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Toronto Zoo: Nightime Sleepover like Africa

Nightime has closed in on the African savanna. Noises from the big game animals have subsided but you can still hear the odd rustling of hooves through the underbrush. Rumour has it that a leopard is roaming loose. We shine our flashlight toward a movement and catch eyes staring back at us. It’s a family of hyenas, still awake. Reluctantly, our group leaves the savanna and heads back for bush camp, where our tents and a roaring fire await. After a day on safari with elephants and cheetahs, we need sleep—especially as we will be wakened by African drums just after dawn to catch the animals at first light.

A dream African safari vacation? Yes. We were close to all the creatures from The Lion King—lions and meerkats and hippos and more—but we hadn’t traveled far. Rather, we were on safari in Canada’s biggest city, in the new $18-million Kesho Park section of the Toronto Zoo. On weekend overnights at its Serengeti Bush Camp, families can get a taste of Africa in the heart of the city. Though the sky never darkened enough to see the stars (the lights from Toronto’s suburbs created a bright fringe around us) and you could just hear the hum of traffic on nearby expressways, the new park gave us the feeling of the African savanna. Such natural features as kopje rocks, termite mounds and signs in Swahili heighten the realism. Lizards perch on high rocks; a Kenyan field station captures the atmosphere of a rough and ready observation post.

Our trip to Africa began at 5 p.m. on a Saturday night with a zoomobile ride from the administration parking lot. “Please leave all your worries behind,” directed our tour guide, Julie, as six families and an older couple piled into the vehicle with pillows, sleeping bags and overnight bags. Past pink flamingos and a pair of jaguars, giraffes and ostriches, we bumped along until we stopped at our overnight destination—Serengeti Bush Camp. The wooded clearing was set up with a circle of canvas tents and, thankfully, a washroom with flush toilets nearby. Each family was assigned to its own tent, which had four folding cots on a wooden floor. My daughter, her friend and I set off for the canvas abode marked NGIRI, “wild boar,” where we unrolled our sleeping bags and doused ourselves with insect repellent and sunscreen. For the next 16 hours, this would be our base as we toured behind the scenes and camped near the rhinos and hyenas, zebras and lions.

First stop was the hippo pool where we watched one of the river hippos take a slow underwater dive. Though placid looking, hippos apparently can be quite ornery if their tempers flare. Next on the agenda was a visit to the elephants. The keepers entertained us with stories about Patsy and her female friends. Did you know that elephants get frostbite on their ears on cold days or that they keep themselves cool in summer by packing their wrinkles full of mud? Keeper Chris Dulong demonstrated how he gives an 8,000-pound elephant a monthly “pedicure.” At the cheetah facility, we were allowed to feel the spotted fur of the felines through the fence and learned that these cats can reach 70 km in seven seconds. Surprisingly, they also purr like house tabbies. Our hike continued past lions, warthogs, meerkats and baboons. At each stop, the kids got a close-up view and a wealth of animal lore.

As the sun set over the water of the rhino compound, it was time for supper at the African Safari Lodge — deep-fried cassava root, samosas with tamarind sauce and ice cream sundaes. Then, flashlight in hand, we hunted for primitive cave paintings on the boulders, saw the white stripes of zebras glowing in the dark and searched for that “missing” leopard. Before collapsing into our army cots, we roasted marshmallows by a fire lit to keep the “wild animals” at bay. The only marauding animals to fear at night, however, were the local racoons, who sometimes made forays for toothpaste, so everyone stored scented products in buckets in the washroom. Early next morning, before the zoo opened to visitors, we hiked through the Canadian domain and watched the wolves devour their breakfast. Then it was our turn for bagels and eggs before our adventure ended.

For the kids, it was a rare opportunity to get so close to such exotic animals. They positively howled when an elephant let loose a torrent of pee and giggled when our guide called the warthog the African lawn mower. The highlight the next morning after breakfast was coming nose-to-nose with new baby lion cub Simba, the long-awaited offspring of Nokanda and Rowdy. As one kid exclaimed, “I just love a happy ending.”

Serengeti Bush Camp overnights take place from the third week of May to the end of October. Campers must be at least six years old. The entire program takes place in the African savanna; there is no access to the rest of the zoo until 9:30 a.m. the next morning. The cost—$90 for ages 12 and up, $80 for kids—includes a zoo pass that can be used the next day, as well as dinner, bedtime snack, juices and breakfast, Meet-the-Keeper programs and guided hikes. Bring your own sleeping bags, bedding and pillow, comfortable walking shoes (there’s a surprising amount of hiking), hat and sunscreen, warm clothes (it can get cold at night), insect repellent and a flashlight for a night light. NOTE: no radios, roller blades or bicycles are allowed at the zoo. Call 416-392-5947.





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