Our visit to London Zoo

Yesterday we went to London Zoo; we were going to visit a couple of weeks ago when I was on holiday, but I went down with a streaming cold, so we put it off. The weather forecast for yesterday had been looking good all week, so we got up fairly early.

The kids were excited, they hadn’t been on a train before and there was the zoo as well. We travelled from Hemel Hempstead station rather than Luton, it’s a smaller station and made the London change easier. We had previously bought a Family and Friends Railcard which gives discounts on family rail fares. It would have made a bigger saving if we had been travelling during the week as originally planned, but still saved us some money. We only had to wait about 5 minutes on the platform for the train and were able to get seats as the train wasn’t full at all. After about 35 minutes we arrived at Euston and (after a toilet break for the kids at 30p a visit,) changed onto the Northern Line underground for one stop to Camden Town. I had printed out the zoo’s directions for getting to them, but didn’t need them as it was signposted from outside the station. It took about 15 minutes to walk from the station to the zoo and then we were there. After presenting our Friends of ZSL passes we were in. Time to take my obvious camera bag out of my plain backpack.

The first thing that you notice is that the entrance area is smaller and more compact than Whipsnade. This isn’t surprising as the zoo is much smaller only covering 36 acres compared to Whipsnade’s 600 acres. It was first opened to the public in 1847 and contains many buildings designed by leading architects over the years including 2 Grade I, and 8 Grade II listed structures. In 1991 it looked like the zoo was going to close, but the public support allowed the zoo to balance its books and embark on a program of restoring its buildings and creating new, more suitable, environments.

We followed the green trail (a painted green line) around the zoo, this leads you right around the zoo, breaking off at several points to see the attractions in that area. We followed the trail from the entrance area through the west tunnel, which goes under the Outer Circle road, to the northern section of the zoo. The first thing we went to was the ‘Into Africa’ area.  This is located to the left of the path, between the road and Regent’s Canal. The first animals were the Red River Hogs, which were in a fairly large open area close to the canal, next were the warthogs in a similar enclosure and in the final enclosure were the African Hunting dogs.

okapiNext, the path moved back from the canal around the older buildings. The first paddock there was for the two okapi, which are horse sized with striped legs like a zebra. They have a long neck – not as long as a giraffe – and use it to reach leaves on trees, which they grab with their long tongues like a giraffe does. Unfortunately, unlike Whipsnade where this sort of animal would have been in a large enclosure, they are in an area maybe 30′ by 50′. Next door to them were three zebra, again in a small paddock. The three giraffes were next to the zebra, and still have their original 1837 Giraffe House. This, due to its functional design, still remains in use, however the enclosure is much smaller than that at Whipsnade and looks rather small. Next to the giraffes was the Malayan Tapir, which was rather camera shy – we got lots of photos of it going the other way!

green peafowlWe then crossed the bridge over Regents Canal to ‘Snowdon Aviary’. This was built in 1964 and is quite a feature to look at. You walk through it and initially are on the same level as the Sacred Ibis nests, but soon you are high above the rest of the area, which combining the height and the shape of the structure can be a bit disorientating. After the Snowdon Aviary, we went along the path by the other aviaries. These were very disappointing, small, old and embarrassing to look at. I didn’t realise there were birds in some of them, the plants were all dead and brown. Hopefully this will be another area to be refurbished soon. From here we crossed back over the canal and then back to see the otters (they weren’t about), the meerkats (only one on sentry duty) and then the Clore Rainforest Lookout.

two-toed slothThe ‘Clore Rainforest Lookout’ opened last year and recreates the South American rainforest. It provides canopy and forest floor levels for the public to wander through; you walk in at canopy level. When we first got there, the water jets were spraying the area, so when taking photos you had to watch you didn’t get your camera soaked. One of the two-toed sloths was very active, which in the reduced light made it quite difficult to get a photo without the sloth being blurred. Once the jets were turned off for the talk, the rest of the marmosets came down from the very tops of the trees. After the talk was over a couple of the silvery marmosets decided to take a closer look at those taking photos. One was showing a lot of interest on my lens and I had to keep moving back to keep it in focus (I don’t have very close focus with my 70-300 zoom).

After this we went through the East Tunnel, opened in 1830, back to the south part of the zoo. We ate lunch at Oasis Cafe, where we all had the cumberland sausage, which was nice and filling. After we had eaten we visited the gift shop before continuing along the trail. We missed out the penguins and after looking at the queue for the Butterfly Paradise, we decided to come back to that later. We saw the parrots and then went down to the pelicans and flamingoes. There was a bird not on the books here – the pool had gained a grey heron, which I thought was a fake one to keep the real ones away, until it moved. We went past the tigers which were all boarded up, heading for ‘B.U.G.S.’ (Biodiversity Underpinning Global Survival), where we saw the ants, beetles, spiders etc.  We looked in on the anteaters, but didn’t see them. We saw the lions, lazing on their platforms and stopped briefly by the Luberkin Pool, the old penguin pool, which is Grade I listed.

After seeing the llamas, we saw the bearded pigs at ZooWorld and the camels and pigmy hippos. Next we went through the ‘African Bird Safari’, another aviary that you could walk through. This was great, just a shame they didn’t have space to make it larger. It opened about three years ago replacing three out of date enclosures. They had Abdim’s Stork in there, which were sat with their wings out and facing up. There were also superb starlings and a lilac-breasted roller.

western lowland gorilla - silverbackWe then went to the area that I had been waiting for all day, ‘Gorilla Kingdom’. The gorilla enclosure is an island separated from the public by a moat or floor to ceiling windows. Once we had got through the first section with some additional birds in, we could see the gorillas. I could see one up on the right at the end of the water feature on the ‘island’ and another partially visible under some of their climbing equipment. I took quite a few photos of the gorilla I could see. I wasn’t sure if it was the silverback, but after moving further round found it wasn’t. It must have been the oldest female, 32 year old Zaire. Further round on the other side of the island was Bobby, the 23 year old silverback. He was sat there looking like the king of his domain, and who was I to argue with him. He had a very intense look as he scanned around. A bit later, the three females wandered over to his side of the island and he went back into his ‘cave’.

After the gorillas, we went to see the Komodo Dragons, the wallabys and emus, then onto the reptile house. We saw all the snakes, even if I did miss spotting the plaque mentioning that this was where the zoo scene in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was shot. We cut back through the zoo to see the vultures, where I got some nice photos of the striated caracara and the Ruppell’s Griffon Vulture. We finished off with the butterflies, but I didn’t get any good pictures; they were too fast moving and didn’t settle in the right places for me…oh well not the end of the world.

We left the zoo at about 20 to six, only 20 minutes before the zoo closed. We walked back to Camden Town and got on the first train back to Euston, standing room only. Arriving at Euston, we saw that there was a train leaving in about 2 minutes that only stopped at Watford Junction before Hemel Hempstead. We had to run a bit as the end of the train was a way up the platform. We just got on before it left. Unfortunately, it was full and we all had to stand until Watford Junction when some people got off. Then Jo and the kids got seats, but I stood until Hemel. I was glad to get back to the car to sit down. I definitely couldn’t commute to London.

Late last night I downloaded my photos for the day and sorted out some of the best for my photo gallery – London Zoo 23rd August 2008. It’s taken ages typing up the days visit, not quite as long as the visit, but it seems that way.

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