have been looking forward to this visit for two reasons.
The sanctuary is the only zoo in Australia that specifically specialises on native Australian animals. The bushland setting here is a great way for visitors to experience the natural landscape where the local animals thrive in the wild.
I like the way the narrow path winds through different habitat areas. I can be looking at a swampy wetland one minute and at the next turn, I am transported to an arid desert environment. This constantly changing landscape adds a sense of mystery, making me wonder what else is around the corner.
The other reason is because the sanctuary has a long history of breeding native animals. Back in 1943, it became the first place in the country to successfully breed platypus in captivity. It is only 60 years later, in 2003, that the much larger and well equipped Taronga Zoo in Sydney manage to add its name to this very exclusive and short list.
Described as one of nature’s greatest wonders, this odd looking creature took the world by storm when its existence was reported in the early 19th century.
I cannot have timed my arrival better. The highly popular presentation titled Tales From Platypus Creek is just about to start when I reach the brand new Healesville Sanctuary amphitheatre. This is the world-first interactive platypus show, where visitors get to watch the cute and intelligent animals interact with their keepers as they play in their unique riverside tank environment. During this highly entertaining show, visitors get insight into the threats faced by the platypus in the wild such as pollution and habitat destruction.
I leave the amphitheatre hoping that concrete steps will be taken to ensure the survival of Australia’s most iconic species. Tales From Platypus Creek runs twice daily on weekends and once each day during the week. The show is free with general admission and children under 16 years get free entry throughout the school holidays!
The Nocturnal House is constantly kept dark to simulate an environment for creatures that are only active at night. I tread and look carefully as the lights are very dim. But after a few minutes, my eyes adapt to the darkness and I start to appreciate the low light habitat of the tiny Mountain Pygmy-possum, striped Numbat and Eastern Barred Bandicoot.
Healesville Sanctuary began when Dr Colin MacKenzie set up the Institute of Anatomical Research in 1920. This 32-hectare land used to be part of the Coranderrk Aboriginal Reserve. The reserve was handed over to the Healesville Council in 1927 and seven years later, the Institute was renamed Dr Colin MacKenzie Sanctuary.
The highlight of my visit is the Baby Burrow for bush babies. Managed by the Australian Wildlife Health Centre, this unique place offers a sanctuary for orphaned baby animals found in the wild.
During the incubation period, the young ones are cared for by veterinarians and trained keepers who provide thorough medical examinations, as well as diet similar to what these creatures would normally consume in the wild.
LIFE GIVING YARRA RIVER
During my visit, I had the opportunity to meet with an 11-month-old baby wombat named Poa. She became an orphan after her mother was accidentally run over by a hunter. Poa consumes two bottles of milk and enjoys long walks in the grass. Animals at Baby Burrow like Poa are only reintroduced into the wild once the keepers are confident that they have regained their strength and are able to fend for themselves.
Each year, about 1,500 injured or orphaned wild animals are treated and nursed back to health here. To encourage public participation, the centre conducts a programme during school semester breaks where children can become a Vet For A Day.
Children get the golden opportunity to work alongside experienced keepers and health experts to look after the animals at the sanctuary, as well as treat the wildlife brought in to the centre. This programme also enables children to learn more about the functions of the centre and at the same time get hands-on experience in conducting many of the daily duties such as triage, diagnosis, health checks, rehabilitation and post-mortems.
On the way out, I come across a large aboriginal wood carving of a wedge-tailed eagle. My thoughts return to the Ryrie Brothers and their first encounter with the Wurundjeri.
It is the Wurundjeri dreamtime stories that tell about the life-giving Yarra River. This aboriginal group believes that the Yarra River was etched into the landscape some 300,000 years ago by their ancestral creator spirit Bunjil, the wedge-tailed eagle.