If you would like a taste of an African safari without having to leave the country then ZSL Whipsnade Zoo’s overnight animal encounter experience delivers just this. When the park gates close to the general public, a fully hosted event for small group of families kicks off with a welcome glass of bubbly, an evening safari truck park drive, a delicious bbq followed by a torchlit walking tour back to Lookout Lodge for a comfortable night’s sleep. And the fun doesn’t stop there. In the morning it’s back in the truck for one more tour with a few animal feedings and a cheeky chimpanzee display thrown in before the masses arrive.
It was our first visit to ZSL Whipsnade, one of Europe’s largest wildlife conservation parks set on the edge of the Chiltern Downs in Bedfordshire and we will definitely be back. WIth approximately 600 acres the animals have good sized enclosures and the antelopes, white rhinos, asian elephants and zebras all enjoy huge paddocks. Australian wallabies and South American Maras (the largest relatives of the guinea pigs) all roam freely oblivious to the presence of humans and cars right by (the park is so huge that day visitors can choose to either drive or walk around).
At 6.00pm our evening tour of the park started with an open-sided camouflage safari truck drive stopping for an encounter with the charismatic meerkats before moving on to admire the Zoo’s pride of lions who were slumbering in the warm, early evening sunshine a mere foot away on the other side of the viewing glass. After dinner, children and adults were equipped with torches for an hour long walk back to the camp via the flamingos and wolves. Accommodation was in wonderfully warm wooden camping pods sleeping our family of four cosily. The kids went to bed looking forward to the chimpanzee, brown bear and wolverine morning feedings. The children loved being so close to the animals and being able to ask question after question, their inquisitive minds set alight by getting to know the Zoo’s inhabitants up close and personal.
My daughter’s verdict: “It was fun. I enjoyed feeding the animals and seeing the wolverines and the cheetahs. The flamingos could stand up on one leg and they eat from a barrel and it gives them their colour. Then I liked walking to see the tigers and putting my coin in and making it spin round. Mine spinned for the longest and it was really fast. When I was in the car [on the way there] I was imagining what it would be like and I liked the ice cream van. It was a Smartie ice cream and I liked my monkey I bought as I saw it in real life You could go to the fence and a lemur was sitting there but you couldn’t touch it because it was so old and it could get your germs. I liked my Lodge. It was small. I liked the sofa and I liked the drinks and I played outside with some torches and that was fun”.
And my son: “It was a brilliant experience. It was great. My favourite crazy bit was seeing the chimps. My favourite animal was the wolverine. I liked it when we fed the animals. They had a load of them. When we went there they had some baby boar and the cheetahs were sleeping most of the time. We got on a truck and we saw some animals. We had a walk with some torches at nine at night and it was good as we saw the flamingos”.
Respect goes out to the knowledgeable hosts who never tired of the children’s endless questions. It was a privilege to spend the night at ZSL Whipsnade and to share the park with just 2 guides and a handful of like-minded families. For more information visit http://www.zsl.org/shop/experiences/camping/