When an invitation to 'Camp Baboon' popped into my Inbox, it immediately conjured up images of African sunsets and breath-taking wildlife – I just didn't imagine this could be possible just off the M5 in Britain. Plumping for a weekend in September when the weather looked reasonable, my family and I excitedly packed our bags for an overnight experience 'creating memories within the rural setting of Wild Place Project' in Bristol. And I have to say, it was the best use of a free weekend this side of Christmas – and all for a fraction of the budget required for a true African adventure.
Owned by Bristol Zoological Society, Wild Place Project opened in 2013 and comprises of several large enclosures for animals including giraffes, cheetah, zebra, eland, okapi and lemurs – replicating their natural habitats as closely as possible, so it has a much more open and natural ambience than a traditional zoo. And it's an on-going development, with plans to grow in coming years and support for conservation projects around the world. As an extension to the park, Camp Baboon was launched in July 2017 and operates on Friday and Saturday nights, for luxury 'glamping' overnight stays.
At check-in we were escorted through the park to our luxury wooden cabin – one of ten glamping 'pods' laid out in a semi-circle around a central fire pit. Inside were bunk beds for our two children (aged four and two), a double bed tucked behind a screen for the adults, a small dining area with tea and coffee making facilities and an en-suite shower room. All bedding and towels were provided – there were even toiletries in the shower, plus a jar of marshmallows for toasting later on. Everything was thoughtfully presented, new and clean. Mummy felt happy – this was my kind of camping!
At 5pm we and the other guests – three other families with young children – gathered by the fire pit for a twilight tour and bush-craft activities. In an authentic setting, under a parachute in the woods, our hosts, Bush Craft experts Matt and Sophie, put on an impressive display of fire-making activities, which we were all encouraged to try for ourselves, much to the delight and enthusiasm of the children. Having managed to tease some sparks from a variety of tools including flint and a battery, we were each given pieces of birch to craft into pointed sticks on which to toast our marshmallows later. The anticipation for the marshmallows was mounting.
When darkness fell, we headed to the on-site 'Courtyard café' for dinner, cooked before us on a large BBQ. The food – burgers and hot dogs with a variety of salads – was infinitely better than your average camp-site fare, with the bonus that adults could order wine at an extra cost (the only additional cost to the entire trip). The profiteroles dessert ensured our little ones were sufficiently energised to complete the tour of the wildlife park by night. As we set off by torchlight, it was truly magical to be in the park almost alone – the only sounds we could hear were the occasional brays of reindeer or scampering of animals. We were particularly thrilled to see a pack of curious male European grey wolves come to the edge of their enclosure to check us out. Just feet away from us, we were relieved to be reliably informed that they weren’t the type to attack humans. All the children had been handed torches and their delight in ‘spotting’ animals in the darkness was infectious. At 9pm we headed back to camp to retrieve our marshmallows and hand-carved sticks and we sat around toasting them, chatting by the fireside and making new friends, until the children couldn't keep their eyes open any longer.
On Sunday morning, the camp leader woke each cabin at 6.45am and we dragged ourselves out of our cosy beds (they really were very comfortable), to visit more animals before breakfast. Highlights included meeting Hobbit, Hercules, Harshit, Hector, Kito and Kidame – a group of friendly gelada baboons, the newest arrivals at Wild Place Project – who were happy for us to throw them pieces of apple for breakfast; A fantastic immersive experience involving a walk through an interactive Madagascan village, including getting up-close with a variety of lemurs inside their enclosure; And being just feet away from a trio of cheetah, as they snoozed lazily in their lair. The morning finale was breakfast in a raised ‘tree house’ bringing us nose-to-nose with giraffes, as we tucked into fresh pastries, cereals and fruit for breakfast.
As we checked out of Camp Baboon at 10.30am, Wild Place Project was just beginning to fill up with regular visitors, and we couldn't help feeling smug about the unique animal encounters we had enjoyed when we had the park to ourselves. It really felt as though we had been transported to the wilds of Africa for the weekend – but with no jet lag or a long journey home.
My eldest son summed it up for me, when he woke up in the bottom bunk earlier that morning, and declared: 'I had a great sleep mummy, I dreamt of giraffes and marshmallows.' What could be better than that?
When to go: Camp Baboon runs all year for Friday or Saturday night stays
Where to stay: In one of 10 glamping cabins around the camp fire – most contain a double bed and bunk beds, although extra mattresses can be added if required and there is one cabin which has two double beds.
Don't miss: Set an alarm, because you won't want to miss giving the gelada baboons breakfast on Sunday morning.
Top tips: Take wellies and a hat as it can be muddy in the forest and gets chilly at night.
What to avoid: Camping out near wildlife means coming into contact with a host of insects and creepy-crawlies, watch out for ticks and mosquitos – you may wish to bring protection in warmer months.
Prices start at £87 per person (that works out at £348.00 for a family of four). They vary depending on the time of year. Visit campbaboon.co.uk for more information.