WALKING along the dusty pathway he had shared with best friend Steve Irwin "a million times", Wes Mannion reflected on the countless hours they had spent dreaming of bringing an African savannah to the Sunshine Coast.

Yesterday the Australia Zoo director nervously released the gates to allow four zebras, four giraffes and three white rhinos, including Savannah, who was born at the zoo in April and already weighs an impressive 300kgs, to mingle in their new surrounds for the first time.

Wes said it was a bittersweet moment to see the late Steve's dream exhibit come to fruition and not have his partner in crime by his side.

They drew up the original designs more than a decade ago and the zoo has been acquiring animals from South Africa, New Zealand and around Australia for the past four years to bring the Queensland-first exhibit to life.

"We walked this path a million times and Steve would tell me exactly what he wanted to see happen here and I would just take it all in," Wes said.

"It is very difficult, but it makes you feel wonderful when we are keeping him alive through projects in the zoo."

From Saturday, visitors on safari shuttles will be able to watch the exotic animals roam freely on the 10ha African-inspired plains that took more than 18 months to construct.

The animals are more than just a tourist attraction.

They are also part of an important international breeding program.

Wes said plans were already in progress for the next two stages of the exhibit.

DON'T miss our exclusive reports on Saturday after Sunshine Coast Daily photojournalist Nic Falconer spent a weekend with the Irwin family at their remote St George property, a place never visited by media.

Entry to the Africa exhibit is included in Australia Zoo admission.



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