Saturday 20 October 2007

On safari

On the Sunday of our weekend away in Sussex, Jon and I went to Port Lympne Wild Animal Park & Gardens near Hythe in Kent. It is set in 600 acres with a mansion and 15 acres of landscaped gardens. It was a beautiful day, so we set off with enthusiasm for a day's exploration and arrived there around lunchtime. It is our plan to travel around all of the country's zoos and wildlife parks over the coming years, and do a spot of photography and filming - Port Lympne was the closest of the two John Aspinall ventures to where we were based (the other being Howletts near Canterbury). Taking in journey time, we plumped for the former. John Aspinall set these two parks up with the aim of breeding protected and endangered species and returning them to safe areas in the wild.

We hopped on the transport that would take us around the park 'on safari', and off we trundled. The trip takes about an hour, with a stop off at the far end of the park, which gives those travelling a chance to stretch their legs, rub their sore bottoms from the bumpy ride, and refresh parched throats at the watering hole there. There is also a 'Discovery Zone' to investigate - basically a tropical area with snakes, an iguana, zebra mice, a chameleon, cockroaches and such like. Jon was very excited to see a tree shrew - the great ancestor of all primates which has hands instead of paws.

We had noticed, upon arrival, that the mansion and garden area were closed to the general public for a private function - but even though I thought that perhaps there was a wedding, I had not been prepared for what I witnessed on our return from the 'safari'.

We were deposited back to the main rest area after our ride, and the place was heaving with wedding guests, which is fair enough. However, it was very weird to see ladies in their sunday best, complete with posh frocks, hats and high heels, and men in morning suits with shiny silk waistcoats hauling themselves, somewhat tipsily, up the steep steps into the army type vehicles for a wedding tour around the park- not one pith helmet in sight lol. The bride climbed aboard too, still in her wedding dress and still holding her bouquet . All very surreal. A very original and interesting theme for a wedding indeed - a safari to Kenya for a honeymoon would be a dream come true, but I suppose a safari on your wedding day around a wildlife park is the next best thing!

It was good to see rhinos, zebras, antelope, giraffes and wildebeest all roaming freely around the large expanse of fields. The only criticism about the tour, though, was that, although there was the usual 'on your right you will see' commentary, this did not really explain anything about the animals - where they were from etc. The vehicle also did not stop very often on route in order for you to observe the animals for any length of time or to allow the odd photograph to be taken.

Apart from seeing my favourite animal - the timber wolf - the other highlight of the afternoon, for me, was seeing the giraffes so close you could have reached out and touched them. The cutest, however, was the baby rhino, who stood with its mum at the edge of the field chomping away on its carrots, seemingly totally oblivious of the attention it was attracting from the humans on the other side of the barrier.

Perhaps it was because it was a Sunday, but there did not seem to be a great presence of staff pottering about doing maintenance or such like. Some of the animals that were enclosed in cages did not look particularly happy and content, and some seemed agitated - the dholes, for example, displayed the typical boredom trait of pacing up and down their perimeter fencing, whining as they did so. Or perhaps it was just near feeding time, I don't know.

We had a fairly enjoyable day, but were disappointed that there was no guidebook - just a map of the grounds, which was not very clear -or perhaps both of us were being particularly thick that day. The caged enclosures were a bit old-fashioned and reminiscent of zoos in the past where animals were just kept for people to gawp at, but perhaps over time these will be replaced with more up to date, animal-friendly enclosures.

All in all, we were glad we had visited - it had its bad points, but did have some good ones too. We meandered our way back to Hastings across Romney Marshes just as the sun was setting. The mists were rising from the fields, which gave the appearance that we were driving through a film-set for Hallowe'en 21 or whatever the number is up to now - it was really ghostly, yet beautiful at the same time.

I shall skip back a couple of evenings here to when we first arrived at the Hastings Travelodge (well, we have come to like Travelodges) on Friday night. We had been welcomed by a young lad by the name of Toby who, with great embarrassment, informed us that, although we had a room booked, the key for said room had winged itself back to Ireland in the handbag of the previous occupant. Added to this the fact that there was no spare key other than the master, we could not have access to our room without the accompaniment of the master-key holder.

After a seven hour drive, this is something that would normally make one reach across the counter and grab the receptionist firmly by the neck and squeeze the very life out of them until they produced a spare key, but the way in which the information had been delivered just made both Jon and I burst out laughing. From then on, we found that the staff at this particular branch were a little ‘odd’ to say the least. Most of them seemed to be in their twenties and all seemed to possess little idiosyncracies not usually found in staff of such establishments. James, for example, possessed an outlandish ‘gift of the gab’ accompanied by the wildest gesticulations and facial expressions, usually only found in vaudeville halls.

It was as if this particular establishment had been forgotten by the big-wigs at head office, and was running under its own rules and regulations. The staff were all great fun and made our stay there most entertaining.

And no, the key did not arrive on Saturday as promised, so we were moved to another room and treated to a free breakfast for our discomfort.

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