Animal antics during a night's adventure at Whipsnade Zoo
- Credit: ZSL
There was more snoring than roaring during my overnight stay in the heart of Whipsnade Zoo, but much of that I have to attribute to my husband...
Regardless of the lack of lions echoing through the night air, there's something quite remarkable about staying up close and personal to such a mix of wildlife.
The Lookout Lodge experience features an after-hours tour of the Bedfordshire tourist attraction alongside the opportunity to sleep overnight in a cosy little lodge not far from the reindeer enclosure.
Weirdly, at this time of year they are bereft their trademark antlers having shed them following the long winter. It's odd seeing them like this and also without a bearded man in red lurking in the vicinity, but lovely having them so close to where we are staying.
Just a few hours after finishing work on a Friday afternoon it was somewhat surreal to be planning a night's stay at the zoo with my husband Pete, but after a welcome drink and being shown to our accommodation we soon get into the swing of it.
We stayed in Bear Lodge - which has that trees, grass, hut Centre Parcs vibe about it - next door to another couple who were also there for the night.
There was a bit of time to hang around and come to terms with the fact that the toilet and shower is a walk away from where we are staying, which I realised might prove less appealing after dark. And we soon appreciated it is colder than we had anticipated up on Dunstable Downs so we pop to the zoo shop for some branded thermal hats. My advice to anyone else taking part in the experience - definitely wear layers!
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At about 6pm we venture off for a four hour walk punctuated by a tasty stop-over at Base Camp for some chicken and chips!
We visit various enclosures and watch the animals go about their nocturnal activities - no not that! - with plenty of opportunities for questions. There are no kids on our tour but it would be a great experience for children of all ages if you're looking for something different to do this summer.
In fact, the lack of screens - there's no television in the lodge - is incredibly refreshing and gave us the chance to have some actual conversation. It's been years...
So what did we learn? On visiting the lions we are told they have no molars and constantly have indigestion which is why they sleep 21 hours a day. These ones are on a visit from a zoo up north which is having some work done on their enclosure.
It is dark when we see them and they look very relaxed about having human beings around, but apparently when they first arrived, they were not used to the glass and the host tells us that they used to charge at the wall. Tellingly, not even the keepers can go in with the lions unless they have been sedated, just to avoid that being eaten sort of vibe.
Next, the chimpanzees. Who knew that chimps have human cardiologists and take medication meant for people? Chimp Nicky even takes beta-blockers for his heart condition. You're welcome.
You want another interesting animal fact, did you say? Rhinos live to be 50 and weigh about two tonnes. There are only 18, 000 left in the world. Which sounds like a lot to me, but isn't apparently. They are hunted for their keratin which is found in their horns.
I can't take credit for all these facts of course. The total stars of the show were hosts Holly Tofield, Joel Connors, Laura Overton and Amy Saunders who are part of a team of about 10 people hosting. They can answer any question we pose about every animal we see and delivered expert commentary as we explored the zoo. And not a David Bellamy look-alike among them.
We eventually head back to our lodges for a well-earned kip - not sure whether that was a tree branch tapping on my window or something wild wandering outside though!
I am not used to being dragged out of bed on a Saturday to feed lemurs but with the carrot of a full English and plenty of coffee coupled with the spring sun shining down on us, it is surprisingly very doable.
Our pre-opening tour takes us off to see some penguins, flamingos, wild boars and wolverine (no not Hugh Jackman!).
It seems the flamingos aren't very au fait with the whole incubation situation, having only ever been mentored by other flamingos in captivity, so the keepers take away their eggs and sneakily swap them for a rock. The birds unwittingly take care of the rock and then the keepers put the egg back in just before it hatches. This means that the success rate of breeding flamingos is really high and it keeps the bond between the mum and her babies.
Joel said he loves his job and you can tell that in all four of our hosts: "Being able to experience the zoo in a different way to most other people is incredible," he said.
The conservation carried out at the zoo is a huge part of what they do and it is evident throughout our visit. In South Africa even some rhino hunters have been taken on as employees of ZSL - very much a reverse of the old idiom of game keeper turned poacher.
It is interesting to think about how much the site has changed since the 1930s when they held chimp tea parties and offered camel rides. Today's zoo is very much about animals for education as much as entertainment.
If you fancy following in our footsteps, the Lookout Lodges start at £298 for two staying overnight and include the tour, entry to the zoo both days, plus a two course meal. You can, if you want to, swap ZSL Whipsnade for ZSL London Zoo on the second day. Experiences are seasonal March to October.