We all stop, cameras in hand, to admire the red glow of the setting sun over the trees, zebra slowly wandering across the dusty ground, dark clouds gathering above and threatening a storm to break the humidity. And behind those trees, the bright lights of… Bristol.
This might not be an exotic safari, but there’s plenty of wildlife to spot at Wild Place, operated by Bristol Zoo. We’re staying overnight at Camp Baboon, a circle of wooden lodges clustered around an outdoor fireplace, just behind the gelada monkey enclosure. As the park emptied of visitors at closing time, our little band of overnighters gathered by the fire — a mix of couples and multigenerational families with children from toddlers to teenagers. Our seven-year-old was beside herself with excitement at the idea of the upcoming night walk; two of her favourite creatures reside at Wild Place — wolves and cheetahs — and she was desperate to see them by torchlight.
But first, we have to find out how to survive in the wild. (Although if we were abandoned here, there’s a supermarket just across from the park.) Still, it’s always useful to learn new skills, so we head out to the woods and sit on logs in a large shelter made from a repurposed parachute. Our friendly rangers teach us how to make fire using fire steels (which I am smug-inducingly good at), flint and steel (we manage a single spark between the family), a labour-intensive method involving a bow and a drilled bit of wood and – our daughter’s favourite – using a battery and some wire wool. This is all most satisfactory. With the promise of marshmallow toasting later, we whittle some bits of hazel wood into natural toasting forks and I learn a new piece of parenting: biting your tongue while your small child handles a Crocodile Dundee-esque knife.
Twilight’s approaching, so it’s time to head off round the park to spot some wildlife. The cheetahs, three brothers, obligingly stalk their enclosure and roll around playing with each other. It’s hard to tear ourselves away but we do, eventually, to watch the zebras trotting around in the dust under the reddening sky. We end up in a hut, learning about poaching and Wild Place’s role in conservation – in fact, conservation is admirably high on the agenda at all points, with harsh statistics about animal survival in the wild tempered with tales of successful breeding programmes and cooperation and collaboration with wildlife parks around the world. It’s at this point that a storm arrives, with torrential rain and thunder and lightning all around adding some unexpected drama. “This is what it’s like in Africa when the storm comes!” our host exclaims with some delight, while I balefully look down at my bare arms, shorts and light shoes. We splash our way over to the wolves — it’s properly dark now, and it takes a while, skirting the perimeter fence of their wooded enclosure with torches, before we see some. It’s genuinely thrilling when we do, though, the torchlight glinting in their intelligent eyes as they prowl around.
In the morning we’re accompanied by the affable head keeper, and the chance to quiz him on the animals is as good as feeding the geladas and the meerkats, as well as learning about some of the exceptionally rare birds kept on site and encountering the very friendly lemurs on a walk through their enclosure. Highlight of the morning is breakfast with the giraffes – strictly speaking, we go and say good morning to the giraffes in their pen while they nibble on straw and then we collect bacon rolls and pastries in a room next door before gazing out at them as they wander out to greet the day.
When we get home that evening, my daughter starts to cry as I tuck her into bed. “Can you please send the cat up, mummy? It’s the only animal I can see now.” I think this trip has given her grander ideas of British wildlife.