The thrill of seeing animals in the wild in Africa’s national parks is one of life’s great travel adventures. But sometimes you can’t wait for Africa to get your travel fix. A visit to Port Lympne Reserve in Kent, owned and managed by the Aspinall Foundation, provides an opportunity to go on safari without leaving the UK, but how does it compare to the real thing?
The organisation’s credentials are good: known for its work breeding rare and endangered species, the park is home to 25 painted dogs, 17 Western lowland gorillas, 15 Eastern black rhinoceros and 5 Rothschild giraffes. The park’s animals are housed in a variety of ways, with some roaming freely across acres of rolling fields and others in purpose built enclosures.
It’s possible to visit for the day but for a special occasion, Port Lympne has a range of overnight accommodation. We chose to rent a cottage, but could equally have spent the night in a glamping tent, hotel or even a treehouse suite. Further accommodation is planned, as is a spa, expected in around 18 months time.
Our cottage slept eight and was very comfortable for our party of six. Each of the four bedrooms was a generous size, in particular the master suite, which had a huge bathroom attached. Attention to detail was evident throughout, such as finding cute little elephant hooks for the bathroom robes. We enjoyed the services of a personal chef who cooked us a three course dinner and came back to serve up a full English the following morning. It was an impressive set up which pleased everyone.
From the windows, we looked down over fields grazed by some of the park’s animals, though admittedly from a distance. If you’re serious about wildlife spotting from your bedroom, you’re going to need to bring binoculars. There was something almost surreal about hearing the shout of “Quick! I can see a rhino from the bathroom window!” when your brain is protesting you are so close to home. Less fun was finding the nieces had hidden the resident oversized gorilla plushy with the spooky eyes in our bath as a joke, though they found my screams hilarious.
But it was the safari experience that set the trip apart. Our guide, Rebecca, was knowledgable without being preachy and supplied enough anecdotes to prevent the whole thing turning into a Biology field trip. She explained about conservation and environmental pressures on creatures in the wild in the context of the animals’ own personal histories. We didn’t see the new born giraffe that was resolutely hiding inside, but we did meet the extended family from our Land Rover vantage point.
Larger safari trucks ferry passengers around Port Lympne’s extensive site, but the advantage of being in a smaller vehicle was that we could go off road from time to time to get a closer look at some of the grazing herds.
The Bactrian camels looked somewhat scruffy as they were blowing their fur coats, and somehow wildebeest always do, but the small herd of Chapman zebra looked to be in fine condition. Save for the distant view of the English Channel, we could have been on that African safari.The morning safari was shorter, but took us to different parts of the park to see ostrich, eland, baboons and more.
Afterwards, we spent a few more hours wandering the pedestrian paths that looped the animal enclosures, timing our visit to the gorillas to coincide with feeding time and watching a Siberian tiger hunt out meat that had been hidden in her patch.
It felt slightly odd to be seeing primates in cages after our safari, but obviously it wasn’t going to be safe, practical or possible for a silverback to be mingling with the crowd.
How did I feel about the trip? Well I came home and booked a flight to Uganda. I’m going to be taking my third African safari in early 2019.
Uda Walawe National Park is home to the largest concentration of elephants in Sri Lanka. It was created in 1972 and centres on the Uda Walawe reservoir. Although in March there was quite dense vegetation on the way in to the park, it thinned by the lake shore and thus made it easier to see wildlife. At first, sightings were limited to a few monitor lizards and birds, neither of which excited me much. But at the lake, a couple of herons were pottering about in the shadows seemingly oblivious to the crocodile skulking behind them. In the middle distance, some water buffalo wallowed.
But I’d come to see the elephants, said to number around six hundred, making it the best place to view them in the country. Easily seen year-round, herds can number over fifty but the largest family group I saw was eleven, still impressive. Our first sighting, a mother with two juveniles, was entertaining. They took a stroll down to the lake where the youngest couldn’t wait to relieve himself in the water. Toilet taken care of, it could bathe happily before the trio wandered back into the bush.
As we drove along the lake shore dirt track, a lone adolescent passed us at close range, near enough to leave us in no doubt that he was a male. Unperturbed by the camera clicking, he ambled past towards the lake.
In the vegetation, the thick leaves can provide excellent camouflage, but the guide was equally skilled in locating the wildlife. This was our closest encounter, though fortunately the creature was very docile and didn’t warn us off.
A herd of eleven including two babies was the highlight of the drive. One infant looked to be just three months old or thereabouts, with the other perhaps six months. It’s always delightful to see how the older members of the family protect the youngest when they’re on the move, keeping the babies close by but placing themselves between infant and safari vehicle just in case.
There are other species to keep the elephants company, and I saw plenty of water buffalo and in the distance, a couple of spotted deer. A family of monkeys swung in the branches of a tree and amongst the birds I recognised were a grey heron and a kingfisher by a lake so full of green algae it was hard to decide which was the most vibrant in colour. Leopards are said to be present in small numbers though I wasn’t lucky enough to encounter one.
