Safari So Good
By Heather Hawley
It’s an all-too-common complaint of the zoogoer—pay the entrance fee to see exotic animals, then watch them sleep all afternoon. Take Hua Mei, the new panda cub at the San Diego Zoo. She’s cute as a button, but most of her first day on exhibit was spent snoozing behind her mother.
One solution may be to do as the animals do—with Roar and Snore, a nocturnal camping program started seven years ago at North County’s San Diego Wild Animal Park. Visitors can finally give narcoleptic animals a run for their money. Campers sleep in tents right next to where the wild beasts prowl the night.
“Some people save all their lives to go on safari, but most people never get to do it,” says Linda Dellens, who’s in charge of special events at the Escondido park. Roar and Snore brings the safari to them. “We’ve had people who have been on safari participate in Roar and Snore and say, ‘We didn’t see this many animals in Africa,’” she says.
Roar and Snore runs Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights from May to October. The park also arranges special nights for alumni, families, adults and various community and corporate organizations. Some have asked for a “Roar and Score” night for singles, says Dellens. The park hasn’t taken them up on it yet.
The program draws visitors from as far as Great Britain, Germany and Australia. Several years ago, Newt Gingrich participated with his family. Some come back year after year—one grandfather takes each of his three grandchildren for a night in the park. Kari and James Coler of Ramona celebrated their second anniversary with Roar and Snore. They’ve been back every year since.
Campers sleep overnight in tents set up at Kilima Point, a grassy area overlooking the East Africa enclosure. To the left of the campground are the elephant and tiger yards. The East Africa enclosure is bordered by a fence, but rhinos, giraffes and gazelles can meander within a few feet of where campers are sleeping.
Some are nervous about their proximity to the animals. “One woman woke up in the middle of the night and insisted that something was trying to get into her tent,” says Dellens. When guides investigated, they found a rabbit hole under the corner of her tent—complete with baby bunnies. No one has complained of night visitors since then.
About 100 people take part in each campout. The activity starts about 4 in the afternoon; campers congregate in front of the park and are led to their campsite. Patrons don’t just sleep; there is a full plate of presentations and hikes, as well as time to sit and enjoy the nighttime serenity.
Participants are given the chance to go behind the scenes—into the animals’ bedrooms. Kari Coler says the experience is eye-opening. “One year we got to see an African bull elephant. When you stand by the fence, looking over him, it’s not the same as seeing him up close.”
Her husband, James, agrees. “You don’t think things can be that big,” he says. “His eye was as big as a softball—I could see my reflection in it.”
Around the campfire after dinner, campers enjoy shows, dancers—even an African storyteller. A late-night lantern excursion through the park is optional. This year, the campers will explore the conifer forest exhibit to observe bats.
The sounds that serenade the campers while they sleep are a big part of the experience. Elephants trumpet, rhinos snore; lions and tigers roar in the early morning. “Once, one of the male elephants was in musth [rut],” says Kari. “He was banging on the door of his enclosure all night trying to get to the females.”
In the morning, guests hike over to the Heart of Africa exhibit, south of the campground. They have breakfast, watch giraffes and wildebeests and enjoy the quiet before other visitors arrive. After breaking camp and taking a monorail ride, campers can explore the park on their own for the rest of the day.
Each year, Roar and Snore has a different theme; this year, it’s conservation. Campers will visit the Australian Rain Forest exhibit during their stay and learn about rain-forest conservation. They’ll also learn about conservation efforts closer to home, with animals like the California condor. Part of the program includes stops at Jameson Research Island in the Heart of Africa exhibit. A mock “research station” there will educate the campers about conservation research around the world.
That education is a real draw for Roar and Snore alumni. “It’s a concern for me that in a hundred years, animals like that might not exist,” says James Coler. “Through Roar and Snore, I’ve gotten a good idea of what we do as humans—and what we should be doing.”
The message reaches even the youngest campers. Alumnus Matthew Cook celebrated his ninth birthday at Roar and Snore. “I want to save these animals,” he told Dellens. In lieu of presents, he asked his friends to give donations to the park.
Roar and Snore Reservations
To reserve a spot in the tents at the San Diego Wild Animal Park, call 800-934-CAMP or 760-738-5049.
On the Web: www.sandiegozoo.org/wap/roar_index.html. Prices:
Nonmember adults $95
Member adults $76
Nonmember children $75
Member children $60
(Children must be 8 or older to participate.)