An African elephant and its calf enjoy some hay at the San Diego Zoo’s
Wild Animal Park. (Photo by Ken Bohn, courtesy of San Diego Zoo)
ESCONDIDO: 100 miles
By Richard Irwin
The lions were restless. And so were we.
Only a thin canvas wall stood between us and the roaring cats. Sleep came slowly, but the morning came oh so quickly as elephants trumpeted the new dawn.
Crawling out of our beds, we stumbled out onto the nearby patio, where we were greeted by a huge pachyderm enjoying a morning shower.
“Look!” exclaimed 10-year-old Meghan Pender of Pasadena. “The elephant’s giving himself a bath!”
Only 20 feet away, a bull elephant frolicked in the sprinklers. He ran back and forth, just like a little kid playing in the sprinklers on a hot day. The huge beast sounded his pleasure, awakening the rest of the camp. A nearby mama elephant and her baby nearby got nervous and ran away.
Meghan’s eyes widened as the giant beast played only a few yards away. She giggled as the feisty elephant began to kick a ball around.
Welcome to the Roar and Snore Camp at the San Diego Wild Animal Park, where there’s not much snoring, but plenty of roaring.
“Did you hear the lions last night?” Meghan asked me. Then she turned to her mother, Andrea. “Mom, can I bring my friends here for a sleepover on my birthday?”
The Pender family had gathered near the low chainlink fence to watch the mom and baby elephants bathe in the pool below them. Meghan’s 8-year-old Matthew leaned on a fence post, braced by their father, Mike.
And so it would go as our safari played out on the plains of San Diego County. Who knew you could travel 100 miles from the San Gabriel Valley and feel like you were 6,000 miles away?
The night before, three rhinos had shared our campfire. One of the guides said the rhinos like to sleep near the campground, but nobody knows why.
It’s amazing how much you learn at the Wild Animal Park. Most of it you absorb as you wander among the beasts.
On an earlier trip, I had learned that rhinos aren’t mean, they’re just very nearsighted. If you don’t make any sudden movements, you can actually feed them by hand. Granted, we were standing on the platform of a large stake truck on a photo safari. But dropping vegetables into those giant maws was still an exhilarating experience. Especially when they nudged the truck to encourage us to serve their meal a little faster. Waiter!
There are zoos and there are wild animal parks. The two are completely different animals. At the zoo, the creatures are behind bars. In animal parks, they run free. You are their guests.
“I’ve come here three times,” said Nancy Moffat of South Lake, Texas. “This year I brought my 5-year-old granddaughter, Tru, from Dallas.”
Moffat had told her granddaughter all about the unique campground, where visitors wake up to the sights and sounds of Africa.
A camaraderie grew among the campers as their children madenew friends. Soon everyone was greeting each other by name. We had formed our own tribe, banding together like the herds we had come to watch.
When the animals couldn’t come to us, we hiked out to them. The overnight program includes several guided tours, with exciting behind-the-scenes visits.
The Penders pondered their fate as we waited for security to unlock a gate to the tiger compound.
“Be careful as you go around the wall,” our guide warned. “Sometimes the tigers are waiting for us just inside the fence.”
She told us about one time a big cat had scared the wits out of her. Fortunately, Blanca, the white tiger we were visiting, stood out against the gathering dusk.
Blanca likes to wait until the keepers’ backs are turned, then runs down the hill next to them. The “playful” 315-pound tiger will sometimes leap at the fence.
Maybe it was the heat, maybe it was the time of day, but the white tiger lay slumbering against the back wall. Even from a distance, we could tell Blanca was huge.
We trekked back to our camp at Kilima Point; the day visitors were leaving the park. Soon we were alone with the animals.
After building a roaring campfire, everyone enjoyed s’mores, cookies and hot chocolate. The rhinos dozed happily nearby.
Many families wandered off on another guided tour to see the elephants. But it’s hard to see a big elephant with a little flashlight.
Others chose to bask near the flickering flames as another guide talked about the fascinating animals crying out in the darkness all around us.
Only the bravest campers volunteered for the late-night hike to lion country. The rest retired to the relative safety of our tents.
Inside our 9-by-14 foot shelters, campers found six sleeping pads, camp chairs and an electric lantern. Everyone has to bring their own sleeping bags, pillows and toiletries.
Everyone that is, except the families who had reserved the premium tents. These 12-by-16-foot canvas condos featured a queen-size platform bed with safari-themed sleeping bags and pillows. They also had lights, refrigerator, heater and fan. So much for roughing it.
The camp’s 44 tents lined the ridge overlooking the 60-acre African exhibit. Down below, rhinos, giraffes and zebras wandered a vast savanna.
There are many ways to enjoy this African enclave. Board the colorful tram that replaced the old monorail system. Or reserve one of the nifty new Segways or safari carts. The photo caravan is also fun.
But the best way to see the preening predators is on foot.
As we sauntered by the lion exhibit, four cubs bounded up the slope to their mother. Only an invisible sheet of glass separated us from the proud pride. Amazing!
The next morning, we had breakfast with three cheetahs. The Penders watched closely as specialists fed the fastest animals on earth.
So how do you feed a cheetah?
Actually, the three cats had been trained to sit patiently, while their caretaker fed them a meat mixture.
“They were raised by humans, so they’re used to us,” said Mike Burke, a zoologist who has worked at the park for three years. “
The campers had been just as patient, lining up for own meals. The park fed us the usual picnic dinner, hamburgers, hotdogs and chicken cooked over an outdoor grill. So the kids were happy campers.
Breakfast consisted of scrambled eggs, sausage, pancakes and cereal.
After packing up, families are free to enjoy the rest of the park on their own.
<NO1><NO>If they’re not too sleep-deprived, they can enjoy the many shows and presentations. But they’ll always remember the night of roaring, even if they didn’t get the chance to do much snoring.
<MC>(626) 962-8811, Ext. 2801
ROAR AND SNORE CAMP AT THE SAN DIEGO ZOO’S WILD ANIMAL PARK
15500 San Pasqual Valley Road
Directions: Take the San Bernardino Freeway east to 71 south toward Corona. Merge onto the 91 East to the 15 south toward San Diego. Merge onto 78 east toward Ramona, then turn left onto East Washington Avenue. Turn right on North Ash Street and head straight to find the park.
Cost: $109 for children 4-11 and $129 for adults on Wednesdays and Sundays. $119 for kids and $139 for adults on Fridays and Saturdays through the end of October. Park admission ($24 for children, $34 for adults) also required. Tents with a view cost more. Premium tents are $150 for children and $210 for adults anytime.
Info: (619) 231-1515; www.sandiegozoo.org