A Very British Safari

Get your Christmas lists out, and throw them away. I have a new idea for you.

Sometimes, you’re just sitting there on a Friday afternoon thinking, “hmmm…I wish I could go on safari. In England.”
No, tiny darlings, I haven’t lost my mind. For such a feat is possible. In the heart of Kent, no less.

Recently, I was fortunate enough to do some work through my day job with the screamingly lovely people at Port Lympne Reserve in Lympne, Kent, and they kindly invited me along to a press night showcasing their safari accommodation.* It was the end of the season but once you’ve read this, you will have the edge on booking up the entirety of the 2015 season in advance.
Hence my reference to the Christmas gift. See? See? It all ties together.
I’ve been visiting Port Lympne for years, as it is glorious day out for anyone. Set on gentle slopes over looking the Hythe and Romney Marsh coast, you can wander around its giant enclosures and across its stretching plains, or you can just sit outside the Port Lympne mansion, pretending to be a king.

Port Lympne is an enormous wild animal reserve run by the Aspinall Foundation, home to scores of exotic animals big and small such as monkeys, gorillas, lions, tigers, wild cats, hunting dogs, black rhino and cheeta. It also has a safari plain where giraffe, antelope, deer and buffalo roam free. It has sister park, Howletts near Canterbury, where more animals gallop and roam, including elephants. The Aspinall Foundation is a registered charity involved with various conservation projects, including breeding, education, ecosystem management, and the rehabilitation of animals into the wild. Take a look at their website to learn more: http://www.aspinallfoundation.org/conservation
And after a day of animal spotting, you can dine at the restaurant or stay the night.
But wait…stay the night? In a wild animal park? Yep, Port Lympne has a unique offer in that it is the only park of its kind in the UK (and possibly Europe) that gives people the chance to stay in the heart of the reserve. You can bask in luxury at the mansion, or rent Livingstone Cottage for up to eight people if you wish, or the more adventurous amongst you can go ‘glamping’. 
This what I’d be doing for the evening –  staying at the luscious Livingston Lodge, which offers an overnight stay in some seriously swanky tents with an evening and morning safari, four course meal, entry to both Port Lympne and Howletts and some serious banter thrown in. 
Image courtesy of Port Lympne Reserve
I started my trip at 4pm on Friday evening, leaving my car near the mansion and checking into the Lodge reception. The attentive staff took my bag (to deliver to my tent) and handed me a glass of champagne. I then had time to laze on the sofas and chat to fellow guests over drinks before our guide called us to action and we piled into the safari truck for our 90min evening safari.

We were blessed with a gloriously golden evening, with clear October skies (though do bring a coat along no matter what the weather – it gets nippy once the sun goes down). Our truck trundled through the park, pausing beside the black rhino while our guide explained their work to protect this endangered species.

Up close, rhinos have a curious grin and are very mellow – adorable really. Horrible to think how freely they are being slaughtered in their wild so people can harvest their horns. You know what, people? THE HORNS ARE HAIR. THEY ARE HAIR. HAIR IS EVERYWHERE, STOP KILLING THE RHINOS.

Okay…okay…I’m calm again.
On we went, watching the barasingha, red lechwe antelope, and a fine dazzle of zebra before entering the main safari plain. Here there are no fences or trenches – deer and zebra were free to wander straight up to the truck and gaze at your gawping faces. Giraffes chewed on tree leaves in the distance, deer bounced about merrily, everyone pointed at a buffalo having a wee. 

Eventually, we rolled to the top of the hill to our bedrooms for the night. And truly these are bedrooms. The tents stand atop wooden stilts behind a sturdy wooden fence and gate, overlooking the plain below.  

 

Rhino right behind our tents. Behind a very strong fence.

