Deer at your feet, a night-time adventure, and vampire lions. Just three of the things I experienced during my overnight stay at Whipsnade Zoo.
If you follow this blog you may remember my post about London Zoo’s Gir Lion Lodge, which also offered three out of hours tours, dinner, breakfast, and a cosy summer-house lodge for the night.
While Whipsnade offered this too, the main difference was the size: the rhino enclosure alone was as big as the entirety of London Zoo! So I was expecting bigger animals, bigger tours, and bigger things. Which I mostly got.
Said lodges weren’t accessible until 4:30, but as it was a beautiful blazing day with 15 years of Whipsnade Zoo to catch up on, my boyfriend and I arrived just after lunch to enjoy the patchwork views,
that clear, higher-altitude silence, and the free-roaming animals. Yes, you read that right.
The strange, South American kangaroo-rabbit hybrids known as mara,
a scattering of wallabies, and the dainty Chinese water and sitatunga deer had the luxury of tottering or hopping about most of the zoo at their leisure. We were later informed that if they ever appeared in one of the carnivore exhibits, they’d handily alert us to a horrifying security breach.
Another place they weren’t allowed in was the actual lodge compound, a small fenced area directly opposite the southern white rhinos.
First Look at Lookout Lodge
While London Zoo’s lodges were more like summer houses, Whipsnade’s brought to mind a sort of Scandinavian log cabin.
After choosing our dinner from the night’s menu and a quick coffee on the mini terrace, we were given a safety talk by our guides. As well as the usual “don’t touch the animals, don’t enter any pens”, we were never to wander away from the group, lest security fling us out the gate thinking we were intruders.
This may seem heavy handed, but the main reason for this became apparent at the rhino enclosure.
Out of Hours Tour #1
Whipsnade has five rhinos – one male, four female – each with wonderfully rough and un-manicured horns. As the four females snuggled up inside their habitat, one of our guides tutted that a mere kilo of rhino horn could go for £65,000, and that if a manicure were ever needed, the clippings had to be disposed of under armed guard. How? With lots of fire, of course.
The talk of horns and antlers led us to the next exhibit, the beautiful bongo antelope,
who bore witness to our atrocious aim as we flung carrots, kale and lettuce for her over the fence and missed. At least an interloping wallaby was happy.
Keeping on track with the Africa walk, we passed the rest of the vast rhino enclosure, shared with more sitatunga and stunning gemsbok, and around to the common waterbuck and Grevy’s zebra.
The younger of our two guides also demanded we pay respect to the red river hogs.
It was impossible not to once she revealed that a) one of them wore a Halloween pumpkin as a hat long after playing with it, and b) when they couldn’t reach some food stuck up a tree, they made their own “hog ladder” by standing on each other’s backs.
No “African walk” would be complete without a visit to the lions though, and this motley crew all appeared to be female at first glance.
However, one of our guides explained that, since this wasn’t a breeding pride, the males had been neutered early and so never developed their manly manes. Worth it to stay “forever young”?
They still seemed imposing through the glass, and using a cast of a lion skull, one guide showed me how its jaws would fit around the back of my head, its huge fangs pressing against my neck for a killing blow. (I should mention I volunteered, but they might have chosen me anyway since I was quickly turning into that annoying person who just asks non-questions and wants to show off.)
Chillingly, the fangs are so sensitive they can sense the pulse of the hapless prey, and more importantly when it stops.
They weren’t the only big cats on the park, however.
The Siberian tiger is no more. Technically it’s now the Amur tiger, because it’s no longer found in Siberia. Whipsnade has a breeding pair and their teenage cubs, and they were in a playful mood when we approached their enclosure,
either because of dusk, or the smell of dinner cooking in the Base Camp Restaurant opposite. While one of our guides bounded alongside the fence with the more active cub, the other explained how the parents were a match made in heaven, getting busy within just 11 days of meeting, and the father keeping his boisterous sons away from his mate after they accidentally injured her leg during play. What could possibly top a tiger on a zoo evening? A delicious meal.
During the day, the Base Camp Restaurant has an awesome but incredibly fatal touch-screen ordering service,
but for our tour meal, the chef had whipped up our menu choices from scratch. After olives and bread to start, we mercilessly devoured a delicious roast chicken dish with parsnips and gravy, followed by a banoffee cheesecake and coffee.
