A Safari in the Chilterns – The Whipsnade Lookout Lodge experience
The chance to spend a night in our own little log cabin under the stars in the middle of a zoo? Surrounded by the sights and sounds of the Rhinos and other animals? Yes please! I’d holidayed on safari in Kenya and spent time with Lions in New Zealand but had never been given the option to do it in the UK before. This opportunity was however recently given to me in the shape of a birthday present in the form of an overnight stay at Lookout Lodge in the middle of Whipsnade Zoo.
Despite it not being that far from me, I don’t ever recall having been to Whipsnade before. I’ve visited it’s sister zoo – London Zoo – many a time but although I knew the name hadn’t been to Whipsnade. We set off on a surprisingly easy journey up the M1 and arrived ready to clock in for our overnight stay. The experience actually allows you to spend the day at Whipsnade or London Zoo as part of the booking, as long as you’re at the Lookout Lodge reception by 5pm ish. Greeted by glasses of fizz (always a good way to start) we were introduced to our guides who were some of the most enthusiastic guides and keepers I have ever met, even admitting that they occasionally occupy themselves with ‘Plop Trumps’ in their spare time (don’t ask unless you want a full rundown on different types of animal poo!).
After our welcome we were given a chance to put our stuff down in our lodges, which friends say look like upturned boats, before being swiftly rounded up to start our visit. Pete the driver took us expertly past the huge Rhinos as they eyed us cautiously, past the herds of wild deer, antelope and camels, the largest cow in the world and dropped us off at the
Lions for dinner, ahem. During the journey the guides (Nick and Louise) talked us expertedly through the different types of animals, asked questions and also explained the wealth of conservation work that ZSL does as owner of Whipsnaide and London Zoo. It was amazing information given by people who genuinely seem to love their job.
The adventure through the wilds of Africa and Asia left us hungry so the well timed evening meal was a welcome resbite. Usually in better weather a BBQ is cooked outside, but due to rain earlier on that day the food was served inside. The enthusiasm of the kitchen staff mirrored that of the guides and the food was hot, well prepared buffet style meat, veg and salad as well as some tempting deserts. After we’d eaten the zoo journey continued on foot as we were supplied with torchlights to help us see our way through the park.
It is quite an eerie feeling walking through a zoo at night, especially when you’re being watched on the sidelines by the plethora of ‘free-roaming’ animals who inhabit the zoo such as wallabys, deer and mara (very large rabbit things), so I was glad of the torchlight. Our guides expertly talked us through each animal as we wandered past hippos, very pink flamingoes, visited the tiger Ana and played with the lions. In case you’ve ever wondered, like me, if the animals in the zoo do come to life at night I can wholeheartedly assure you they do. The lions who had been lazing around earlier during the day looking like contented household cats now took on a whole new life of their own. Eyeing us up to see if anyone had a weakness (they took particular interest in a lady with a walking stick) they pounced on the glass and stalked us as we walked near to them. Despite being ‘fed’ lions who don’t need to hunt to survive, you could see in their wild eyes they’d be quite happy to do so just for the fun of it. In fact, the keepers advised us, Whipsnaide purposely locates animals that might pray on each other next to each other in some areas to provide enrichment and to keep them on their toes. The lions definately got ‘enrichment’ from our small lookout lodge group that night!
High on the element of being so close to a skilled predator, we journeyed on through the zoo trying to be as quiet as possible, passing the moose, wolverines and wolves who eyed us and watched us carefully from the moonlit corners of their eyes in silence, the wolves slowly following us as we turned our backs and walked along the well fenced path. Dodging toads we carefully stepped along the path by torchlight as the occasional bat swooped through the air above us. We returned back to our lodge area safetly and stood to hear the wonderful sound of the lions and tiger roaring to each other under the night sky. Magical. After the excitement was over we bid each other goodnight and returned to our cosy lodges, hot chocolate and tea amenities waiting. I sat out on the small porch at the front for half an hour listening to the sights and sounds of the zoo at night before returning to the cosy beds.
In the morning we were woken sharply at 7am in order to pack and leave our lodges ready for the morning tour. Luckily it wasn’t raining and the view out over the Chiltern hills was nothing short of stunning. We climbed back into our truck again driven by Pete (when does this man sleep?!) and were taken on a tour around the zoo before it opened, expertedly commentated on by Catherine and supported by the keeper from the night before Rosie (she had stayed ‘on guard’ at the lodge area with us overnight). Breakfast was ready and waiting and was a full cooked hearty breakfast, just what we needed to set ourselves up for the day. After we’d eaten we were taken through the closed to the public zoo again by foot and by truck, stopping to feed various animals. The chimps in particular were very glad of a morning piece of orange or two, which Rosie had by the bucket load. The bears, which had spent most of the previous 24 hours sleeping, were encouraged to follow us and ‘work’ for their food a bit as we threw pieces of carrot and apple into their enclosure for them. Thankfully Rosie had the task of throwing the dead mice to the wolverines!
We caught a glimpse of the Lynx and her babies that had been so elusive the day before and watched in wonder as the meerkats kept lookout for any birds or the occasional glider plane above and the baby wild boar ran keenly up to the fence for pieces of food.
I’ve always envisaged that a zoo comes to life at night, once all of the public leave, allowing the animals to be themselves without interruption and my experience at Whipsnaide certainly confirmed that thought. Whipsnade has arranged their lookout lodge experience with great thought, supported by guides who know their stuff and with minimal interruption but enough interaction with the animals. I’d definately recommend it.
Whipsnaide runs an extensive breeding and conservation programme – find out more here: http://www.zsl.org/conservation/
For more information on Lookout Lodge see here: http://www.zsl.org/shop/experiences/camping/index,260,ZI.html