DID you know that flamingos can produce milk – and it’s pink? Or that lions sleep for 21 hours a day due to their slow digestive systems?
No? Well neither did I but that’s just two of the many interesting facts I learnt when I was one of the first to get to stay overnight at Whipsnade Zoo as part of its new safari experience.
After the crowds have gone home and the animals are settling in for the night, those with a spare £100 or so to splash out are getting ready for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
It starts with guests sipping champagne while the zoo keepers run through what the night has in store.
The first stop off is pretty tame with visitors helping keeper Mandy to feed the bongos, but during the tour before dinner there’s a stop at the lion enclosure where just a panel of glass divides us from these massive beasts who are unfazed by the spectators.
The meerkats are, of course, a hit and the rhinos refuse to play, staying out of sight in their shelter and who can blame them – it’s pretty cold and wet.
A feast is laid on in the cafe, which has been transformed with candle light and not a plastic cup or cutlery in sight.
There’s much choice – steak, chicken, lamb, salmon and stuffed aubergines are on offer – and the bonus, there’s dessert too.
After this it’s time to take on the torch lit tour – the hour long walk back to the wooden lodges we’ll be staying in is optional but the rain can’t dampen anyone’s spirits and everyone’s in.
First stop is to see the wolves and, to reassure us as we think of bedding down for the night, one tour guide assures us these wild beasts are more likely to run rather than attack and even gardeners venture in to the enclosure to cut the grass once in a while – but they do draw straws to see who will be taking on the nail biting task.
The cheetahs – three brothers – aren’t impressed when we wake them with the glare from our torches but it’s not long before they’re back snoozing. They have their own heated cave to keep them cosy at night.
Back to the lions, which are snuggled up together for the night and as with our earlier visit alpha male Spike takes no interest.
Once back to the eight specially built wooden lodges – each named after a different animal within the zoo (we’re in Elephant Lodge) it’s hot chocolate before bed.
Mandy, our overnight keeper who’s on hand in case we need anything, is already tucked up in the Keeper’s Lodge.
We have to be up and out by 7.30am, when there’s a cooked breakfast served up before a morning tour.
So it’s back aboard the zoo’s safari truck and off to feed the cheeky chimps their breakfast and young Pete puts on a show, banging the glass and sticking his tongue out.
The baby boars prompt some oohs and ahhs and we get to see the notoriously shy lynx cat, who has evaded many of the over-nighters so far.
Two brown bears aren’t nearly as enthusiastic about their breakfast as the chimps, sleepily strolling over to the fruit thrown into their pen – one of the first built at Whipsnade – while it’s hard to believe the cute wolverine standing on its hind legs waiting for its breakfast of dead mice can take down a moose single handily.
Part of the weasel family, this animal craftily hides up a tree waiting for a moose to pass before jumping on its back and choking the massive animal by clamping its incredibly powerful jaws around its neck.
Last stop is the penguins who are having a morning dip – the current hosepipe ban means only one of the two penguin pools can be emptied and cleaned out each week, leaving the birds slightly confused about what is going on. .
And that marks the end of the tour, but the fun’s not over because the deal includes spending the rest of day at the zoo, or for those wanting to venture further afield, you can take a trip to London Zoo.
>> Prices (per person): May is already sold out, June £145 to £179, July £175 to £209, August £175 to £209, September £145 to £205 , October £125 to £159.
The price is based on two adults sharing or one adult and one child.
On family nights, additional children (aged five to 13) are £30 each, single occupancy rate is 30 per cent off the full price of two adults.