Kent might not seem like an obvious spot for spying big cats or roaming Serengeti-esque plains, but there’s more than meets the eye to this sleepy county’s Port Lympne Reserve
Snaking along the southern Kent coast – close to the Ashford International Eurostar terminal – are 600 acres of stunning wild countryside, peppered with long grass, dusty tracks, watering holes and… giraffe? Not a common sight in rural England, to be sure, but once you set foot within the boundaries of the Port Lympne Reserve – home to the UK’s largest collections of black rhinos, big cats, small cats, western lowland gorillas and other primates, to name a few – it’s easier than you might think to imagine yourself transported to the African plains.
Part of the Aspinall Foundation, a world-leading conservation organisation dedicated to the management of endangered species, and responsible for various breeding programmes which introduce animals back into their natural habitat, Port Lympne is a wildlife park with a difference.
You’ll also get up close and personal with a walk through the lemur enclosure, before heading down to Carnivore Territory to visit the Barbary lions, tigers and cheetahs
At basecamp, guests board open-air jeeps to drive around the park, hopping on and off at various locations as they go. First stop is the Primate Trail, where you can spot an array of monkeys before catching the gorillas at feeding time, as a ranger talks you through the many successful projects that release these creatures back into their natural habitat in central Africa. You’ll also get up close and personal with a walk through the lemur enclosure, before heading down to Carnivore Territory to visit the Barbary lions, tigers and cheetahs.
Next is the Dinosaur Forest – a slight detour from the traditional safari route, though one that’s likely to be a hit with any kids in the group. Here, more than 40 species of life-size dinosaur models (including diplodocus and pterodactyl) are hiding among the trees, each one anatomically correct, while dinosaur rangers are on hand to give further insight.
But the real safari experience is yet to come. After heading back to basecamp we board another truck, then sit back and enjoy the sights and smells as the African Experience takes us through 100 acres of the Kent plains, spotting wildlife in their natural environment as we go. The rangers who accompany each tour are incredibly knowledgeable about each species and happy to answer questions or talk through the Foundation’s various projects. On our first drive, we are lucky enough to have a pregnant giraffe come to investigate our jeep and we can clearly see the unborn baby kick its mother’s belly. On another drive, we see an antelope give birth and a moody rhino playing havoc with some ostriches. Each drive is different and completely magical, just like an authentic safari.
When you’ve worked up an appetite, there’s a range of cafés dotted around the park for lunch and snacks but, if you’re looking for something a little more refined, Port Lympne Restaurant offers the most wonderful afternoon tea – the perfect way to relax after a day of exploring.
Once you’ve taken in every inch of Port Lympne, it’s time to decamp to its sister park, Howletts, less than half an hour away by car and a breeding sanctuary for some of the most rare and endangered species in the world, including the largest herd of African elephants in the UK.
In true safari style, the reserve offers a range of accommodation
Of course, with two parks to explore and so much to see, it makes sense to stay for a few days – and, luckily, Port Lympne has you well and truly covered. In true safari style, the reserve offers a range of accommodation, from luxury glamping sites, right through to the height of extravagance at the newly launched Tiger Lodge, which boasts panoramic views of the tiger enclosure.
We stay at Bear Lodge, which is perfect for families. The luxury tent sleeps up to six and offers comforts such as a log burner and a private en-suite shower. The site offers stunning views overlooking the Kent coast and beyond and a range of dining options, including Boma (a pizza takeaway) and the Clubhouse restaurant. The focal point is the Mongolian grill, where guests can choose and grill their own food with the help of the resident chef, while children can enjoy a play area in the centre of the camp as well as a view over the bear and cheetah enclosures. Best of all is the family of meerkats, who live on site and need to be fed maggots every morning.
As the reserve has conservation at its heart, all money raised funds vital work with endangered species and helps enable the park to return animals to protected areas of the wild. With this in mind, there are plenty of other activities that can be booked at an additional cost, including talks by expert animal teams, keeper experiences, animal encounters and photography days.
When we go along to watch the tigers feed, we find that the the rangers have set up the most realistic feeding scenario possible, with raw meat placed on ziplines to replicate the catching of prey in the wild. This is all with eventual release in mind, and is fantastic to watch while listening to the rangers talk about traits specific to that particular species. A real family adventure, Port Lympne and Howletts offer a true safari experience – without airports or mosquitos. What’s not to love?