Friday, August 27, 2004

Amsterdam, NL—Antwerp/St. Niklaas Belgium—Day 209

Today I left The Netherlands and headed to Antwerp, Belgium, the land of all things chocolate, or so I’ve heard. The train ride was fine-I’ve been engrossed in this book called “A Short History of Nearly Everything” by Bill Bryson, and so the time on the train goes by quickly.

While the zoo that I needed to go to was in Antwerp, the place that I had my hotel reservation was in St. Niklaas, which is about 11 km from Antwerp. This is because I didn’t’ get my act together reserving a hotel in time which meant that all of the hotels in Antwerp where surprisingly full when I tried to book into one. So, St. Niklaas was my next choice.

I got off of the train in Antwerp and started walking with my bags to find a train that would some how take me to St. Niklaas. I looked up at the sign next to my train just as I was walking away and lo and behold, it read “St. Niklaas.” So I got back on the train I just got off on and pretty soon was heading towards St. Niklaas, although I realized that I didn’t really know if the train ended in St. Niklaas or what, so instead of reading I obsessively looked out the window checking train signs as we made several stops.

St. Niklaas was the last stop and I got off and got a taxi to my hotel. I then unpacked a bit and sorted some hippo details out and then got yet another taxi back to the train station. I was going to just go ahead and take a taxi to the zoo because I didn’t even know for sure where the zoo was in Antwerp and I might just save time and money getting a taxi there in the first place.

The taxi driver hesitated and told me that it would take an hour and a half to get to the zoo. Really? Oh, gee, well…I stammered as I looked at my watch. HE told me, but you can take the train and it will only be 20 minutes. Really?

Turns out that there was a ton of road traffic en route to Antwerp at the time and the zoo is RIGHT NEXT to the train station. Really, like RIGHT next to the train station? The driver assured me that yes, it was RIGHT NEXT to the station and dropped me off in front of the St. Niklaas station. (Literally, he drove up onto the pavement and dropped me off RIGHT NEXT to the station entrance). So I went in, bought a snack and waited for my train to come.

It did (there are trains almost every twenty minutes to Antwerp from St. Niklaas) and I got off in Antwerp and immediately saw signs for the zoo. Perfect!

I went outside and there it was, right next to the station. I went in and bought my ticket and brochure and headed for the hippos. I got a bit lost on the way there, amongst the bird exhibits and giraffes, but eventually found the hippos.

Oh, not just the hippos. I found… (Drum roll please)


Yes, it exists! Hippotopia exists right here in Belgium. The actual exhibit for the hippos here is called Hippotopia. How funny and totally perfect! And what made it more perfect was that walking through Hippotopia to get to the hippos (which meant walking through a wooden walkway over water) there were not only sound effects which made it seem like other sorts of animals were lurking in the water around you but there was FOG! Man made fog was shooting out of these jets along the base of the walkway which made you feel like you truly were walking into something cool.

I was impressed.

Turned out that the hippos were not outside like I thought they would be, but inside (Hippotopia had two parts to it—a cool outside part and a standard inside part) so I headed into the inside area and found the two hippos Heini (the male) and Hermien (the female) inside, both happily starting on what looked like a nice big hippo dinner—a huuuuuge amount of hay, carrots, cabbages, apples and other hippos goodies.

This was going to take a while.

And it did—two hours later I was still standing there waiting for the hippos to be done with their dinner. Unfortunately while they were out of the water, the bars in the enclosure where just so that you could not get a good picture of either of them without them in the way. The two hippos were separated (there was a sign saying why but I couldn’t really understand it) but luckily there were signs saying their names and pointing out who was who.

I stood there the entire time that they ate, ready with my camera for any possible move around the bars, but there were hardly any. Finally I got this eerie feeling that I was the only person in the zoo (I hadn’t seen another visitor in quite some time) and then I realized that I almost was the last person in the zoo. The keeper came in around 6 o’clock and kicked me out of the enclosure, turning off all of the lights and locking the door. I headed out of the zoo with a few pictures, knowing that I would be back in the morning to get them both out in the open water outside.

I took the train back to St. Niklaas, got dinner at a restaurant near the station and then a taxi back to the hotel. The taxi driver must have been about my age and within the three minutes it took us to get back to the hotel he had managed to ask me out. Seriously. I thanked him but told him no, that I was leaving in the morning thank you very much, but he was still adamant that he could really show me around town that night.

I just smiled and shut the door on him.

(c) 2004 Sarah Galbraith. All Rights Reserved.