Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Port Lympne - grumpy rhinos and giraffes on the horizon

A fortnight ago my boyfriend Ross and I went to the wilds of Africa, without ever leaving the Uk, when Port Lympne Wild Animal Park in Kent offered to put us up at the rather swich Livingstone Lodge. This was glamping at its very best. Our decadent tent contained a beautiful four poster bed, electric lamps and a heater, and some lovely bath products and soft dressing gowns. We dragged our chairs on to our private balcony, sipped G&Ts and watched a variety of herbivores nibble the green fields in front of us.

It took some getting used to – watching giraffe arrive over the horizon in front of Dungeness power station, or wildebeest grazing amongst mallards and rabbits, but it was all rather wonderful.
The weather was blissfully warm (a relief, as the temperature in the tents does drop come nightfall) and we were treated to two safari drives – one in the evening and one again after breakfast.
Having been on safari in South Africa before, it was strangely familiar driving around in a jeep with two African guides - Warren and Sandile - filling us in on the different species in front of us.
One of my favourite things about wildlife is that there’s always more to know, and I learnt so much on the drives. For example, you can guess where different species live across Africa by looking at their faces: big ears and small eyes means it’s from a wooded area and relies on its hearing and sense of smell, whereas small ears and larger eyes means it’s probably from the plains.
Warren briefed us on safety, with a typically dry South African sense of humour:
“Save your partner if you can, but leave your children; you don’t need them.”
Both Warren and Sandile were experienced rangers before they joined Port Lympne, and take an unsentimental view on the park’s individual animals (“We don’t know their names, it’s just a giraffe…or a rhino…”) while simultaneously being passionate about conservation.
This is what the park was designed for, as a sanctuary for breeding animals for release in their native countries, which explains its unusual design. While many zoos will have just a handful of one species, such as a pair of rhinos, Port Lympne has numerous individuals in enormous, separate fields. It has the largest collection of black rhinos in the UK, and five have been sent back to Africa.

I hadn’t realised quite how different white and black rhinos were, as aside from their facial differences (white have wide, square mouths; black have pointed lips) we were told that while whites are gregarious, social animals, blacks are rather short tempered and solitary. As Warren put it: “When it gets up in the morning it hates the world and it hates being a black rhino because it has no friends.”
The sense of space makes it perfect to see via a safari tour, as on foot there are quite a few hills and it’s a large space to cover. Also the signposting leaves something to be desired – we spent a while detouring down a steep hill to see the gorillas, only to not see them. It turned out their sleeping quarters were in a different area, but there were no signs to suggest this.
On the plus side, spacious enclosures with plenty of hiding places are good news for the animals, and they all seemed relaxed and comfortable.
Staying at the Lodge is a very special experience (most of our fellow guests were celebrating birthdays or anniversaries) both because there isn't quite anywhere else like it, and also because of its welcoming atmosphere. We shared enormous buffet meals at the llapa (a wooden lodge which also reminded me of Africa) and watched the chef flambe pineapple on huge open flames, as the sun set outside. We snuck off with our wine onto the wooden terrace to get a proper view.
In the morning, unzipping my tent and feeling like a child on Christmas morning, I staggered blearily onto our balcony to see an Asian water buffalo chewing serenly outside, by the watering hole.

After a full English breakfast (except for veggies like me who prefered a continental option) we watched as keepers drove past with biscuits for the herds of creatures, and watched zebras and wildebeest chow down just metres away from us.
It was a truly magical experience - even more so when we were told all the profits go back into conservation - and I will never forget being woken by the sound of a buffalo munching cud, or the sight of giraffes approaching over the hills and scattering rabbits across a very British field.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Colchester zoo - elephant saliva and snail slime

Last weekend, on a very sunny Sunday, I went to Colchester Zoo with my friend Jenna.
Naturally it was very busy, but I was excited to be there as I'd be wanting to visit for ages.
I wasn't disappointed, as the very first animals we saw - a magnificent pair of sun bears - were busying themselves removing fruit from the roof of their cage, demonstrating their ingenuity and long tongues in equal measure. The keeper on duty was very informative, and told me of the zoo's plans to build a new, more appropriate home for them - they are currently in the orangutans old cage, and keep eating the window sealant! The pair were rescued from Cambodia where they were being traded as pets, and thankfully seem to have settled into zoo life very well.
Colchester Zoo is the best zoo to visit if you want to get up close and personal with animals without having to prebook or pay any extra. Whilst the giraffe encounter at Banham Zoo was fantastic, you did have to pre-plan it into your schedule and pay a little extra, and most zoos cost even more (sometimes the best part of £100) to meet giraffes. At Colchester you queue up with lots of pushy parents and nervous children to be given a small twig each. The giraffe was then neatly paraded up and down the line of people, delicately picking each frond from our hands.

It lacked the privacy of the Banham experience, and of course it didn't last long and was rather difficult to photograph with everyone elbowing you, but for a spontaneous (and more importantly free) giraffe interaction it was pretty great.
Even better was the chance to feed the elephants - something I'd never done before. We arrived to see an enormous queue, and thought we wouldn't stand a chance of getting near the two gentle giants, but happily it moved really fast, and in no time I was stood in front of a spectacular grey lady, proffering a cabbage leave.

Obligingly she reached out with her saliva-coated trunk, and plucked it from me. I was delighted. The trunk itself felt rather strange, it was almost like a hand in mittens, with its strong grip - she almost took my hand with her!

For some slightly less pleasant encounters I found some bugs to handle (much to Jenna's disgust) including a giant stick insect, an African snail and a hissing cockroach.

I'd handled a cockroach and stick insect previously on a trip to Blackpool zoo at university, but this was my first giant snail, and I have to say I wasn't much looking forward to it. But, ever the show-off, I knew I had to do it, and actually, looking into its funny little eyes, and seeing its primitive mouth working on my hand it was almost...well, cute. I was especially enchanted when its handler told me to stroke its shell - apparently it soothes it, and persuades it to keep its head out in the open.

After a rather slimy morning of encountering creatures, we cooled off indoors to watch an 'amazing animals' type of talk. I was expecting armadillos (the staple of this type of talk I'm starting to discover) but actually a ring tailed lemur took centre stage, leaping around joyously, before being followed by two macaws. I was really surprised to find out they are actually as intelligent as a 3 -4 year old child - pretty incredible stuff.
We went to see the tigers, who were attempting to detach hunks of meat from large blue enrichment balls, with some difficulty. While the view was great from the surrounding tunnel between the two cages, the heat was intense, and there were around 50 sweaty bodies to contend with, so we didn't stick around for long.

Colchester Zoo is extremely well kept, with hundreds of different talks and activities going on throughout the day. I would definitely recommend it for its encounters alone, and there was so much to do I'm already planning my next visit to finish it all off...and meet my slimy friends again!