From down under to the Jezreel Valley

Gan Garoo claims to be the only place outside Australia where people can wander freely among kangaroos and koala bears.

kangaroo feat 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
kangaroo feat 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Ask most children if they'd like to hop around with some real kangaroos and you can bet the answer will be a resounding "yes!" Kangaroos have always appealed to children, and a visit to Gan Garoo - located next door to Sakhne Park in the Jezreel Valley - will give them an experience they'll never forget. At Gan Garoo, kids can not only run around with kangaroos, but also see koala bears lounging around in the park's eucalyptus trees. While kangaroos are a part of other zoos in Israel, Gan Garoo claims to be the only place outside Australia where visitors can wander among the animals, rather than gazing at them from a distance. Gan Garoo is the brainchild of Yehuda Gat of Kibbutz Nir David. Gat, a born animal lover, began his career teaching animal husbandry. Later, he decided to set up his own zoo. He enrolled in a business course and, with the advice of his instructors, settled on the idea of opening an "Australian park." But because the Australian government is so protective of its indigenous animals, it took six years of hard work, persuasion and help from people such as Ian Wilcox, Australia's former ambassador to Israel, before Gat was permitted to realize his dream. In order to get the go-ahead to move some of their unique animals halfway around the world, Gat first had to travel to Australia and spend some time learning how to care for his future charges. On his second visit, he passed exams with the Australian Wildlife Protection Authority. Even then, he was allowed only a small "starter" variety of kangaroos for his park, which he received free of charge from Healesville Sanctuary near Melbourne. Getting permission to bring over kangaroos was difficult, but it was nothing compared to the hoops Gat had to jump through to acquire koala bears. The Australians shield koalas even more fiercely than their 'roos because of the bears' eating habits. They eat, or rather suck, only eucalyptus leaves. This is their entire sustenance: they don't even drink water unless a drought has reduced the leaves' water content. Because of their unusual eating habits, which provide little in the way of energy, these cuddly creatures spend up to 18 hours a day asleep in the trees, which has led to the popular myth that koalas are usually "stoned." Even when not asleep, they move around very little, always remaining in the trees. Gat was instructed to provide 1,000 eucalyptus trees per koala. He received seedlings from Australia and the JNF raised them until they could be transplanted to Gan Garoo. When the park had grown enough large eucalyptus trees to provide nourishment for the koalas, Gat was allowed to bring the bears to Israel. As various regions of Australia have different varieties of eucalyptus, Gan Garoo has provided over 38 species of eucalyptus trees, suiting the four bears - two males and two females - who call the park home. Both kangaroos and koalas are born after only around seven weeks' gestation, park guides inform visitors. They range at birth from 8mm to 1 cm - roughly the size of a human fingernail. After their minuscule bodies slide into the world, the animals head straight for their mothers' pouches, where they spend the first months of their lives nursing. Only then do they venture out into the world. Visitors are warned never to approach a kanga with a joey (baby) in its pocket, because they are frighteningly protective of their young and will assume that anyone approaching could mean to attack. A section of the park's kangaroo area is now roped off, providing sleeping animals and mothers with joeys in their pouches a place away from the public. The zoo also features other indigenous Australian animals such as wallabies, emus, kookaburras and a cassowary, which is the second biggest bird in the world and known as the most dangerous. It can kill enemies with a single kick of its forked, clawed foot. But the cassowaries are kept at a safe distance from tourists. For lovers of flora as well as fauna, Gan Garoo boasts a beautiful selection of Australian plants and flowers and an artificial lake, also home to ducks and swans. The park also offers audiovisual presentations about Australia; boomerang demonstrations; a playground; and a mini-petting zoo. Guests can also try out the park's giant maze. If one's unerring sense of direction happens to err, guides are standing by to point out the exit. There are some miniature kiddy mazes, as well. Visitors to Gan Garoo can buy a ticket that also gets them into the adjacent Sakhne Park, and cool off after a day wandering among kangaroos with a swim in Sakhne's pools and waterfalls, followed by a picnic and games on the beautiful lawns. This is one of the only spots in Israel featured on Time Magazine's international list of "off-the-beaten-track places not to be missed." Both parks are operated by nearby Kibbutz Nir David, which also houses the Museum of Regional and Mediterranean Archaeology, situated on a Canaanite-period mound. The museum exhibits artifacts discovered in Iran and Egypt, as well as from excavations in Beit She'an. So for young and old, history buffs and animal lovers, this little area will provide you with a fantastic day out. Gan Garoo is located next to Sakhne Park (Gan Hashlosha) at Kibbutz Nir David on Route 669, (west on route 90 near Beit She'an). Entrance fee: NIS 35 for all ages; children under 3 admitted free. Opening hours: Sun-Thurs 9am-4pm; Friday 9am-3pm; Saturday 9am-5pm.