THE PARK IN KENT WHERE ANIMALS ROAM FREE
Creatures even include some of the ‘African Big Five’ and animals that are extinct in the wild
IT’S 11:30am and after a trek up a fairly challenging hill, we find ourselves face to face with two of the last 4,000 Siberian tigers on the planet. They are spread across a wooden platform, basking in the sunshine and keeping a watchful eye on the humans, who move cautiously along the perimeter of their huge enclosure.
We’re at Port Lympne Safari Park, Wild Animal Reserve and Hotel, with the coastal town of Hythe off in the distance behind us, but we could easily be on the plains of Africa or trekking through the lowlands of Asia, where Water Buffalo frolic in the mud and a Red panda slinks through the dense bamboo cover.
This beautiful pocket of rural Kent is an animal lover’s dream and for our money, could be the most exciting wildlife experience in the UK.
We join a gaggle of other, enthusiastic early-risers waiting for the gates to open at 9:30 in the morning. Families with young children, photographers with armfuls of expensive camera equipment and couples all watch as a Black Howler monkey swings from branch to branch above our heads, emitting a guttural howl as it shakes itself from its sleep. It’s a fitting welcome for a visit to a park where animal encounters are never far away.
Port Lympne offers day guests two ways to experience the park: By foot, or aboard one of the regular safari truck tours, which depart from an area known as ‘Basecamp’ in the centre of the estate.
We, like most visitors, attempt both. We begin our day by setting off along the paths that dart back and forth from Basecamp through the rolling countryside. It’s not long before our first animal encounter, as we stroll through an enclosure where a mob of wallabies bounce along beside our path.
From there, we circle back past a Clouded Leopard and Serval, both of whom have taken the opportunity for a lie-in, and won’t grace us with their presence for a good few hours. And then, we’re straight into the big-hitters. As we walk down an unassuming dirt path between two fields, we see movement behind a bush ahead. First a flash of grey and then, in one, glorious lollop, an Eastern Black Rhinoceros emerges no more than 20 feet away.
It’s one of 14 who call Port Lympne home and their presence here is about much more than providing an incredible experience for visitors. They’re part of a breeding programme that has seen eight rhinos sent back to Africa.
The park is owned by The Aspinall Foundation, whose aim is to help repopulate the planet with animals that are facing extinction. And two rhino cows born in Kent - Kivu and Tana - were successfully sent to Thaba Thola in South Africa in 2004, where they have since reared nine calves. Given that in the early 90s, the number of rhinos in the world had dropped to just 2,500, that’s a remarkable impact for a wildlife park in Britain.
We drag ourselves away from the gorgeous rhinos and find ourselves in the Baboon House, where a troop of the scarlet-bummed primates scavenge along the floor for breakfast leftovers.
The Guinea Baboons signal the beginning of our journey into the primate section of the park, where the Western Lowland Gorillas are undoubtedly the Kings. Their vast enclosure includes a play park comprising swings, monkey bars and a four-storey slide and our guide later tells us that their bedrooms - hidden out back through a door to a private area - are heated in the winter and air-conditioned in the summer, which might go some way to explaining why the silverback in front of us saunters around the place with an air of complete nonchalance, plucking food from the ground and relaxing amongst the long grass.
But none of the current gorillas have quite managed to live up to the fame of one of their predecessors - the internet sensation, Ambam, whose ability to walk on two feet put him, and Port Lympne, on the map for animal lovers around the world.
Behind the open enclosure is the Palace of the Apes, a huge, metal playground that soars maybe five storeys into the sky and provides a place for the huge beasts to climb, swing and chase each other through the tree tops. It’s a magical sight, and our visit is only cut short by the unbearable stench of gorilla, which is somewhere between stale sweat and old socks. It’s one of the main reasons they didn’t release Planet of the Apes in 4D.
