Planning the perfect vacation is a daunting task in itself, but planning one with children is a whole different ballgame. For those who don’t know me, I have two children under the age of three, and I have to take them into account while making any life-altering earth-shattering decisions. So in order to ensure that the vacation was as much for the children as it was for us, I asked a few friends based in the UK for some family activities. Zoos, obviously, were on top of my list, but never in my wildest dreams had I imagined going on a safari, and that too in the middle of the UK.
Nestled in the heart of Worcestershire county, the West Midland Safari and Leisure Park is a slice of Africa. Since its inauguration in 1973, it has been home to a variety of animals, many of which are rare and on the brink of extinction. As of today, the park boasts an impressive 165 exotic species (166, if you count the human visitors/caretakers as well) from all over the globe and is consistently voted as one of the top family attractions in the UK.
This safari was a pleasant surprise arranged for us by my brother-in-law and I could barely sleep the night. Like any other visitor in the UK, the very first thing I did when I woke the next morning was draw the curtains open, only to be greeted by a mass of ominous clouds ready to pour down at any moment. We packed our stuff, got the kids into their baby seats (if you’ve had it with one, try managing two at a time), and were on the road. The one-hour drive from our place certainly lifted my mood as I could see the sun peeking through the clouds; the breathtaking countryside views certainly helped too. As we got closer to the park on Kidderminster Road (the GPS lady kept calling it ‘Rod’), she announced, ‘In 300 yards, take the next left to reach your destination‘.
In no time, we were at the main entrance to the Safari Drive-through. My brother-in-law handed over the tickets to the kind lady in the booth, who handed over some brochures and maps of the park and we were all set to embark on our mini-adventure. As soon as we drove through the gates, we were thrown into a lush green landscape. Even though I have touched up some of the photographs, the grass really is as green as shown in them. I later read in the brochure that the safari trail is a 4-mile drive and spans over a 100 acres of land.
After soaking in all the greenery around me, I turned my attention to the very first animal standing in front of me; the White Rhinoceros. Once on the brink of extinction, the collective efforts of several animal protection agencies ensured that this South African beauty would be around for years to come. After admiring this magnificent beast and watching it pee (a mini waterfall, if you ask me), we moved along towards the next stop.
Zebras, zebras everywhere and the only thing that comes to my mind is “striped-donkeys galore”. The truth couldn’t be far from it; Burchell’s Zebras are closely related to horses and were once thought to be extinct. Here’s a fun fact; if there were ever a bio-metric system for identifying Zebras, their stripes would be the distinguishing factor, like fingerprints are for humans. Sharing the grazing spot with the Zebras were the Ankole Cattle, a native African species renowned for their extra large horns. Interestingly, some of these have a horn span of about 2 meters and the largest horned cows are the most highly prized.
As we inched our way towards the next part of the safari, we came across a lone Eland following a bird. Whether it was coincidental or maybe an unusual friendship (God knows we’ve seen enough of those on youtube), but the sight just melted my heart. Later on, I came across another bunch of friendly elands eager to get clicked; one of them even licked his nose for the camera.
The next part of our adventure brought us straight to a mob of Barbary Sheep; extremely friendly and ready to party. I personally thought the term sheep was a misnomer as they looked more like goats, but let’s not get into semantics. It was hilarious to hear my wife begging us to close our windows as the sheep approached the car. Needless to say, I was just mesmerized by their hazel-brown eyes that perfectly complemented their sandy-brown fur; I did not miss the opportunity to take lots of close-up photos.
As we moved along, I couldn’t help but notice two Fallow Deer bucks (male) locked in a head-to-head battle for a prize unknown to me (maybe trying to impress a lady?). Even with head-gear this size, these athletes can reach speeds of 48 km/hour (which is faster than Usain Bolt, actually), and jump 5 meters across in the blink of an eye.
Here and there, I could see stray Ravens scavenging for food. Since Pakistan is more of a crow country, I had never laid eyes on a raven before. Their black feathers just shown in the daylight and I couldn’t take my eyes off of them. Given their coloring, I could understand their association with black magic, but all I could see was God’s mastery at work.
At the end of this first leg of our journey, we came across a gated enclosure. As we got into the gate, we were ambushed by a mob of Ostriches. I remembered reading a story about an ostrich that swallows everything from nails and chunks of broken glass and felt like sharing with my fellow adventurers. The windows went up again, thanks to my wife and all the shots I took came out bad; it’s not fun photographing through a closed car window. Feeling the rush of adrenaline, I asked my brother-in-law to open up the sun-roof and took one picture. Thankfully, it came out alright.
Littered across the path were several items of interest, like tree-trunks, lichen-covered rocks and a temple straight out of Temple Run, that added a little oomph to the whole place. The gallery below shows that collection.
