Saturday, 11 July 2015

Birthday Treat to Longleat Safari Park

For as long as I can remember, I've wanted to go on safari, and I'm pretty sure I mention this to Simon every other day. Knowing that neither of us could afford to jet off to Africa, for my birthday, Simon arranged for us to go to Longleat Safari Park on a VIP tour. We waited a few months, in which the excitement and anticipation built, until the summer hoping that we'd have a really sunny for it. 4th July came: it was a beautiful day, and we were off to Longleat! 

Up bright and early, we arrived at the park before it opened to the public we were directed to the VIP hut and met our guide, Richard. We hopped aboard the safari jeep, and our first stop was the handling area. We met another keeper, James, who bought out a python, a boa constrictor, a Chilean tarantula and scorpion for us to hold. I'd never done anything like this before, so it was a really exciting (and also a bit scary...). It was interesting to learn that lots of animals at Longleat were in fact rescued pets: snakes that had grown too big for their owners to look after, some neglected lemurs, and a rogue skunk! Next, we were shuffled along to the penguin enclosure where we could feed the penguins their breakfast. As we threw the fish in, the penguins dashed and fought to the front to catch them; it was amazing to see, and really good fun - we left sufficiently splashed! 

We continued on around the park, meeting an anteater, some meerkats, and a binturong (an Asian bear cat!). On the way, we got to handle Oreo the rescue skunk, who was absolutely lovely - and, for the first time, I could sort of understand why someone would want a skunk as a pet! We also had a chance to feed Brussel and Sprout, Longleat's resident porcupines, their parnsip breakfast. It was great to be up so close to these animals, and see just how tame and friendly most of them were. Before our handling experience finished, we were taken into the lorikeet pen to feed them some nectar. As we held out our pots, the lorikeets flew over, sitting on arms, shoulders and heads and lapping up their food. It was amazing, and they're such beautiful birds! 

We said goodbye to these smaller animals, and it was time for the safari! Giraffes, which I'd been looking forward to most, were first and we were fast-tracked through the giraffe feeding queue and promptly handed our branches. The giraffes heads towered over onto the pier at a perfect height for us to feed them; after watching the giraffes quickly steal some branches right out of little girls' hands, we made sure we held onto them tight and watched them strip the leaves off. This was one of my favourite parts of the day, I loved it, and would quite happily have spent all day there doing it! 

We made our way around the park, beginning with the big cats. We were shocked to have been able to go offroad in the safari jeep, right up to the animals so we could see them all really well. They didn't seem phased at all but us, which was fantastic; you really felt like you saw the animals in their natural habitat (well, as natural as lions in Wiltshire can be) and going about their business irrespective of the cars driving around. We were lucky enough to see the tigers having a wander around, unusual for such a warm day where they'd prefer to rest in the shade. I couldn't believe what a huge pack of lions were in the park as well, 30 of them, but the cubs were separated from the males to stop them being eaten! 

We moved on to the MONKEYS! I remember this bit of the safari from going as a kid 10+ years ago, and it definitely lived up to the memory. It was hilarious to watch such mischievous monkeys ripping anything and everything they could off people's cars (in the safe knowledge that your car wasn't being destroyed also!). They're all so fearless, jumping from car to car, and it turned into a bit of a game for us to see how quickly the monkeys could pull the aerial off the car in front! 

The moment we'd all been waiting for (well, the moment I'd been waiting for) was approaching: were we going to be able to see Anne the elephant? Anne is a rescue from a circus and, as you can imagine, is extremely traumatised as well as being very old. Longleat have made 'Anne's Haven', a space just for her, viewable from the safari road but far enough away not to disturb her. There's an indoor and outdoor area, which she moves between as she chooses, so the chances of catching her outside can often be quite slim. Unfortunately she was inside that morning, but Richard took us as close as he could to her pen so we could get a cheeky glance! Although I was disappointed not to have been able to see her, I'm glad Longleat have provided her with such an excellent enclosure such that, for the first time in her life, she's treated as an animal above an attraction. We moved on past the rhinos, which we'd been told had been pretty feisty in the past week getting into lots of fights, so we kept our distance a bit. We met Stacey and Smithy the ostriches (RIP Gavin), and some rather scruffy camels in the middle of their moulting season. The last part of the safari was marked by a venture into the deer area! Richard fetched us some food, and we rolled down the windows on the jeep and could feed them out the window. I half expected the deer to be quite shy, but they quickly surrounded all the cars with no hesitation to poke their heads in through the window and fetch any food they could get hold of! It was such good fun, and also really cool to be able to stroke their antlers which were all furry (they were kind of like felt...). 

Our tour had, sadly, come to an end...but it was only lunchtime and we still had the WHOLE AFTERNOON to explore! After a speedy lunch, we went into the bat cave which was really awesome. I'd never been a huge fan of these areas in zoos I'd been to before, because they're always a bit too smelly and sweaty and the bats never seem to be having a great time. This enclosure was a bit different: it seemed to be a good size for the number of small bats it housed, and it was cool to have a wander round. Next we took a boat ride out on to the lake. This was another of my vivid memories of Longleat. We first saw two huge hippos just peeping out of the water; I'm always amazed by just how big hippos are! We quickly approached the island in the middle of the lake which is home to the second oldest gorilla in the world! He'd decided to come out of his little house (where he has satellite tv!!) and sit in his garden. Though evident that he was pretty old by his silvery coat, it was comforting to know just how well Longleat must look after their animals to have some live such long and happy lives! We moved on to Sea Lion Beach where we spotted a baby sea lion, only a few days old. Some of the boat passengers were able to throw fish into the water, which obviously made all the sea lions come to the surface. I love watching them glide through the water and jump up for the fish! 

The afternoon was drawing in, so we took advantage of our delicious complimentary cream tea (which we'd received as part of the VIP package) and visited Longleat house, on the recommendation of our safari guide. It's absolutely enormous and just as impressive inside as out. I didn't know of Lord Bath before visiting, so it was really entertaining to hear the stories of him and then see the eccentricities paralleled in the house (so many paintings, so many 'wifelets', lol). We finished our time in this section of the park with a ride on the miniature train: for a couple in their twenties, Simon and I seem to have spent a disproportionate amount of time on tiny trains recently, but this was the best one. It took us round the park, the lake and past some reindeer! We, especially Simon, loved how authentic it all was - with a miniature train garage and functioning turntable all in view. 

Just before we left, we took a trip back around the safari area to see the wallabies and lemurs we'd missed earlier in the day. I couldn't believe like, so many other animals, that a couple of the lemurs were rescued pets; whoever thought lemurs were suitable pets for a Northern Irish household, and that it would be absolutely fine to take animals out of Madagascar without them being quarantined, I do not know. Anyway, they're amazing creatures that we could walk around with, and then watch get frisky and fight. 

So that was the long and short of (mostly long, I know, sorry). And it was one of the best days of my life. We couldn't have better weather, a better guide, and a better opportunity to see such a huge array of animals being so well cared for. I was thoroughly impressed with everything in the park. As Simon and I said afterwards, everything was done well, nothing was shabby or tacky, they were investing in their animals as well as their visitors. I would 100% recommend the Silver VIP Tour: though it doesn't come with a small price tag, we felt like we absolutely got our money's worth and everything was catered for and considered to make sure we had a fabulous day. Thank you Simon for the best 21st birthday present EVER, and thank you Longleat for a wonderful day out! 


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