We skirt along another Rhino field, before Red River Hogs, Lemurs, and plenty more primates lead us back towards the Port Lympne Mansion, a beautiful old manor house that welcomed guests including Charlie Chaplin, the Prince of Wales, Lord Mountbatten, Sir Winston Churchill and T.E. Lawrence during the pomp of the roaring 20s. You can read about our afternoon tea there, HERE. And you can see why it attracted such notable guests. The house itself is like stepping back in time to a decadent bygone era when monied homeowners could afford to employ artists to paint entire rooms with murals of wild animal scenes, and install statues on every corner. And the views down across the vast estate to the English Channel are nothing short of incredible.
We’ll be returning here later for a giraffe encounter, which certainly deserves its own write up HERE. But for now, we’re heading up through the beautiful gardens to the tigers and lions, who sit - both metaphorically and literally - at the very summit of Port Lympne Wildlife Park.
As well as showcasing the park’s dedication to conservation, Amba and Amura, the Siberian tiger sisters, have become the pinnacle of the park’s overnight experiences. A lodge built along one side of the enclosure gives a lucky family the chance to wake up to the sight of the world’s largest cats prowling outside their bedroom window. Next door, Lion Lodge offers the chance to get up close and personal with African Lions, Kamari and Hussani. It’s a once in a lifetime experience, but for a cheaper option there’s the Pinewood glamping huts, which are close enough to experience the thrill of falling asleep to the roars of a pride of lions.
Other overnight stays include Rhino Lodge, Bear Lodge, Giraffe Lodge, Wolf Lodge, Hog Deer Creek, Leopard Creek and an assortment of huts, treehouses and forest hideaways that let you experience the animals as they creep out under the safety and serenity of darkness.
We’re not here for the glamping (though we’re absolutely jealous of those who are) so we stroll back towards Basecamp for the final part of our day: The Safari Experience.
Port Lympne offers various versions of the tour, from a 2.5hr AAA Safari (from £105) that whisks smaller groups through encounters with Rhinos, Rothschild giraffes and plenty more, to a 90-minute Rangers Tour (from £30), which takes larger groups on a whistle-stop tour of the park through the Asian and African areas. But a regular Truck Safari of the kind we enjoyed, is included with every admission.
Whichever you choose, you’ll hop aboard a pleasingly musty, camouflaged safari truck and head right into the centre of the enclosures, where the creatures run wild and a guide provides informative, entertaining and, all too often, heartbreaking information about the animals and their reasons for being at the heart of a conservation drive.
There’s something intensely exciting about discarding all comfort and heading into the domain of the animals. The trucks are crude, raw-metal machines and every bump tosses us out of our seat. We regularly have to stop to switch into four wheel drive, at which point our guide can no longer speak over the deafening rumble of the engine. And the animals are wonderfully unpredictable, leaving us craning our necks to catch a glimpse of their bums as they disappear behind a tree.
It’s everything a safari should be, save for the fact that it shouldn’t be here, in Southern Kent - something even Port Lympne’s conscientious owners have publicly stated.
We pass too many wonderful animals to name them all. Giraffes, water buffalo, black rhinos, wolves, spectacled bears, ostrich and even Przewalski’s horses - the breed so wild that even Ghengis Khan couldn’t tame them. As our ranger tells us, this entire species of horse was brought back from the brink of extinction, when just NINE were found in a private collection after it was thought the last one in the world had died. Now, there are over 1,500 in the world, and Port Lympne has sent its own horses to China to help with the repopulation efforts.
And as our long day draws to a close, it’s Port Lympne’s - or, more specifically, The Aspinall Foundation’s - continued, successful efforts to save and repopulate species that sets it apart from other safari parks or zoos. From the safari through to the overnight stays and the beautiful mansion house at the centre of it all, it’s clear that the animals come first at this Wildlife Park. And while we come a close second, we leave with a sense of satisfaction that our money has gone towards a great cause. Our young children, however, left with a very different, but equally important memory: That giraffes have very small poos, which they decide must be due to the length of their necks.
The future of conservation is in safe hands.
Admission costs £29 (adults)/£26 (children) including Truck Safari
Book now Port Lympne Safari Park, Aldington Rd, Lympne, Hythe CT21 4LR