Adelaide is a cultured and classy city, but just lately it's been flinging insults at Sydney's bridge and Melbourne's cricket ground: "So what?" is the theme of its billboard campaign, "We've got pandas!"

You can hardly blame the city for its excitement over these furry emissaries from China, the only giant pandas in the Southern Hemisphere. It's taken extensive negotiation and planning, a $10 million investment in a purpose-built complex, a commitment to donate $1.3 million annually to Chinese panda conservation throughout the 10-year lease, and a whole lot of patience; but finally, just before Christmas, they emerged from quarantine into public view.

There was, frankly, emotion. At least one woman was moved to tears - but she had foreseen the possibility and not worn eye make-up: "I didn't want to end up looking like a panda myself."

What is it about pandas that stirs up such a reaction? Partly it's their rarity: with only an estimated 1600 in the wild, plus 300-odd in captivity, a scant 30 of those outside China, they're sadly the ideal symbol for endangered species.


Then there's the fact that although they're officially carnivores, their feast of choice is bamboo, and plenty of it, please. Even more non-threatening, they eat it sprawled back in couch-potato mode. Mainly, of course, it's their appearance: irresistibly furry, chubby and compact (Wang Wang on his hind feet is about 1.6m high), big round face, little Mickey Mouse ears and above all that striking colour scheme with the black eye patches. They're cuddliness personified; and on a fascinating Behind the Scenes tour, I was instantly smitten.

Not that anyone at Adelaide Zoo mistakes them for toys. A lot of specially made panda cake has gone into training them to sit at the bars of their cages, scootching their bottoms up close and sticking their paws through so that the keepers can take their temperatures several times daily and accustom them to syringes, in order that no-one need ever go inside with them.

"They're wild animals still," keeper Steve McKee said as I watched his demonstration; and although it was only steamed bamboo they were chewing, I could see it was with serious teeth, and held in serious claws.

Steve is thrilled that the pandas are a breeding pair but not as thrilled as he looks forward to being if Funi produces a cub.

"That will be massive for the team," he told me, a man clearly on a mission for whom the daily collection, weighing and inspection of faeces is simply one step towards his ultimate goal.

"Actually, panda poo is sweet-smelling," he said, unequivocally denouncing tigers as the worst offenders in the entire zoo: "Noticeably stinkier than lions, strangely."

The pandas' enclosures comprise an air-conditioned day room with a jumble of rocks, and an elegant outside area designed in accordance with feng shui principles, with pond, running water, trees, plantings and rocks. Titbits of fruit and bamboo cake are hidden around them, and a variety of enrichment activities supplied: Funi was ecstatic about the cardboard box dotted with essential oil that she'd been given, smooching it so enthusiastically that she did a complete somersault.

Wang Wang meanwhile was prowling constantly around his garden, splashing into his pond to stare at the people just the other side of the glass, and chasing a magpie. The public is allowed into the panda area for 45 minutes in the hour (for no extra charge, although pre-booking is necessary) and certainly in the morning the viewing is excellent through glass and across the fence: at this time of day crowds are small and the pandas are lively.

My session whizzed by; it was only afterwards, when I noticed the ache in my cheeks, that I realised I'd been grinning broadly for the entire time.

Getting there: Fly there with Air New Zealand Book now
Where to stay: The Majestic Roof Garden Hotel is a boutique hotel close to Rundle St's shops and restaurants, and a 10-minute walk from the zoo.

Adelaide Zoo: The zoo is home to 1800 animals and 300 species, and open daily. Special Panda Packages are occasionally offered for an extra fee. Check the website for these details, plus opening times, entry fees and to book regular panda-viewing sessions (essential).

Further information: See and
Pamela Wade visited the pandas as a guest of Tourism Australia.