Sorry to take you a bit off track with the gallery above but I just couldn’t resist the urge to share these pictures with you. Our next stop brought us face-to-face with another species of rhinos; the Indian Rhinoceros. They seemed to have an almost armor-like exterior straight out of a science fiction film, and for obvious reasons, the back-side of the rhino reminded me of Worf, the Klingon, from Star Trek.
Grazing right next to the Indian rhinos was a pair of horses, Przewalski’s Horses to be exact. These wild horses got the attention of my son and he kept looking at them for quite some time. This rare and endangered species is native to central Asia and is just gorgeous. The pair was grazing side-by-side and lucky for me, wasn’t camera shy. Just so that we are clear, I cannot take credit for the two photos of my son looking out of the window. Those were taken by my wife who was sitting with my son in her lap; traffic rules don’t apply at safaris.
I turned my head to the opposite side of the field and saw one of the field assistant jeeps parked there; it felt good to know that someone was watching over us.
Just around the bend we encountered a couple of Asian Buffaloes with their oddly shaped horns that almost looked like a center-parted hair-do from certain angles; I said ‘almost’, didn’t I? These buffaloes are a common sight across Pakistan so I didn’t spend time taking too many pictures.
After crossing through another electronically-controlled gate, we stood face-to-face with some White Tigers. These white tigers are actually a rare pigmentation variant of the Bengal/Sumatran Tigers. There were two of them of which one was sleeping and the other one was too far up the hill to get a decent photo. Thankfully, there were some others later on in the safari and I did manage some good photos.
As we crossed into the adjoining enclosure, I saw a couple of Cheetahs lazing around. Maybe it was the clouds and or the slightly cool breeze but for some strange reason, most of the felines on the Safari seemed to be catching up on some serious sleep. There was this one cheetah, deep in thought, looking out towards the open fields, longing for freedom. It was hard to imagine that this same animal could go from zero to 100 km/hour in just about 3 seconds.
The sign to the next enclosure signified that we were entering the African Wild Dog arena and we had to close the windows again; humph! This beautiful dog species, aptly known as the Ornate Wolf, is on the brink of extinction and has been declared ‘Endangered’ by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Hailing from the African savannas and lightly wooded areas, this magnificent creature has the highest bite-force-to-size ratio of any living carnivorous mammal, and it was a wise decision on my part to stick with the park’s instructions.
Lions – no safari is complete without them. Upon entering the area, we were given the opportunity to take the regular paved road through the realm or the more adventurous off-road track. We chose to go with the latter but in vain. Apparently, it was nap-time for these cats and all of them were lying close to each other taking a siesta. There was one in particular that caught my eye as she was lying on her back with her legs and arms twitching at irregular intervals; she reminded me of my kids sleeping.
Then came the White Lions; the stone carving outside the enclosure was pretty impressive. Lucky for us, a single lion was awake, looking after the rest of his herd while they slept. I was a bit disappointed to see that they were not completely white, rather a lighter shade of the regular lions. A wiki search revealed that these lions were a genetic mutation of the regular lions and that their skin tones could range from off-white to light brown. Another interesting fact that popped up about lions is that they have tongues covered with short spines, helping them lick the meat off the bones.
Right around the corner, we came across a particularly inquisitive female Red Lechwe. The Lechwe is actually an antelope from Africa and is a fascinating swimmer. Their legs are covered with a natural water repellent that helps them swim better.
As I was planning my next photo opportunity, a hand came out of the car in front of us and fed something to the Lechwe; and here I was thinking we weren’t supposed to feed the animals. Humph! I was sure not to miss the next opportunity.
All along the safari trail, we kept encountering these yellow-beaked Gulls but none came as close to our car as this one.
Why did the duck cross the road? Well frankly, I have no idea. This male Mallard (duck) took its sweet time crossing the road and I took a couple of photos while it did. Pictures can’t do justice to the true beauty of this bird.
The opportunity to feed the animals presented itself as we approached a particularly curious bunch of Addax (aptly known as screwhorn antelopes). With their interestingly twisted horns and couture coat designs, these were by far the most beautiful of all the animals belonging to the deer/antelope family. Interestingly, their coat color changes with the seasons, white or sandy blonde in summer and brown in winter, which helps them regulate their body temperature (Physics 101, people!). There are approximately 300 of these left around the globe and have been added to the critically endangered species list.
After having fun feeding the Addax, we came face-to-face with this Nilgai, who, for some unfortunate reason, was missing a horn. Nilgai, interestingly, means blue bull, owing to the gray-blue coloring of a mature nilgai. Nilgai is the largest Asiatic antelope and hails from the Indian subcontinent, Pakistan included.
As I turned my attention to the other side, I came face to face with Bambi; yes, the Disney character. I saw a herd of Formosan Sika Deer and Fallow Deer sitting peacefully in the meadow, enjoying the light drizzle that had just started to fall. Their spotted skin looks very similar but it’s the antlers that differentiate them. The white fallow deer that you can see have a natural white coat and are not albino.
