My boyfriend, historically, is not too good at presents. One year he got me a ‘cuddly toy’ that turned out to be a squeaky duck meant for dogs. No, that gift-giving experience was not great for either of us. That’s why I was incredibly shocked and amazed when last year, for my 22nd birthday, he presented me with two VIP passes for us to go and feed the red pandas at Longleat!
That excitement and amazement faded somewhat, however, when he revealed that he had not yet booked the experience, and that they were full for the next 6 months. Well, I thought, we’ll leave it until the new year and see when we might be able to book it for, possibly after my dissertation is done. Come April, and the only availability they have is for October. So there we had it, one year to the day after buying the tickets, we were finally booked in to actually go and meet our future furry friends!
Well, all I can say is that it was worth the wait. I had the most incredible day from start to finish, and I am so thankful that we were lucky enough to experience this (I think they’re all booked up now, so we were fortunate to get in when we did).
The day started with us being taken by a very knowledgable keeper to the red panda enclosure, where we met a very sleepy lady snuggled up on her perch. After coaxing her out with some chunks of apple, we were able to feed her and her boyfriend, AJ, while having a chat about the animal more generally with our (very well informed) keeper.
They are just the coolest animals, so slow and delicate – and very cute. I particularly loved the way they would hold the food in their paws and then gently take careful bites of it.
The experience lasted around 25 minutes all in all, but this was by no means the end of our day. We spent hours wandering around, taking a ‘jungle cruise’ around the lake where the sea lions live and alongside the banks upon which the gorillas reside. It was an amazingly clear and sunny day, although it was still quite chilly, which made for some amazing views of the lake in the sunshine, with sea lions swimming around in the water waiting for their food.
I love snakes, lizards, and basically all reptiles, so I jumped at the chance to hold a corn snake – although Fahad wasn’t so keen. He’s not going to be very impressed the day I get one as a pet, but I’m determined to make it happen!
We took a walk through the gardens, which were virtually empty because we decided to go on a weekday. This peace and serenity was greatly contrasted by the chaos that was ensuing in the bat cave, which we visited next, as it was their feeding time and they were frantically flapping all about the place, whizzing past our faces, to try and get some lunch. I found it exhilarating, and I will be sure to drag my nervous boyfriend through there again during our next visit to Longleat.
One of my highlights was the lorikeet aviary, where you can buy a cup of food for £1 and have the birds come and feed from your hands. They are stunning creatures, vibrantly coloured, and although loud, they are incredibly gentle as they land on you and sip from the little cup of syrup. Perhaps it was the embroidered birds on my jacket, but I seemed slightly more popular than the other people in the enclosure, and had a little friend perched on my head for a while, long after the food had run out, until he or she decided to fly away.
All this excitement passed before we had even made it to the actual safari! Armed with a narrated CD to guide us through the various sections of the safari, we settled in with some snacks (after thoroughly washing our hands, of course) and drove off into the wilderness of the English countryside.
First on our stop was the giraffes and lemurs, which you park up and get out of your car for. The giraffes weren’t very nearby, and there were no feeding times when we arrived, so we admired them from afar. I’m always amazed at how gracefully they move – and it can’t be easy to do when your neck is that long!
One of the most exciting parts of the safari was the monkey drive-thru. I thought the people who chose to bypass it were nuts, because it was such an amazing experience. Having resus monkeys up close, being mischievous and wreaking destruction is such a cool thing, and seeing the tiny little babies being held by their mums gave us another huge dose of cuteness, too. Not that we needed any after the red pandas of the morning!
After feeding some deer out of my palm (and a fiasco with deer feed spilling EVERYWHERE in the car because my boyfriend can’t listen to the most simple instructions), we moved on to the big dogs. And cats.
Nothing really prepares you for having a lion walk past your car window like it’s the most natural thing in the world. I feel like I was so desperately trying to capture it on camera (and failing, by the way) that I kind of missed the experience firsthand. Something I was really impressed with about Longleat, actually, was the sheer space there is for the animals to roam around and live what look like very happy lives. There is nothing sadder than being at a zoo or something and seeing the animals in cramped enclosures where they look really bored. Everything felt quite free and it made the day so much better feeling like the animals we had the pleasure of seeing were happy!
I had one of the best days out I’ve ever had, and I’m so excited to return at the earliest opportunity! And between now and then, I’m encouraging everyone I know to pay it a visit – it’s honestly so worthwhile! Possibly the best birthday present ever – even if my next birthday was coming up only a few days after!
If you want to book your own VIP experience, check out the Longleat website here.