The morning call of a howler monkey operates at a similar pitch to that of a toddler in need of breakfast. Howlers have more volume and it takes more than Cheerios to placate them, but they at least are unlikely to be sleeping in the next room to you. Although at Port Lympne Reserve, 600 acres of wildlife park in rural Kent, it might sometimes feel like they are.
We woke up in our treehouse just after 7am, and I made breakfast on the terrace for me and Mae. As howler monkeys howled a few hundred meters away, and rhinos grunted on the Kentish savannah, I felt like a well-catered-for explorer, albeit one that hasn’t needed any jabs or been concerned about attacks by local tribes. Between the sounds of Africa, sparrows tweeted as if to remind us we were just an hour from home.
Our treehouse came with its own golf cart and so with the park to ourselves, and Anna (really very pregnant) left to sleep, Mae and I went to explore. As number two looms, I’ve been thinking more about number one, and the dull ache she causes somewhere in the left side of my ribcage. She’s approaching four and in the last year, as she’s developed into an actual person with a character and temperament and opinions of her own, I think we’ve grown closer. The first year of parenting, I think, is mostly duty and dumb hormonal affection. The next two years were a bit more fun, but definitely with an awareness that I was the second-favourite parent, as she instinctively reached for her mother in times of strife. (And when I say strife, I mean being denied an extra episode of Peppa, or having to wait a little bit for a go on the swings).
But in the last six or 12 months, as she’s learned to tell jokes (exclusively about turds, but jokes none the less), learned to openly mock me and rough-and-tumble about the place, I think a stronger bond has developed. It’s probably made me realise, for the first time, that there will come a day when she moves out or gets married or generally doesn’t need (or want) to be with us anymore. And while that brings a strange mix of sadness and relief, curiosity and concern, it does also focus my mind on the now.
So we whizzed around the park on our little cart, her, slightly nervously by my side (I’m not the finest driver, even with a top speed of 5mph). Our first stop was the howlers, the source of all that noise, to ask what all the fuss was about, then some baboons, to laugh at their bulbous red arses, then deer and dinosaurs. The last of those were fake, of course, but there’s a jungle trail full of them, built to scale for curious kids to clamber on and gaze at, leading to conversations along the lines of, ‘Mae, who do you think would win in a fight between a giraffe and a diplodocus?’ Or, ‘how many monkeys would be needed to take down a T-rex?’ Then we fetched Anna, to feed leafy branches to a greedy giraffe called Gary.
It’s good to meet new people (and be reminded why you like the ones you see all the time).
What is it?
Port Lympne Reserve is a 600 acres wildlife park with 88 species including wolves, bears, giraffe, monkeys, zebra, tigers and rhino. The beasts roam about as freely as I’ve ever seen beyond a series of Planet Earth and there is now a dinosaur trail with life-sized models and augmented realty dinosaurs.
Staying at Lympne
Overnight stays start from £99 per night, with digs ranging from cosy glamping huts and safari-style tents, to private treehouses that are more like Manhattan apartments. Most accommodation has cooking facilities or you can order safari hampers to be delivered. Tiger Lodge, overlooking the tiger enclosure (!) is due to open soon.
Port Lympne Reserve is five minutes off the M20 between junctions 10 and 11, or a 15 minute cab ride from Ashford station. Day tickets start at £22.50 per adult.
And here’s the website.