Once that had settled, tiny torches were handed out, and we set off on our night-time walk towards the Caribbean flamingos.
Another reason we weren’t supposed to walk around at night unattended – the high voltage electric fence keeping the birds in. Staggeringly, even though it was an Adults Only night, most of us were younger than the birds themselves – some of the flamingos were in their fifties! So much for the “wise old owl” idea, although I did hear a few tawny owls shrieking in the darkness when we set off back to the lions.
This time, they were taking a royal break, sleeping flat out on the heated ground next to the glass, although we were advised this was due to all the digestion. The cheetahs were about as active, but at least they were awake.
The two females on display, Jasmine and Dubai, were draped inside their cave, their eyes bright pearls in the torchlight. There’s no way the camera in my phone would have done them justice so I didn’t take a photo, but their looks weren’t the only amazing thing. Since cheetahs hunt in the middle of the day to avoid the bigger cats, they need a long recovery time if they hit their top speeds. Otherwise, their internal organs will cook!
Another secret was the cheetah “lover’s lane” behind the closed doors of the zoo, where a potential cheetah mate is sometimes paraded around the others to gauge interest. Who needs a soap opera when you work in a zoo?
Speaking of excitement, it was now time to sleep, and there happened to be an adventure in the making. (No, not that kind!).
Whipsnade’s lodges were literally just the room you slept in, albeit with bed, heater, electricity, a mini sofa and tea and coffee facilities.
So say you woke at 3am after too much coffee and needed the bathroom. Your mission, should you choose to accept it (since wetting yourself isn’t an option): fumble the key in the lock in the dark, battle the compound gate – shutting it behind you to keep the free-roaming animals out – and stagger another ten metres to the bathrooms. And while perfectly clean with a separate shower room, they did bring to mind the toilet block at my old high school. Then there’s the fun of doing everything in reverse on the way back.
Still, the bright and sunny morning also threw us an adorable wallaby and sitatunga right outside,
and our own private breakfast bus!
Bright and Early Breakfast
This time we were chauffeured to the Base Camp Restaurant. Not to compare them too much, but Whipsnade’s breakfast was to London’s what Whipsnade’s bathrooms were to London’s: functional, but could use improvement, especially considering the amazing dinner we’d had. Still, you can’t really complain with a buffet!
Out of Hours Tour #2
Our next and final bus-assisted stop was the Europe section, where we spied the European lynx patrolling the fence, got up close and personal with the ring-tailed lemurs (slight geography fail there),
and threw some more vegetables to the wild boars. Another animal subjected to our food-flinging was the European brown bear. “Snow White” (her two sisters were “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty” respectively) was known for digging out her own den in the enclosure and not letting her siblings use it.
The bear breakfast signalled the end of our tour and our amazing stay, and as per last time, my boyfriend and I took the time to explore the rest of the zoo we hadn’t managed to see the day before. Unsurprisingly for the UK’s biggest zoo, there was still plenty to see.
Whipsnade has so much space and incredible views, and the free-roaming animals were awesome. The guides, while at pains to stress they weren’t keepers, were also extremely passionate about their work, and getting close to rhinos, lions, cheetahs, and taking in the sights of the zoo was amazing. Plus dinner was a highlight, enough that we went to thank the chef personally.
As with the Gir Lion Lodge, the ticket would also have gotten us free entry to London Zoo on the second day, so it was great value.
I know I keep mentioning it, but I think staying at London Zoo first worked against my opinion of Whipsnade. The lack of en suites in the lodges would make me hesitate before recommending it to someone else, especially for people who are less mobile or inclined to visit a dark toilet block after too much coffee or wine. Then again, staying overnight in a countryside zoo is an adventure, and this would likely be shrug-worthy to most! I also think the breakfast needed a bit more love in terms of choice (I don’t remember seeing any fruit) and the quality of the fried ingredients was a bit lacklustre.
Having said that, the stunning views, wider space and larger animals balance out the slight inconvenience of, er, the other type of convenience.
Would I do it again? Yes, if only to wake up in a zoo with a deer and wallaby on my doorstep again.