So last year was my 50th Birthday. To celebrate we did a very special trip. Friends have asked me to write something about it and I’ve been waiting for the anniversary to do so. While I was writing, I saw an opportunity to enter it into a competition. It didn’t win but I liked the way it came out. I hope you do too.
A Place Not Far From Home
“I’ll be spending my 50th birthday in Canberra”, I told my regular travelling companion Trevor.
The look of horror on his face was priceless. “Have you been to Canberra?” he asked, stunned.
I have been to Canberra many times. Unlike a lot of Australians, I like our nation’s capital city. But I knew why Trevor was stunned. Trevor, my partner Paul and I were supposed to be travelling halfway across the world to England to celebrate my birthday, not Canberra, which is only a short flight away.
Ten years earlier, when I was planning my 40th birthday, the three of us started a tradition. We would each choose a holiday destination to travel to for our big birthdays. I chose a trip I called “A Dracula Tour of Romania”. My 50th was supposed to be part 2 – “A Dracula Tour of England”. Whitby was the prize destination. Sadly an ailing elder dog meant I couldn’t travel too far from home. Trevor went to Whitby and Paul and I took a short trip to Canberra.
On the eve of my 50th birthday, I woke to the sound of lions roaring in the night. They were so close. I could picture them walking near my window. I snuggled into the thick duvet, comforted by the warmth of the room and the sound of lions.
Throughout the night I had been woken by their stirring call. Sometimes the roars were close, sometimes they were distant, every time was hauntingly beautiful. They made me smile. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my 50th birthday than in the company of wildlife.
When I knew I wasn’t going to Whitby for my birthday, I trusted that I would somehow find the right place to go. Sure enough, a few days later I was viewing an online newspaper when I saw an ad that made me look twice. The ad featured a photo of a woman taking a bubble bath while a European brown bear watched from outside her window. The words “wild”, “down under” and “Canberra” grabbed my attention. I knew immediately that this was where I would be spending my birthday weekend.
The ad was for Jamala Wildlife Lodge – the National Zoo and Aquarium’s new onsite accommodation. We had visited the zoo before, most notably to celebrate the very first International Red Panda Day, but never realised we could stay there. The secluded bungalows scattered around the zoo in the animal enclosures sounded perfect. Floor to ceiling windows gave you views of the animals as they went about their daily (and nightly) meanderings. An “al fresco” style section with heated pads and food treats was used to encourage the animals to come and snuggle down. I just had to choose which animals I wanted to “share” my room with. I chose the white lions for my first night and the European brown bears for my second.
Night one was more about sound than sight. While we caught glimpses of the lions and one came up to the window briefly, we mostly heard them roaring into the night, and were woken again by them in the morning.
After a sumptuous breakfast on day two we moved from the lion room to the bear room. There, snuggled warmly by our window, was a European brown bear. I wanted to squeal in delight but restrained myself, scared I might frighten the bear away. Instead, I calmly approached the window and quietly watched. We made ourselves cups of tea, munched on biscuits and relaxed on the couch, all under the watchful eye of a beautiful bear. Finally the bear left to do what bears do.
We reluctantly left our room and wandered around the zoo. We laughed when we made it back to the bear enclosure. One of the bears was enjoying a feast of fruit, vegetables and bread by a waterfall. We watched it for a while, before returning to our room. As before, the same brown bear was snuggled in the same place. We watched, mesmerised, as another bear arrived, grabbed some food, gave us a long, hard look and then left. We opened up a bottle of wine and shared the late afternoon with this most accommodating bear. Again, we were reluctant to leave our room, but dinner was calling and we were hungry.
There are few lights in the zoo overnight and for our own protection, we weren’t allowed to walk around after dark. At a prearranged time, a bus came to collect us from our cabin, taking us through the pitch black of the zoo to the main hotel for dinner and drinks. The bus stopped a couple of times to pick up others from their rooms and we compared notes on our experiences as we rode.
A lavish South African inspired spread greeted us at the communal dinner table. I couldn’t wait to try the bobotie and malva pudding, both of which I’d heard of but never had a chance to try. The food was extraordinary and the wine selection suited it perfectly. We sipped wine and spoke to the other guests, each of us exchanging stories about the animals outside our rooms. The staff told us the main bear visiting our room was a female named Blondie. While we enjoyed the food, wine and the company, we were eager to get back to our room and hopefully a bear. In the meantime, we were entertained by first a pair of white lions and then hyenas as they were let into their dens for the evening. We could see them clearly from the dining room. We suspected that they could see us also, but they ignored us and after exploring their dens, curled up and went to sleep.
There was one birthday wish I deeply wanted granted. To have a bubble bath with a bear! I really wanted to reenact the ad that got me to Jamala. We arrived home and Blondie had returned to her usual place. I was so excited. It was now or never for my bubble bath. I carefully filled the bath, making small, unhurried movements. I gingerly hopped in, hoping I wouldn’t startle her. I sat in the bath like the woman in the ad, watched by the beautiful brown bear. Then to my surprise and delight, another bear arrived. I lay in the bath, soaking in the soft, warm bubbles, watched by the gentle eyes of two extraordinary creatures. I had surpassed the ad. Not one but two brown bears were sharing my birthday dream with me. It was the most extraordinary birthday of my life.
While I bathed with bears, Trevor had a drink for me in Whitby. Was I sad that I didn’t get to Whitby? Yes. Did I enjoy myself in Canberra? Immensely.
I didn’t have to travel the world to find a new and exotic place. I found one right here, in a place not far from home.