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!