I've been to animal parks as far afield as Orlando and Tenerife, aswell as Whipsnade and Longleat. Surprising then that until today I have no real recollection of visiting Knowsley Safari Park.
I'm almost certain I have. I have vague memories of being carted around there some 25 years ago or more in a Variety Club Sunshine bus. We used to cruelly refer to it as the window-licking bus. I don't know if they still have them now. It's been just that long.
Whether I had or I hadn't been before, I was certainly due a visit. Well, what else are you going to do on a sport-less Bank Holiday Monday in August when cinema options extend to another God-awful Adam Sandler 'comedy' or a tit-drenched re-make of Piranha? Actually.............
It was a pretty reasonable £14 for both Emma and I to gain entrance into the park. For that you apparently get almost five miles worth of what they call 'Safari Drive', plus entry to pedestrianised displays such as a sea lion show, a falconry demonstration and a house full of disgusting bugs. More on which later on.
This being England, there is an access issue straight off the bat. Were I in possession of fully-functioning legs I would also have been able to take a stroll through the woodland trail area. Since I am not I was not able to do so, and so missed out on whatever weird wonders lurked therein. I have seen something similar in the Lake District and so can only imagine that it is mostly greenery, birds (and not the kind found in the Piranha movie), squirrels and foxes and maybe the odd badger. You may take the view that I am not missing out on very much, whereas I take the view that any opportunity to complain about inaccessiblity at tourist attractions should be seized upon instantly.
With woodland trails out of the equation we began our Safari Drive. Accompanying the drive is an audio guide. In other words, a CD containing commentary on all the species living in the park. Unlike it's Longleat counterpart which is far more generic and therefore helpful, this effort was recorded during an actual Safari Drive taken by a broadcaster and someone called Dave (obviously). Dave was one of the people responsible for the foundation of the park in 1971, and clearly knows his stuff. What he doesn't know about animals could only be gleaned by repeatedly torturing Terry Nutkins and Chris Packham. However, since he is speaking during an actual Safari Drive, he is making reference to sightings and events that are clearly not happening back in the real world;
"Yes and now we have an emu blocking the road, and we could be here for a while." he says philosophically, while we were actually sat in a queue of at least 10-15 cars, the drivers of which had stopped to watch a group of elephants. There wasn't an emu within 400 yards. He went on to describe visits to his vehicle from squirrels and of course the obligatory baboons, none of which were present in reality.
The park was not busy considering today is a Bank Holiday, but at one point around the elephant section all three lanes of the road were gridlocked. This is all very well if you like looking at elephants, but even so it can only keep your attention for a limited amount of time. My advice would be to pause the CD at this point, lest you find yourself listening to a description of lions and wildebeest when all you can see are elephants. And some Mondeos.
If all this sounds like a complaint it isn't. It's preferable for the drive to take up a significant amount of your time. There would be little point in racing around there in 10 minutes, regarding these magnificent beasts in the same way that you would a group of cows in a field by the M6. They deserve better and they are going to make damn sure you pay attention to them.
The best examples of this came in lion country. Many zoos might have two, maybe three lions living on their land, all of which are cooped up rather sadly in hardly adequate caging. Not so here, where a full pride of what must have been 10 or so lions had the run of the woodland. Acres of space, as sports commentators would have it. One lioness brazenly crossed the road metres from the front of the car. She didn't even stop to look at the gormless people who had come to gawp at her. Instead she merely plodded on and returned to the rest of the pride for what lions love best, a bit of a lie down. Seeing a lion roaming around from those sorts of close quarters was something special, even if it didn't have the social skills to acknowledge us. Lions these days............
Other roadblocks were provided by a stubborn and slightly aloof camel and several baboons. We'd chosen the car-friendly route to view the baboons. We've had enough trouble with our car this year without subjecting it to the bottoms of potentially 140 mischievous monkeys. Barely a week goes by without some kind of warning light coming on and some mechanic stroking his stubble, taking a sharp intake of breath and saying.......'it's gonna cost you'. I pride myself on my ability to waste money but the budget is not limitless, and anyway there is the principle of not giving your cash to cowboys isn't there?
Anyway, back to baboons. Despite taking the safe route we were still offered a fantastic view of the animals. You can see close up all of the gullible folk who don't mind losing the odd windscreen wiper driving along with five or six baboons on the roof. To be fair most of these cars seemed to contain very young children with delighted faces. Perhaps it is worth losing a windscreen wiper or two to see your child's face light up like that. I can only speculate. What I hadn't expected was the sight of several baboons blocking the passage of many of these cars by simply lying in the road. Today has been a reasonably warm day but you would think they could find somewhere safer to sunbathe.
Now, remember that bug house I was telling you about? It was a truly horrifying place. People have offered me the argument that snakes and spiders are 'cute' and are perfectly acceptable pets but of course this is arrant nonsense. Snakes are ugly, spiders even more so. Matching them in the ugly stakes are crocodile newts, leaf-cutter ants, salamanders, brightly coloured poisonous frogs and the utterly revolting legless lizard. He's not drunk, he literally has no legs. The major difference, apparently, between he and a snake is the presence of eyelids. Snakes don't have eyelids. They don't have personality either. There's also beetles, tarantulas and scorpions on view if you are so inclined.
Of far more appeal to me was the sea lion show we witnessed following our escape from the bug house. Reggie and Biffo (falling out of my chair laughing at this point, Biffo? Tell you what, you can call him Biffo but he walked better than I can) performed an array of fairly standard tricks ranging from clapping when directed to leaping out of the water to head a football. Of course there was the time-honoured balancing of said ball on the sea lions nose, although at only 14 months young Reggie clearly still has much to learn on this one. You get the impression that Biffo could keep the ball up there all day, while Reggie can manage only a few seconds at the moment. Apparently he's getting there, which is a feeling I'm sure many of us can identify with.
From there it was on to the falconry display. A handler, complete with Sam Allardyce-style audio headset, gave us the lowdown on Max the eagle, Nibbles the vulture and Pablo the hawk. Quite how anyone can bring themselves to name a bird of prey 'Nibbles' is beyond me. It's not very macho, is it? Nibbles didn't do much flying, preferring instead to walk around a lot. By contrast Pablo went to town with the whole flight thing. His party-piece was to fly just above the heads of the watching public, every man-Jack of whom ducked as he approached. Our guide assured us that his vision is such that he will never crash into anyone during flight, though I am sure I felt his wing brush against the side of my head towards the end of the display. Maybe I was imagining things. I've probably become sensitive to it after being violated by Stitch in Orlando (see earlier blog, we are not going there again you'll be happy to note).
Max was my personal favourite of the three. He flew at a sensible, safe height, and he didn't look at you in the vein hope that you might keel over and die and thus provide an easy meal in the way that Nibbles did. Strangely, Nibbles was not bald as we imagine vultures to be. Although it could have been a syrup.
There's barely enough cyberspace left to talk to you about the meerkats, otters, giraffe and all of the farm animals residing at Knowsley. The pigs were among the noisiest creatures I have ever encountered, although to be fair many of them were only a month old and were spending the entire afternoon chasing after their probably exhausted mother. No wonder all parties were a bit tetchy. Ponies and donkeys offer a quieter option for the kids to stroke, and if you really want to see something cutesy then there are lop-eared rabbits also. And sheep and goats, but nobody likes them, do they?
Like them or not, there is certainly enough I do like at Knowsley Safari Park to suggest that it will not be another 25 years before I visit again.