The first thing you notice at Sydney’s newest zoo, Sydney Zoo, is the lack of distance between you and the animals. Fencing is low and in some cases constructed with gaps, so that some animals – such as wallabies and emus – can wander beyond their enclosure, leading to a more immersive experience for visitors. And where barriers are necessary, they’re often concealed or out of your sightline, giving you uninterrupted views.

Managing Director Jake Burgess (who co-founded the zoo with his father John Burgess, founder of Sydney Aquarium) says the intention was to create a different kind of zoo. For example, on Primate Boulevard, moats have been used to separate the habitats for chimpanzees, capuchins, spider monkeys and baboons, creating a sense of openness and space for the animals.

It’s been more than 100 years since Sydney’s last major zoo opened, so it makes sense that this one would be different. Sydney Zoo – which opens on Saturday, December 7 – has more than 2000 species, an aquarium and an African safari experience. There are other animal sanctuaries in and around the city – Taronga Zoo in Mosman, Wild Life in Darling Harbour and Featherdale Wildlife Park in Doonside – but, says Burgess, this is “the only zoo and aquarium in one in Sydney; the only place to see hyenas and orangutans in Sydney; plus we have Australia’s largest reptile and nocturnal house”.

There are six precincts to explore, and trees, shrubs and grasses will gradually be added to fill out the space and make it look more natural. In “Australia”, you’ll see dingoes, wombats and the impossibly cute (and endangered) Tasmanian devil. In “Africa”, you’ll see African lions, African painted dogs, ostriches, cheetahs and three special visitors from Singapore Zoo – hyenas Enzi, Etana and Endesha. The endangered red pandas, Sumatran tigers and Asian elephants hang out in the “Asia” precinct, and there’s an “African Plain” too, where zebras and giraffes roam, with the Blue Mountains visible in the distance. Some areas have raised walkways, which position patrons above the wandering animals.

The Reptile and Nocturnal House – with 20 nocturnal animal species and 40 species of reptiles slithering under dim lights – will provide respite from the summer heat. The world’s most venomous snakes (the inland taipan and the eastern brown) are there, as are burrowing bilbies and terrifying ghost bats (the only Australian bat that preys on large vertebrates such as reptiles, mammals and birds).

“This building is one of Australia’s first green-roof habitats, which is landscaped with an extensive collection of native grasses to blend in with the zoo’s natural landscape,” says Burgess. “It also provides a stable climactic atmosphere.”

In keeping with the zoo’s other sustainable practices, the structure is solar powered and uses recycled stormwater to fill moats and water gardens, and all animal and food waste is composted.

Throughout the zoo, digital screens explain the creatures’ habits and conservation status, on a spectrum from “least concern” to “extinct in the wild”, and hand-painted signs provide Indigenous insights, which cover not just the animals but also songlines, culture, art and plants. To learn more, visitors can join the Sydney Zoo Bungarribee Dreaming Experience.

“[It’s] an immersive Aboriginal cultural experience that takes people on a journey through the Australia precinct,” says Burgess. “It’s a celebration and acknowledgement of Aboriginal cultures, history and presence, specifically honouring the Darug people of the land on which it’s built … Activities include ochre painting, sand drawing, song and dance, basket weaving, animal encounters, tools and artefact talks – to name just a few.”

There are plans to up the educational ante with animal encounters, feeding sessions and interactive exhibitions. After a year-long battle with Featherdale, the zoo won the rights to extend its opening hours to cater to private groups, and is considering offering activities such as breakfast with a rhino.

Sydney Zoo will open at 9am on Saturday, December 7. Tickets for this weekend are already sold out.

Sydney Zoo
700 Great Western Highway, Bungarribee
1800 843 966

Daily 9am–5pm