Friday, August 20, 2004

London, England—Day 202

Today started off with Jo driving me through London on the way to the M1 motorway which leads up to both Whipsnade and Woburn, the two zoos that I have to do in England. They are just about 15 miles from one another and my hope was to get both zoos done in one day. I had no idea if this would be possible, but wanted to get an early start on the day anyhow.

I dropped Jo off along with her bike and began my solo trek up to the motorway, swerving around roundabouts and telling myself NOT to drive on the right-hand side of the road. All in all, I did a pretty good job and weaving through traffic and miraculously ending up on the M1 just as Jo and Jake had said I would.

The first zoo I wanted to visit was Whipsnade since it was south of the Woburn Safari Park and it just made sense to me to do that one first. I drove up the M1 in my toothpaste colored car (a collective color decision with my cousin, aunt and I) and pretty soon found the signs showing the exit for the zoo. I zoomed off and pretty soon I was at the entrance to the zoo. I checked my watched, 10:01. The zoo opens a 10:00 so I was perfectly on time!

The gates opened and cars began filing into the zoo. When it was my turn I bought my ticket and got my map and found the hippos. I drove right out to the hippos (going a tad over the 10 mph speed limit and swerving around just a few cars really) and accidentally drove down a “Zoo vehicles only” road, parked my car, and hopped out right next to the hippos.

First things first, I had to survey the area and see just how many hippos I was in for. But the looks of it, it seemed like there might be quite a few but as I walked up the embankment to the hippo house on the hill (that sounds like a book, like Little House on the Prairie meets Hippo House on the Hill) and went in, I found that several of the hippos were in fact Pygmy hippos. I walked back out of the house and found three Nile hippos (or common hippos as they say here) in two separate enclosures. One for Ben (obviously the male) and one for Nigna and her baby who was born late last year.

So I waited and waited and eventually saw the baby’s nose pop out of the water to take a breath, along with its mother. Ben on the other hand really wasn’t coming out of the water at all and looked more like a stone than anything actually living. So I decided to concentrate on getting the baby and mother hippo’s photos first before trying to figure out how to stir up Ben into doing something more exciting.

I took a few pictures and waited. Then took a few more, and then waited. And waited some more.

Nigna and the baby (whose name appeared to be “Common Hippo” which I was SURE wasn’t right) weren’t really doing much of anything either. So I started calling out to them and waving my hands up in hopes that one of them would open their mouths or something. Eventually the baby did (probably more annoyed with me more than anything) and I took some great pictures of the baby sticking out its tongue which was quite funny.

Every so often I would make my way back over to Ben to see what he was doing but in all of the time that I waited, he remained in the same place. Three hours of this went by (me standing, waiting, the hippos sleeping) until Nigna and the baby started moving around a bit more. The baby started sort of moving around and started biting Nigna’s mouth and face.

Now THAT is what I want to see!

So as the two began to play and bit one another (playfully, of course) I snapped away and groups of families would come over to ooohhh and ahhh at the baby. It was clear that the baby was teething (I’m sure hippos suffer the same as human babies in that respect) so the baby was trying to chew on something. Then the baby went and found a stick and started carrying it around in its mouth which was SO cute. I only managed to get one good picture of it because the baby kept dropping the stick but everyone around me was laughing, and I was too.

A baby hippo swimming with a stick in its mouth is quite a sight.

I went back over to Ben to check out what he was doing (nothing of course) when a zoo keeper came over to me and parked his bike. Excuse me, he said, I couldn’t help but notice you standing here. For three hours. What on earth…?

So I explained to him the situation and he just laughed. He called the keepers on his walkie talkie to see when the hippos would be fed (3pm I was told) and to find out the name of the baby hippo (Nola? Lola? Something like that) and I thanked him. He told me to come back to the hippos at 3pm and so I would.

Well that gave me just over two hours to wait. So I decided that I would try and make it to Woburn, get the hippos there, and then come back for the 3 o’clock feeding time.

I got in my toothpaste-colored car and zoomed away with directions from Whipsnade to Woburn. If only it could have been as easy as it seemed to be on the directions. Instead of getting back on the motorway (which was technically a longer distance) I followed these directions which had me going on all sorts of small roads and roundabouts. At first I started off just great—had no problems. Until I got to the “follow the small roundabout” instruction—where the heck is the “small roundabout”?!? I passed like six before doubling back and trying to find the street name that I was supposed to have turned down, which is hard when you are trying to read the map, maneuver around these tiny roundabouts AND not hit anyone. Did I mention I am driving a manual here?

Anyway, several wrong turns and over an HOUR later, I am on the right track to the zoo, panicking that I wouldn’t make it in time. Should I just turn back? Why did I leave the first zoo anyways? What was I thinking?

I started seeing signs for the zoo and decided that I should just head in and see what the deal was—if I couldn’t make it and get all the hippos then I would just come back as planned. I really had never done two zoos in one day and was sure that it wasn’t going to work out anyways.

