Going in to last Friday’s Roar and Snore Safari sleepover at the Safari Park, I had no idea how literally the name would apply to the event. There was almost as much roaring as there was snoring, not by rambunctious guests, but by the Park’s three adult lions housed in the nearby Lion Camp exhibit. The highly vocal cats roared periodically throughout the night, almost as if on a schedule to entertain us. If you think coyotes howling at night is cool, this will blow you away. The surprising ratio of actual roaring to snoring was just one of the highlights of the Roar and Snore Safari. I’ve been to the Safari Park a million times but I had no idea that spending just one night there would forever alter my perspective of the Park and its animals.
After meeting in the preferred parking lot at the start of the event, unloading our bags and collecting our free t-shirts, we were treated to a presentation of an African pygmy falcon named Kipanga, whose constant vocalizing and posturing betrayed his serious Napoleon complex. Then we were herded through the near-empty Park to the Roar & Snore campground for a delicious buffet dinner. Keep in mind that the Park closes right around the time you get to the campground so you and your fellow campers essentially have all 900 acres of the Park to yourselves. You can almost trick yourself into thinking it was built just for you. It’s an incredible feeling.
After dinner (which was far better than your average campground meal!) we split up into two groups and went off on a guided behind-the-scenes tour of the Park. The first stop of the tour was at the tiger exhibit, where we got a close look at the Park’s two 5-month-old Sumatran tiger cubs, Joanne & Majel. I had seen many photos and videos of the cubs but it was my first time seeing them in person and the experience was indescribable. They came right up to the fence to greet us and kept pacing back and forth curiously. It was amazing to look them in the eyes and have them stare back in that cold, calculating way that nature’s top predators do. They are being raised in a Zoo setting with human contact, but it surprised me just how WILD they seemed. It saddens me to think they are one of the most endangered species on the planet, with only about 400 left in the wild.
After hanging with Joanne & Majel we cruised over to the Conifer Forest and met a few more animal ambassadors, such as a charming hedgehog and a ball python. Then we made our way to the elephant exhibit to have a look behind the scenes. Our jovial tour guide was like a walking animal trivia book, giving us constant insight into the animals at the Park and what it takes to care for them. Apparently the writers of the movie Jurassic Park visited the Safari Park’s elephant exhibit to get ideas for what it would take to enclose dinosaurs. Staring at the immense steel gates jutting into the night sky, I could see why.
Flashlights in hand, we continued over to Condor Ridge to check out native Southern Californian wildlife settling in for the night. As we were touring Condor Ridge I realized that the Park totally transforms after dark. Because it’s 40 miles from San Diego, there’s no light pollution and the stars shine bright. From up on Condor Ridge you can look out upon the entire Park and most of the San Pasqual Valley, listening to the calls of thousands of exotic animals in the dark. It’s enchanting. And seeing a California condor emerge from the dark by flashlight and spread its 10-foot wings is an image I’ll never forget.
After exploring Condor Ridge, we were led back to the campground to relax for a while and munch on all-you-can-eat smores (what would a camp out be without smores!) before our final nighttime foray into Lion Camp. When we got to Lion Camp we were led into the back holding area where both lionesses, Mina and Oshana, and the Park’s male lion, Izu, were lounging for the night. At one point one of the lionesses jumped up onto the glass to get a closer look at her admirers, but the most memorable moment for me was when Izu came close to the glass. Izu is significantly larger than his lady friends (about the size of a small car in my opinion), and his presence is intensely humbling.
When we returned from Lion Camp it was time to grab some more coffee or hot chocolate and wind down for bed. In the morning we were treated to a delicious breakfast and a two-hour walking tour of the African Outpost and African Woods areas before we were led out to the entrance to complete our experience.
The Roar & Snore was definitely one of the most unique experiences I’ve ever had. I’ll never forget drifting off to sleep amidst the cooing of African crowned cranes, the roaring of lions, and of course, the soft snoring of campers. And one thing is certain–I’ll never see the Safari Park the same again.
Matt Steele is the social media planner for the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Winter Brewmaster Dinner Featuring Pizza Port.
Check out the rest of Matt’s pics on flickr.