Healesville: A dingo kissed my baby

By Ewan McDonald

Ewan McDonald takes a young relative to meet one of our most infamous cousins.

A dingo relaxes at the Healesville Sanctuary.
A dingo relaxes at the Healesville Sanctuary.

"What shall we do tomorrow?" asked Sarah, from the other side of her daughter Zoe's ever-more-scrambled egg and babychino in a suburban cafe.

It didn't take a moment's thought.

"We should take the baby to meet a dingo," I told my niece.

The best place in Victoria - one of the best places in Australia - to see dingoes and a hundred or more of the continent's exotic examples of wildlife, birds, lizards, snakes and whatever, is Healesville.

It is an animal sanctuary - not a zoo - about an hour's drive out of Melbourne. Make that 101 encounters: it is positively the best place to make the acquaintance of our most unusual cousin across the ditch, the platypus.

You can get there by public transport but it is a mission. A train from Flinders St, a bus from Lilydale, and weekend timetables are less than obliging. Double the two hours' trip for the ride back into the city and you will devote a day of a weekend in Melbourne to the excursion. The payback: some of the more memorable encounters in your life.

After the drear of suburbs (how many Harvey Normans does one city need?), underscored by a grey, drizzly Saturday morning, Sarah's car climbs through hills, mist and into the Yarra Valley. Green paddocks. Trees. Sheep. Cows. Vines. Healesville's main and pretty much only street: Remuera in the ranges.

The sanctuary is a few gumtrees along a country road. Officially it's the Sir Colin MacKenzie Fauna Park, for the scientist who set up the Institute of Anatomical Research in 1920 on 32ha which had been part of the Coranderrk Aboriginal Reserve.

Most remains natural bush, so visitors wander paths through different habitats, unobtrusively signposted, giving way to wallabies, kangaroos, disturbing then admiring 200-plus varieties of birds, peeking over low fences at wombat and whatever.

Cafes and picnic grounds, an arena for birds-of-prey or boomerang demonstrations, are little more than a dot on the landscape.

On this chilly morning there is that little problem shared with more conventional zoos: some of the stars forget their cues.

The echnida is nowhere to be found. One koala hasn't read the script: rather than sleeping in the tree fork, he, she or it bounds from branch to branch like an Olympic gymnast.

The Tasmanian devils, newly arrived, display their agitation in red-tinged skin and the raucous screech which brought their name.

That's entertainment.

Healesville has more serious intent, continuing its founder's work in understanding and breeding native animals. Down another path in a darkened bunker are the platypus: duck-billed and diving into the pools of their mock river, either one of nature's whimsies or one of its triumphs of adaptation.

This is one of only two places to have successfully bred platypus, the other being Sydney's Taronga Zoo. Healesville was the first, in 1943.

The platypussery is around the corner, tubs and tubes and gadgets to help them feel the love; in broad daylight a lone goanna is twisting by the pool.

It's home, too, to the national wildlife hospital. Visitors walk past gleaming, well-equipped X-ray rooms, operating theatres, nurseries, and (warning to parents) the autopsy department.

The sanctuary is one of only two places to have successfully bred platypus.
The sanctuary is one of only two places to have successfully bred platypus.

That's beyond the black stump: the charred remains of a tree, poignantly pointing to the sky, a memorial to the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires that roasted this region, killing human and wildlife. Healesville's residents were moved to Melbourne Zoo.

But ... I promised. We join the dingo encounter at a track to one side of the dogs' enclosure. The keeper sets the ground rules: we must be quiet. We're to check we've no food in our pockets; we must keep our hands in our pockets lest we're tempted to pat the animals, particularly on the head.

They will sniff us over and then we may stroke their backs. We must walk slowly in single file. We must leave bags and scarves on a rack before we enter the enclosure.

The keeper looks at Zoe, a smidge under two years old.

"You'll have to take off her woollen jacket," she tells her mother.

Just as I'm about to make a witty but somewhat tasteless reference, the keeper explains: "Dingoes love textures like wool. And bright colours. We've had little girls turn up in tutus and had to cover them up."

Sarah and Zoe meet Healesville's dingoes. Photo / Ewan McDonald
Sarah and Zoe meet Healesville's dingoes. Photo / Ewan McDonald

Second gate. Heavily chained and padlocked because "they'll just worry and worry away at anything smaller until they find a way out. They know there'll be food somewhere on the other side".

Inside, we wait while the keeper brings three-year-old brother and sister dingos to us. Lush coats, the gold of manuka honey; the build of a small German shepherd. Curious yet contained. This is their land.

Their minder slips gobbets of meat to the pair and we walk to a set of rocks where the animals pose for photos.

I go into the zone with a Kiwi dog-lover. She is thrilled to meet a new breed - and even more infatuated when Tambo, the boy, leans over and plants a rabbit meat-infused kiss on her cheek.

"Look into his eyes," I whisper, having met dingoes close-up before.

Later, I ask her what she saw.

"Not a dog," she says.

"Not a wolf. Something very ancient - and very knowing."

More primeval than prime evil, then.

Time for one more photo. Sarah takes the baby to meet Tambo.

Back at my hotel I turn on what passes for a news channel. The newsreader begins, "A German tourist has been airlifted to hospital after being mauled by a dingo on Fraser Island, off the Queensland coast ... "

Further information: Healesville Sanctuary is open every day, including Christmas Day and public holidays, from 9am-5pm.

- NZ Herald

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