While some people stay at one of the nearby hotels or guesthouses, I took a game drive en route from Ella to Galle. The three hour stop was a welcome diversion from sitting in the car. My driver arranged a safari jeep within minutes and it cost about £45 for a private excursion with Wild Safari Service including all entrance fees. Be prepared to haggle.
As a keen proponent of independent travel, you might be surprised to find I’m also an advocate of hiring a good guide. While it’s great to wander aimlessly round a city stumbling over its hidden and not so hidden attractions, there are some destinations where a guide will significantly enhance your experience. Sometimes, as in Cappadocia, hiking for the first time after injuring my back, I was grateful not only for my guide’s navigational ability but for a helping hand over what were at the time quite challenging boulders and slippery gravel paths. My favourite guide, by a considerable margin, was the inimitable Mapunda, with whom I spent an exhilarating, and at times hysterical, few days amidst some of Tanzania’s most beautiful scenery. Here’s why we had such a fun time:
“Let me tell you why I am named Mapunda. A long time ago, my ancestors lived in South Africa. They embarked on a long journey, crossing Mozambique before settling in the south of Tanzania. Along the way, they killed zebra to eat. It was the way they survived. Because of the zebra, I am here today. And in my language, the word for zebra is mapunda.”
Mapunda went by the nickname Zebraman. He had worked as a driver for a safari company based in Arusha, in the north of Tanzania, for the past eight years. Before that, until the threat from poaching got too dangerous, he was a ranger at Tarangire National Park. But Mapunda had a secret. He dreamt of owning his own safari company and working for himself. This was a huge endeavour. To buy a brand new safari vehicle outright would cost over $60,000, so he planned to rent. On the side, he dreamed, it would have a zebra logo, black and white not only being the colours of the animal after which he was named, but also, he added, for the black and white people that would all be welcome to travel in it. Proudly, he gave me his business card, bearing the logo of two zebras facing in opposite directions watching for lions. As he shared his plans, his eyes lost their customary sad, wistful appearance and shone brightly. It was clear this meant the world to him.
Tarangire, our first stop, is known for its elephants, a childhood favourite of mine. The first thing Mapunda pointed out, however, was not a living creature. Instead, he showed me the house he lived in during his ranger days. He spoke with fondness, apologising unnecessarily for delaying the start of our safari. Later, his ranger experience paid dividends as he always knew the best places to find the animals, even during their midday nap. Without malice, he was dismissive of many of the other drivers, tutting after they asked him where the best spots were, or, worse still, follow him to tailgate on the wildlife he had found. He always helped them, though.
Coming in dry season, the grass was dry and river levels low. We forded the Tarangire River several times during the course of the day, watching zebras and wildebeest linger bravely for a drink whilst keeping a watchful eye out for any hungry lions that might pick off their weakest. Impalas grazed under five hundred year old baobab trees, skittish as Mapunda cut the engine and pulled alongside. Nonchalant giraffes munched on the highest leaves, their long thick tongues gently caressing each stem as they made their choice.
As we ate our sandwiches, Mapunda taught me some Swahili. ‘Tembo’ meant elephant, ‘simba,’ lion; ‘nina taka’ translated as ‘I want’. After lunch, it was time to try it out.
“Nina taka tembo.”
The elephant, grazing a few short metres away from the vehicle, flapped his ears wide and lifted his trunk, warning us off. I was transfixed.
Eventually, Mapunda asked if I was ready to go.
“Sawa sawa,” I answered. “OK.”
We headed down to the river, rewarded by the sight of more of these magnificent creatures blowing water and quenching their thirst. Others, further up the river, wallowed in the mud in the shallows, rolling onto their backs with the bliss that comes from cooling off from the relentless sun. Each encounter left me wanting more.
Mapunda was patient, indulging me. Click, click, click. Mapunda was keen to make sure I was getting good shots, and enthused when I showed him what I’d taken.
“Nina taka simba? Or more elephants, Julia? Or a zebra. Why don’t you like my zebras?” he teased.
It became a regular joke that if I saw elephants, I was happy. Equally, he would laugh when I would fake that the zebras were the highlight of that particular drive. We got each other. Sometimes a look was all it took to have us both hooting with laughter.
Mapunda and I joked that I said “Nina taka” and what I wished for immediately came true. Perhaps I should have said “Nina taka lottery win” or for Mapunda, “Nina taka lots of clients for the new business.”
Each day, Mapunda was punctual, eyes bright, grin wide. His enthusiasm was infectious: I felt lucky to be spending time with someone with such a zest for life. I’d been on safari before, but this time, the memories have endured, more than just the animals I spotted, and I reckon that’s mostly down to Mapunda. Every now and then I get an email from him. The business is slowly getting up and running and his gratitude to each client is a reminder that we should all count our blessings.