This lone Sumatran Tiger was comfortably perched on this platform, looking all powerful and arrogant; and why shouldn’t he be? First of all, he’s one of the few surviving members of his critically endangered species. Secondly, he is drop-dead-gorgeous and those golden eyes are just mesmerizing. A fun fact for you; this territorial beasts marks his territory by spraying urine, dropping feces and marking trees (claw scratches).
As we inched forward, I could see the exit a few hundred meters ahead of us. I actually felt heart-broken, knowing that this adventure was coming to an end. A bunch of Bactrian Camels came up to the car and turned my frown upside down; I just couldn’t help myself. These fluffy cuddly creatures are sought after by many for their wool and milk, but I personally think they’d make fantastic models for plush toys. It’s sad too see that so few of them (less than a thousand) survive in the wild today, making them critically endangered. Now here’s something fun; their humps are made of fat that helps them survive harsh weathers without food or water for long periods of time.
We all know that no safari is complete without African Elephants and these two did not disappoint. These descendants of the now extinct mammoths can weigh a staggering 5,500 kilograms and are the largest living land mammals on this planet. Since they were busy eating bamboo shoots and we didn’t want to interrupt their lunch, my kids and I eagerly waved goodbye to the sweet couple and moved on.
Right across the road was a heard of Reindeer and guess what? Rudolph’s nose is neither red nor shiny; turns out, we’ve been lied to all our lives (that’s disturbing!). Jokes aside, Reindeer are the only species in the deer family in which both the males and the females have antlers. Their acute sense of smell helps them in their hunt for food during the snowy season.
The Grévy’s zebra was the last animal we encountered before we exited the safari. A single well-placed kick from this zebra is enough to kill a lion; now that’s something you wouldn’t expect from a creature this innocent-looking. This, undoubtedly, is one of my most favorite photos from the entire trip as there is a perfect background without any visible fences or boundaries.
With that we made our way to the safari exit. I wanted to go in again but since we were a bit short on time, we couldn’t. We made our way to the restrooms, took a brief lunch and prayer break and were on our way to the Lost City Plaza within the hour. The Lost City Plaza serves as the entrance to the rest of the park’s attractions including a Discovery Trail, Mark O’Shea’s House of Reptiles, a Sea Lion Theater, the African Village & Lemur Woods, and an amusement area.
The first thing I noticed was the breath-taking array of Halloween artifacts on display all over the park. From tastefully placed pumpkin-folk to the macabre tombstones, everything was perfect!
Our first stop on this journey was the Penguin Cove. As much as we wanted to see them swim, these little darlings were in no mood for a dip in the pool. Finding solace in the fact that maybe we’d have some success seeing them in action on our way out, we moved onto the next leg.
Unfortunately, we missed the last sea lion show by about an hour so we headed to the discovery trail instead. We first encountered the bats in the Twilight Cave. This is the best photo I could take in pitch black and FYI, the stench was unbearable.
The next stop on the discovery trail was the creepy crawlies, full of spiders, beetles and other crawlers from around the world. The only decent photo I could manage was this animal skull placed tastefully within one of the insect’s enclosures. The rest of the enclosures were either too dark or too bright for good pictures.
The Seaquarium was a sight to behold. The kids and I were mesmerized by the dazzling display of fishes and coral, showcasing a fine selection of Bubble-tip Anemone, Foxface Rabbitfish, Corkwing Wrasse, and Rainbow Wrasse. I also happened to spot a Percula Clownfish (a.k.a. Nemo) lurking in the shadows.
There was a zen pond of sorts created right outside the Seaquarium where you can stand over a bridge and look at these extremely oriental fishes.
As we tread along, we came to a Blackhead Persians enclosure. I fail to understand why kids love sheep so much and mine would have gladly stayed at the enclosure all day had I not dragged them along.
To be very honest, I wasn’t too keen on traversing the dark pathways of Mark O’Shea’s Reptile World. I’ve always been a bit ophidiophobic (i.e. afraid of snakes) but since this was supposed to be an educational trip for my daughter, I braved my way in. Thankfully, it was relatively bright once I stepped inside and we browsed through a selection of iguanas, alligators, crocodiles, cobras, boa constrictors and pythons. Throughout our trek, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that I was being watched, that one of these glass cages had a hole the size of a fist and would allow one of the skin-shedding creatures to get to me. After holding my breath for what seemed like an eternity, I was finally able to breathe again as we stepped outside.
I wanted to go visit the African Village and the Lemur Woods right across the road but unfortunately, the park was about to close. With once last photo of this old safari jeep and a heavy heart, my family and I said our goodbyes to all the amazing safari companions.
As we made our way towards the exit, it started to rain heavily; the timing couldn’t have been better. After picking up a hot piping pizza from the Lost City Plaza, we made a run for our car. We did miss a few of the exhibits but all in all, it was a fun day out.
The Verdict: For anyone visiting the UK and the West Midlands region in particular, a visit to this park should be at the top of your to-do list.