Just metres away, a giraffe spreads its front legs wide and lowers its long neck for a drink. Nearby, a pair of zebras kick up their heels, while ostriches scratch the dirt. Above your head fly flocks of brightly coloured lovebirds, while curious meerkats on a rocky outcrop pop up their heads and scan the skies anxiously for predators.
The plains of the Serengeti? Actually, Western Springs, in the new Auckland Zoo African Savannah precinct. The new area, which opened to the public last weekend will allow visitors to get eye-to-eye and toe-to-toe with many of the zoo's African animals, from giraffes to leopard tortoises.
Auckland Zoo director Jonathan Wilcken says the 10-month project is the first part of a planned $120 million redevelopment of the zoo, which will eventually see the creation of a large Southeast Asian rainforest experience at its heart. It's the first glimpse of the zoo of the future, where cages and physical separation from the animals are things of the past.
The environment, planned by American zoo designers Studio Hansen Roberts, has been created with input from local set designers and builders Aqua Environs, who worked on projects such as The Lord of the Rings and, more recently, Mahana. Wilcken says the team was pleased to have created something more permanent, including an African village square and the "discovery cave" with its replica fossils and crystals, which forms the entrance to the new aviary.
"We wanted to make it as exciting as a place to visit and to be in as it is a place to see animals," says Wilcken. "There is a sense of adventure linked with the animal enclosures."
Getting down to ground level
Instead of only looking down on the savannah animals from the elevated boardwalk, the new development lets visitors get right down to ground level.
You are just metres away from the animals at the new watering hole - close enough to see the zebras' whiskers and just about smell their horsey breath.
At this early stage the giraffes - well-known to be wussies, Wilcken says - are still a bit wary of coming down this end of the enclosure, but once they've settled in this will be a unique viewing experience.
Wilcken says being at ground level gives you an idea of how big these animals actually are - the zoo's two "babies", born in April and August last year, are already around 4m tall, and the largest adult male, Zabulu, is 7m.
Eyeballing the meerkats
A perennial zoo favourite, the super-cute meerkats have star billing in the new area, with two new enclosures. Again, visitors are at eye-level with the cheeky little mammals, and are able to get much closer than in the old concrete-walled area. The pop-up tunnels have been replicated, but are now bigger and have larger viewing windows, so it is no longer such a struggle to find and retrieve your toddler. Plus there is a large ground-level glassed viewing area perfect for those in wheelchairs, or the less agile.
Lovebirds overhead, river underfoot
The second, larger meerkat enclosure is inside a new walk-through aviary, which is currently home to a flock of about 40 African masked lovebirds. (By the way, if you've watched The Birds too many times and can't handle the idea of them flying around your head, there is a handy bypass.) As their name suggests, lovebirds mate for life and love hanging out together, and will cuddle up at night in new nest-boxes decorated by kids from nearby Westmere School.
The aviary, which will become home to other species over time, is designed to resemble a rocky escarpment tumbling down on to the savannah, and has a rocky stream running through it. This is zoo viewing at its most immersive.
Year-round tortoise action
The zoo's leopard tortoises, who can weigh up to 45 kg, could formerly only be viewed in the summertime. Now the tortoises will be reunited with their African savannah-mates, in a double enclosure which will allow them to waddle outside to enjoy the sunny days and keep toasty in a glass-walled temperature-controlled environment when the weather is not so clement.
Must do at the zoo
If you haven't been to the zoo for a while, it's not just the African area that has changed. Here are some other must-dos at the zoo:
• Check out the Tasmanian devils, who moved into the Australian area last April. Despite their fearsome name and reputation, these "ambassador devils" from Healesville Zoo in rural Victoria are actually very cuddly looking. You also have to feel sorry for them - who'd want to catch the nasty-looking Devil Facial Tumour Disease?
• Te Wao Nui, opened in 2011, also offers an immersive experience, with aviaries and displays showcasing New Zealand's native bird and reptile species. This zone takes up around a fifth of the zoo's footprint and represent's our country's forest, coastal, offshore island, high country and wetland environments, as well as being home to the zoo's North Island brown kiwi.
• And finally, if you have a small person with you, it is traditional - nearly imperative - for them to climb on the dragon in the Kid's Zone. The zoo might be changing, but the best things stay the same.