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.

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