Woburn Safari Park is on this huuuuuuuge area of land which also has an Abbey. It took me quite a while to even drive up to the Safari Park because I had to go through all of these grounds before I got there. When I did, I bought my ticket and a map and headed in. That’s when I saw the “if you pass this point you are NOT allowed to get out of the car” signs. The safari park is just that-like a safari. The animals are basically free-roaming and you drive around in your car and they walk right past you. Like in Mexico, except less sketchy.

So after passing the sign, I pulled over just to check my map for the hippos. One glance, two glances, three glances over the map and I couldn’t’ find the hippos. So I backed up my car to the front entrance (really a move I shouldn’t have made) and parked my car in the employee parking lot and ran back up to the ticket windows. I asked about the hippos and the girl at the window had a vague clue about where the hippo was (turned out to be just one hippo) and sort of pointed in a general area as to where he was, although she wasn’t sure. But she told me that I could check with the office people if I wanted to.

So I thanked her and ran over to the main office and rang the buzzer to have someone help me. Out of breath, I asked the woman who appeared where the hippo was (she showed me) and what his name was. She didn’t know but asked the man behind her and he said Perky. She told me, however, that I needed lots and lots of luck to even see Perky because usually he just hides behind the grass all day and never comes out of the water.

Great. So I thanked them, got back into my car (I ran, I probably looked ridiculous) and zoomed over through the one way safari route to (hopefully) find Perky.

Luckily Perky wasn’t far away but I really wouldn’t know. I mean, I found his enclosure all right, and stopped next to the “do not get out of the car” sign, and even caused several car loads behind me to stop and peer into the murky green waters, all of us searching for Perky but I can’t really say that I saw him. Nope, not even anything. I sat in my car for a long time, keeping the car on at first, and then turning it off, then on again to save myself from the horrible heat, but Perky was missing in action. There were plenty of ducks for me to watch, but no Perky. Not even a peep of Perky.

By this time it was getting on 2:30 and I figured I should head back to the OTHER zoo, Perky or not. I raced around the cars and animals in my way (I mean business) and exited the park without any pictures of Perky, just of his enclosure. I figured I would have to call the zoo and arrange a meeting with the keepers, which shouldn’t really be a problem.

So I hopped the M1 South this time (the motorway) hoping that it would get me back to Whipsnade a little bit faster than the wrong way that I came. But this took me down a smaller frontage road before actually getting me onto the motorway but at least it eventually did. So I sped back to Whipsnade and was getting really impatient with all of the traffic.

I finally, finally made it back to Whipsnade. Checked my watch-3:10pm. Ok, so I’m only ten minutes late. Hopefully the keepers would still be there.

I drove up to the entrance and the woman who had given me my ticket earlier in the day recognized me and let me back in without having to pay a second time. So I tried my best to get to the hippos as quickly as possible but found not only pedestrian traffic and cars in my way, but the elephants too. The elephants were being walked around the park and were taking up the entire road. Ok, so it was actually really cool AND there was a baby elephant that wasn’t even taller than the two keepers walking them, and yes, I had never seen anything like that before in a zoo so I was impressed however I was more pressed for time at this point.

Finally the elephants veered off to the right (standing on a hill overlooking a beautiful valley which would have been a magnificent picture—if they were hippos of course!) and back to the hippos.
I parked my car, jumped out, ran over to the hippos and…

Nothing. The hippos were all still where I had left them. Oh no! Did I miss the feeding? Did they do it earlier than expected?

I went inside to the pygmy enclosure to see if I could find a keeper and to my astonishment there actually was a keeper in the back room. She finally passed by the entrance area and I waved her over. She told me the name of the baby hippo (Nola—apparently as in Barry Manilow’s son) and said that hippos weren’t going to be fed until 5:30.

Dang. Soooo, if I waited until 5:30 would I see them being fed? I explained to her my situation and how I needed pictures of Ben pronto.

She looked at her watch and then back at me. 5:30? Do you want me to see if I can throw him some apples or something?

Hallelujah. Where was she earlier in the day? I said yes and went back out to get ready for her to come out.

She did and came right out into Ben’s enclosure with a big bucket with apples in it. After stomping the bucket on the ground a few times and calling out his name, Ben finally perked up his ears and started to make his way out of the water.

I got a few shots of him getting out of the water but unfortunately this was of his back side, not his front so I had to race up the hill to get pictures of him through a wooden fence. I only managed to get a few ones (albeit good ones) of him through the fence before he walked right up to the area where they are let in at night. Dang. It seemed like Ben had absolutely no interest in eating these apples, just in being fed for the night.

Ben stood there at the door for a long, long time. I walked back down the hill at this point, waiting at the bottom for him to turn back around and come back into the water, but then the keeper opened up his door for him and in he went. Disappearing from sight.

Well, I had my lucky break for the day. I decided to wait it out until the park closed before heading out but as 5 o’clock rolled around it started to POUR with rain again so I decided that Ben wasn’t going to be coming out any time soon. At least I got the pictures of him from the side through the fence so I wasn’t too strapped for pictures. I said goodbye to Nola and Nigna and headed out of the zoo, stopping at the gift shop on my way out.

(c) 2004 Sarah Galbraith. All Rights Reserved.