The tents are millions miles away from your festival nightmares. Made of hearty canvass and waterproof coverings, you don’t even have to stoop to get inside them, and they’d keep you warm even if you only had an old sack and a bottle of whiskey with you. They come equipped with beds (two singles or a double for the snugglers), heaters, bedside lights, clothing rails, comfy dressing gowns, and a vanity mirror. A veranda with chairs and blankets invites you to pass the evening gazing at the staggering view beyond.

I was staying in Gorilla tent…I knew I should have shaved.

First things first – dump bags, and head to the lodge to grab a beverage. Guests can hang out in the lodge until dinner, or sit on their private deck in peace and quiet. Tea and coffee are complimentary, and all else is added to a tab that you settle at the end of the night. I grabbed a beer and headed back to my veranda to watch the sun set.

I settled into my chair and instantly reached for my phone to start tweeting. NO! I snapped. This would not do – the plains of Africa had been recreated on the Kent coast and I was glued to a tiny computer screen and trying to think of witty safari based puns. I threw my phone into the tent, and made myself switch off. All there was, for the next 30mins, was golden sunset, glistening sea, and the languid gallop of deer and zebra in the distance. Bliss.
Obligatory feet up picture

At 7pm, I returned to the lodge to catch up with the staff and to see the chefs prepare our feast. I was lucky I did – as we went out out onto the veranda to enjoy the moonlight, a tower of giraffes walked right past the building, pausing to peer at us curiously.

See! See here!
The lodge itself is extremely cosy and comfortable, with a huge fire pit serving as our barbecue. Dinner is a veritable feast, laid out buffet style around the tables.

The starters included couscous, a tomato salad, smoked salmon, coleslaw, fresh bread and hearty sausages. This was followed by the main course – another buffet of deliciousness. Dishes included beautifully pink beef, Peri Peri chicken, garlic prawns, ratatouille, stuffed mushrooms, and mountains of aromatic rice. 

I barely had room for pudding, which included Amarula panna cotta and a…I think there was a cheesecake? By this stage I was blind with food, and they hadn’t even put out the cheese course.
The entire meal was outstanding, and the lodge had a lovely atmosphere, with everyone chatting and joking over their meals. As I said, it’s a great venue for couples but I could seriously see myself returning with a gaggle of friends and having the run of the place. The staff were also very attentive and friendly.
As the night drew in, I found myself shattered from the bounty of food, drink and animal-antics I’d been treated to. I hit the hay at 10pm, drifting off in my cosy, comfy bed to the sound of two antelope, somewhere in the distance, calling each other.
The next morning I rose early and ventured outside in my dressing gown to see three zebras strutting past my veranda. I waved. They didn’t wave back. I suspect they were busy.
I joined my fellow guests for a huge buffet breakfast at the lodge – full English, cereals, fruit, toasts – before packing up and boarding the truck for a mini-morning safari on our way back to the main lodge.
I haven’t stopped telling people about my stay since I returned. This is a great venue for an extra special overnight stay – it’s perfect for couples (who don’t mind chatting with their fellow campers over dinner), but it would also be a great option for a civilised hen party.
The glamping tents reopen in April but you can book in advance should you want to give someone a spectacular Christmas gift. 
Also, if anyone out there is thinking: “hey! I have this really big family AND I want to stay longer than one night – what’s in it for me?!!”, well….you’ve got some attitude problem, pal. But never fear, The Elephant Lodge, elsewhere in the reserve, offers larger accommodation for groups and families on longer stays.
And if you can’t wait to stay at the park, you can stay at the mansion or Livingstone Cottage all year round. If you have enough friends and feel like splurging, rent the entire mansion for a not too pricey VIP experience. What’s more, Port Lympne’s accommodation options are set to expand next year. Soon the park will offer smaller eco-pods for a rustic option, and also treehouses.
Go, tiny darlings – be one with the beasts. www.aspinallfoundation.org/short-breaks 

*I wish I could say it was because of my fabulous blog, but to date the blog has only got me free gin and….well, that’s literally the best I could hope for, so let’s not complain.

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