There is really no better way to spend a summer evening than hassle-free camping under shooting stars with a warm breeze and a menagerie of animal calls echoing through the valley. The Roar & Snore Safari at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park allows you to do just that, which my friend Teresa and I did in early July. There’s a choice of tent accommodation from Classic (what we chose) to Premium (includes a Queen-sized bed, rug, and lamps—more like “glamping” than camping). Roar & Snore Safaris feature Adults Only, Family Nights, and All Ages to choose from. Check in time is 4:15 p.m. and, while strapping young men transfer your luggage from your car to a van and deposit it at your tent, campers enjoy the first of several animal presentations in a shady area in front of the Safari Park entrance. We got to meet a surprisingly fast African leopard tortoise and a hyper-alert pygmy falcon while campers checked in.
We were divided into four groups, each sporting a nifty, glow-in-the-dark color-coded wristband, and we headed to camp. We settled into our digs and savored the view from Kilima Point, overlooking the African Plains habitat replete with giraffes, rhinos, buffalo, springbok, and more. After supper, as the shadows stretched long, our guide took us through the new Tiger Trail, and we were treated to a behind-the-scenes tour of the tigers’ bedroom area and the keepers’ workspace. The structure is so well made and expertly ventilated, that if there was a wildfire, cats and keepers could hunker down in the building and stay safe.
On our way back to camp, we got another animal presentation featuring a darling little sugar glider (“the smallest marsupial”), a hypnotic sand python named Woma, whose flattish head indicates it is a shoveler of sand and soil, and a shy three-banded armadillo, which soon felt comfortable enough to unfurl for us. As we headed to see elephants, there was splashing and excitement in the air…with dusk descending, several of the elephants decided it was the perfect time to take a dip! In a tangle of trunks and trumpeting, the young pachyderms frolicked in the pool, as kids are wont to do. As one pushed another under water, its trunk opening would crack the surface like a periscope. Soon it would bob up and return the dunking. The giant matriarchs stood nearby, one tossing dirt on her back, another scratching against a log and bellowing every so often. It was a pool party I was happy to witness!
Returning to camp, where the fire was crackling, we were given the ingredients to make roasted marshmallow s’mores and had some time to relax and count stars before the next optional add-on: a walking tour with night vision goggles! Eight of us intrepid campers chose to participate, and we were given our super-power binoculars. With a push of a button, the eyepieces glowed night-vision green. I squealed with delight.
We headed out past Lion Camp to the Africa Tram road. It was magical—nighttime chirps and murmurs punctuated by the alto roar of Izu, the male lion. The air was cool and fragrant…and it was DARK. Outlines of palm trees and giraffes were all that were visible with the naked eye, but through the goggles, details and texture prevailed. Animal eyes reflected glowing green back at us. African crowned cranes stood stalk still, clearly visible through the goggles.
I was breathless with this whole new nocturnal world revealed to me. With the naked eye, about all you could see in the cheetah exhibit was an ear gliding by, but with the goggles, you could see her sleekness and spots clear as day. I wonder what she thought about this little group of upright apes peering at her through green orbs as she gracefully glided before us, comfortable in her own skin and the night. I will never, ever forget seeing the Safari Park with truly fresh eyes.
Karyl Carmignani is a staff writer for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, Still Ga Ga for Gao Gao.