IT is 5.45am – waking hour on safari. Close to the tent, there are groups of feeding buffalo and wildebeests and slowly loping giraffes. Behind them, there is a spectacular view of the Kent coast and English Channel with France in the distance.
This is what it is like to go on safari, English-style. And despite driving only an hour down the M20, instead of venturing into the heart of Africa, the panorama is magnificent.
For a credit crunch version of the African dream, the overnight stay at Livingstone Safari Lodge at Port Lympne Wild Animal and Safari Park in Kent is a summer treat. After all, why pay thousands to travel across the globe, when you can sample it for £115, and even take your (nine-year-old plus) children?
We dressed quickly, sorry to be leaving the cosy warmth of our luxury tents. But with the sun still rising over the Romney marshes, we were in for a treat as we hopped on board the safari truck and drove slowly past grazing zebra, impala and ostrich. Our Zimbabwe-born guide Warren Cathro, who has spent 35 years working as a ranger and conservationist, gave a running commentary as hungry giraffes literally poked their heads in the jeep to wolf down slices of bread.
Then it was back to the warm, homely Lapa, the African-style meeting room near our tents, for a bang-up bacon and egg breakfast. Some things, after all, really are better the English way.
We had been met at 3.30pm the day before at the park entrance by Warren, who greeted us with a welcome drink and an impassioned speech about the park’s work. The fact the animals are thriving here in the “wilds” of Kent is down to the late John Aspinall, who set up this 600-acre estate as a haven for endangered animals. Today, more than 1,000 animals roam free and visitors can also see caged Siberian and Indian tigers, Barbary lions, small cats, monkeys and the world’s largest gorilla enclosure.
Chugging off in the safari jeep, we soon came across the black rhino, an animal that’s almost extinct thanks to a black market trade which sells their horns for up to £30,000.
Then we took time to gaze at the elephants before spending a couple of hours lumbering through farmland as Warren pointed out the many different breeds of animals, and even the “mistakes” that had left one group all white – a freak of nature.
By early evening we had reached our safari accommodation at the top of the hill – a row of luxury tents built on wooden decks. It’s more glamping than camping, with comfortable twin beds, fluffy robes and even a desk in case you feel like writing a postcard about your wilderness adventure.
And dinner was hardly campfire cooking either though the delicious African themed buffet did include steaks cooked at the indoor wood fire.
After a couple of wines, all that was left to do was hear more from Warren about his twin passions – conservation and sport. He didn’t seem so thrilled when talk turned to what a thrashing the Springboks have taken in rugby lately. Perhaps the 5.45am wake-up was his revenge.
Livingstone Lodge overnight safari at Port Lympne, near Hythe, runs from March 31 to mid October, for groups of up to 18. Participants are free to tour the rest of Port Lympne at their leisure when the safari ends mid-morning. Call 01303 234190 for further details.