Tuesday, 6 February 2007

Australia Zoo Pty Ltd (as agent Irwin (Beerwah) Group Trading Trust) is a worldwide phenomenon, trading on the back of Steve Irwin's success in attracting viewers to his wildlife TV shows. I visited yesterday and refrained from blogging about it immediately because I wanted to talk about it with my parents first. My first impulse was to write something along the following lines (set in italics after the fashion of William Faulkner, pace Nabokov):

Aussie Zoo is the bogan's P. T. Barnum, the epitome of yobbo chic. In the Crocoseum the crowds gasp and applaud as trick follows trick, and educational 'study notes' are meted out to the throng. But beyond the bleachers, yard after yard of black, wire-mesh fencing segregates one forlorn crocodile from the next. Acco, Aggro, Murray and Fang sit in pools of water like solitary leaves in cups of tea. If you learn anything from watching them, it's to put up with the hype, to tolerate the claims made in order to entice members of the public to this sorry spectacle. It all seems like a con, until you remember that this is a zoo. Like all zoos, it is a storage facility for wildlife.

Here's me mimicking one of the crocodiles I saw while eating lunch:

Like a crocodile
There's nothing for them to do. Nothing at all. They just sit there. And for the spectator, there's precious little on offer. I paid for my ticket at 10.34am. By 1pm I was ready to leave. Unfortunately, the bus wasn't leaving until 4pm. So I sat around, mimicking the crocodiles, for three hours.

I was expecting a lot more. When I arrived outside the Maroochydore RSL at 8.45 I thought I'd be visiting a world-class facility. But I should have been warned by the signs that were visible from the start.

Outside the RSL, opposite the bus stop, a commercial-zoned complex houses Cycleworld, Lorikeet property developers, Fishing World, Snap Printing, and Ryan & Bosschler Lawyers (criminal defense specialists). At 9am First Avenue is full of busy traffic.

Sitting cross-legged on the grass at the corner of George Street is a young man in a blue T-shirt with a Canadian flag attached to his backpack. It's his first time to visit Australia Zoo. A brightly-painted Toyota minivan with yhabackpackers.com painted on its roof pulls up at the bus stop. A young woman with a tattoo on her shoulder alights.

The Australia Zoo bus pulls up and the driver gets out. He ticks off the boarding passengers using the booking number they have brought with them. Four people get on.

Inside, there's a monitor showing clips of Irwin's TV programs, reminiscences of people who knew him before his untimely demise, his mother and father. The driver wears outsized, brown-tinted sunglasses. His thinning hair is combed back with mousse from his tanned face.

At the next stop, Alexandra Headland, another four people get on. The bus wends its way around the coast road. It's a double-decker and the majority of the tourists choose to sit up top. A huge crowd embarks at Mooloolaba. Many are in their twenties, some are middle-aged. There's a woman in an orange dress carrying a toddler.

There's one more stop, at Caloundra, but nobody gets on there. Then, just before turning east into Caloundra Road, the Glass House Mountains appear in the distance, surrounded by a sea of green. You suddenly realise that the geographical span from Maroochydore to Caloundra is completely built-up.

Finally, at 10.15 the 'Steve's Story' DVD stops, just as we turn into Steve Irwin Way through a forest of eucalypts. The driver is keen to tell us that the zoo currently occupies 72 acres of land. There are plans, in five to seven years, to increase the area occupied to 500 acres. On the return trip, this figure will be revised to 315 acres. Nevertheless, the success of the enterprise has convinced its operators that a major expansion is required.

The franchise is obviously booming. Images of Steve Irwin are ubiquitous. Wherever you turn — keep out signs, direction boards, explanatory signs, in the canteen — images of the Croc Hunter confront you. Wearied by an hour and a half of driving under the influence of 'Steve's Story', I head for the food court as soon as I pay my way in ($46). I buy a turkey and salad wrap and a bottle of Coke Zero and give thanks that the flies don't have little stickers showing the khaki-clad croc genius. And the willy-wagtails that flit about the dining area are mercifully free of marketing paraphernalia.

Looking out from my table past the palm tress (which look like an introduced species), the original eucalypt forest is right there, a virgin resource ready to be clipped and pruned as Australia Zoo gets ready to expand to fill the void. I hope that the quality of the food improves when it happens. At present the selections resemble what you can buy at a football match.


Meredith Jones said...

How utterly depressing. Why did I expect anything different?

"like solitary leaves in cups of tea" - brilliant!

Anonymous said...

the crocodiles had nothing to do?
What do crocodiles in the wild do?
Play Solitaire?
Oh man! again