canberra

A Place Not Far From Home

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

International Red Panda Day

Saturday the 20th of September is the 5th International Red Panda Day!

Never heard of International Red Panda Day? Well pop on over to the Red Panda Network and find out what all the excitement is about. If your local zoo has red pandas, find out if they are doing something. If they aren’t, let them know about it so maybe they can participate next year. It’s celebrated on the 3rd Saturday in September.

IMG_3228I was lucky enough to participate in the 1st International Red Panda Day at The National Zoo and Aquarium in Canberra. As they were listed as the only zoo in Australia participating in the event, I excitedly planned a weekend trip, booked my flights and accommodation and thought I would also treat myself to a red panda encounter. When I rang the zoo to book the encounter, I also asked what festivities they were doing for the special day. Imagine both our surprise when they said they had never heard of International Red Panda Day! They said they would check out what it was all about and ring me back. A few hours later I got a call saying they loved the idea and that they were now officially participating in the event. I was so excited – and so relieved. It ended up being a great day.

I am a huge fan of both the red panda and the giant panda. Growing up I couldn’t believe that these two vastly different but extremely cute creatures could be related, but that was the common view. Now we know that giant pandas are part of the bear family and red pandas are in their own unique family. There is a great article about these two different pandas here. For more information on red pandas and giant pandas visit the Red Panda Network and Pandas International. They have heaps of fun stuff on their sites, information and ways you can contribute to the panda cause

To help promote International Red Panda Day, Anne Belov of the Panda Chronicles has kindly created a cartoon featuring Rusty the Red Panda. I am so excited about this! When I first discovered the Panda Chronicles I thought it would be great to have a red panda become part of the giant panda gang. Thanks to Anne, my dream has come true.

085 rusty the red panda 100r copy

And there’s more!
To celebrate International Red Panda Day we have created a celebratory cuppycake especially for the day.

Red Panda Red Velvet Cuppycakes
Pandas of all colors will devour these celebratory red velvet cuppycakes with cream cheese frosting.

Ingredients
for the red velvet cuppycakes
1 + 1/2 cups plain flour
3 tablespoons cocoa powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda (bicarbonate)
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 cup superfine granulated (caster) sugar
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 cup sunflower oil
1 egg, room temperature
1 egg yolk, room temperature
2/3 cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons sour cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon pomegranate juice
1/2 teaspoon cider vinegar
red food coloring

for the cream cheese frosting
1/2 cup (115g) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup (115g) cream cheese, softened
4 cups powdered (icing) sugar
1/2 tablespoon milk
pomegranate seeds for sprinkling

Instructions
Preheat the oven to 180C / 350F.
Line a 12-hole muffin pan with 12 paper cases.
In a small bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa, baking soda and sea salt. Set aside.
In a separate bowl whisk together the sugars and oil with a wire whisk until combined. Add the egg and egg yolk and whisk well. Add the buttermilk, sour cream, vanilla, pomegranate juice and cider vinegar. Whisk until smooth.
Using a wooden spoon, fold through the flour mix. Gently blend through enough red food coloring to achieve desired red. This should be a fairly wet batter. If it is too dry add more buttermilk.
Using an ice-cream scoop, spoon the batter evenly into 12 paper cases.
Bake for 10 – 20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the centre of a cuppycake comes out clean. Allow to cool for 5 minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.

While cuppycakes are cooling make the cream cheese frosting by creaming together the butter and cream cheese in a medium sized bowl with an electric mixer. Gradually beat in the powdered sugar. Add the milk and beat until frosting reaches a piping consistency. Spoon frosting into a piping bag and pipe onto cuppycakes.

Decorate with pomegranate seeds.

red panda red velvet

This recipe and other panda related recipes will be in The Panda Chronicles Cuppycake Cookbook: Favourite Recipes From The Panda Kindergarten.

Coming soon!!