Going on a luxury Safari for my 18th birthday is one of my all-time favourite memories. We had booked a holiday to Kenya and flown to a lovely hotel on the coast, where we sunned ourselves on the beach and drank fresh coconut water through a straw (I thought it was coconut milk until I was like 26, when someone told me that the milk is mashed up coconut. Whatever.)
Anyway, halfway through the week my parents surprised me with a trip to the airport, where we got into a
tiny tin can of mortal terror and questionable engineering small private plane and flew over the majestic Kilimanjaro to the middle of the Masaai Mara. The ‘airport’ was a woven leaf hut next to a dusty strip in the heart of the savannah, and members of the Masaai tribe in traditional dress were waiting to greet us.
We stayed in the most opulent tents I’ve ever seen, with four-poster beds and cheeky baboons who dropped down out of trees to nick your breakfast. On my birthday we got up at dawn and went on a game drive, spotting elephant, giraffe, cheetah, lions and buffalo (no birthday leopard for me, alas). At dinner the Masaai who worked at the camp did a breathtaking performance of traditional dance and ended by bringing me a beautiful garland of flowers and decorated cake. It was one of the most magical and touching experiences of my life.
Fast forward nine years and three children later, and taking them on safari is most definitely up there on the list of things that I would love to do for them. However, the reality of taking three small kids on a long flight, requiring them get up really early or to stay quiet on a game drive in order to spot lions, is not something I want to do- frankly, I can’t be arsed.
Imagine my joy, then, when I discovered that we could drive for just one hour to Port Lympne Animal Reserve and have a fabulous safari experience with none of the stress. Yes please, said my heart, and for once my brain agreed. So, this week we wound our way from London to Kent, through picturesque wheat fields and past quaint watermills to the 600 acre animal park.
There are two ways to see the animals in the park; a walking tour or classic truck safari. We chose to do both, and started the day wandering past wolves, African hunting dogs (also called painted dogs, to make them sound cuter and less cull-able) and lions. The snow leopards were particularly interesting to see as they are pretty huge animals with ginormous paws, yet totally silent as they move. We caught a glimpse of a two-month old baby gorilla, (which was noticeably less hairy than our middle child was when she was born) and saw a rare species of horse that has been re-introduced to the wild, thanks to Port Lympne’s excellent breeding and conservation work. I was shocked to learn that one of the species of giraffe at the park have fewer than 700 left in the wild; the park has two pregnant females due any day now, which is a huge achievement for the survival of this precious animal.
After we had wandered around the trails, it was time for our truck safari. We piled into a heavy duty trailer and were driven through various paddocks containing rhino; giraffe; water buffalo; antelope and ostrich as well as other animals. I was extremely impressed at how huge the land is; the animals are certainly getting as close to their natural environment as is possible in the UK. I didn’t feel uneasy as I often do in zoos; the animals were roaming free and had unlimited grazing as well as their own heated shelters.
The lovely and enthusiastic driver told us that people sometimes complain that they hadn’t seen all the animals on their trip- to me, that is a small price worth paying to see happy animals who are being well looked after, compared to a guaranteed view of a miserable cramped creature.
We had booked a very special treat during our game drive- a giraffe feeding encounter! The lovely giraffe keeper Alice met us out in the field with buckets of feed and huge leafy branches, which the giraffes plucked out of our hands with their long tongues. Seeing the kids’ faces as they gradually got more confident at putting their hands out for the giraffes to take leaves from was just brilliant; one cheeky fella even put his head into the truck to sniff at our packed lunch! It was fantastic.
After our drive, we had another lovely experience, throwing some sweet treats to the bachelor group of silverback gorillas. Apparently they love dates and it was amazing seeing how gentle they were as they carefully picked through the grass to find their snacks. They are such a dignified animal that I felt a bit bad throwing food for them; they look as though they would be able to manage a plate and cutlery! They seemed happy with their trail mix anyhow.
Six o’clock sped around and it was time for dinner at the Port Lympne restaurant. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t expecting it to be great as I’ve eaten out in animal parks before and regretted it. Not here- the service was outstanding, the decor was completely original and the food was excellent. I can recommend the scallops and steak, although I have to admit that being around these gorgeous animals all day made me question my carnivorous preferences.
Tummies full, we hopped onto our golf buggy (included for your private use for treehouse stays) and headed to the treehouse guests’ clubhouse. A roaring firepit awaited with marshmallows for the kids to toast, and bubbly was poured for the adults. It’s a real gem of a place, with giant outdoor Jenga for summer evenings and epic views of the Kent countryside.
Our treehouse suite was just a few yards from the clubhouse, and it wasn’t long before curiosity got the better of us. We got the key and opened the door to find a sleek, chic, contemporary living area with all the mod-cons. A 50 inch TV, Nespresso machine and breakfast hamper were waiting for us, and the huge balcony was the perfect place to watch the sun set.
We had an absolutely amazing time at Port Lympne and would recommend it to anyone who wants to have the safari experience without the airmiles. I was really impressed at how much the staff care and know about the animals and how much effort goes into releasing them back into their natural environment where possible; this is certainly no zoo!
We were guests of Port Lympne via the Kent tourist board during our stay- all opinions are true and ours and we were not in any way paid for reviewing it. We really did totally love it!