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Destination Escondido : So Near, Safari : A camping trip at the Wild Animal Park offers a tame taste of the African veldt

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Here’s what a Sumatran tiger sounds like at night: Uuuurrrrrgggh. Belch.

A cheetah makes sucking-hissing sounds, and Asian elephants . . . well, you name it, they do it.

I know, because I recently spent an evening listening to this exotic cacophony while tucked into a tent with my husband and 8-year-old daughter at the San Diego Wild Animal Park near Escondido.

The occasion was a new park program called “Roar & Snore,” which runs every Friday and Saturday night through October. For $70 per adult and $55 per child, our band of 45 campers had more fun than a barrel of monkeys--and a taste of an East African safari without passports or malaria pills.

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The nonprofit, 2,100-acre Wild Animal Park, established in 1972, features five open-field exhibits enclosed by chain-link fences and walls. Except for the aviary, there are no cages or bars: Exhibit areas are designed to mimic the animals’ natural environments and enhance the park’s breeding program (the park is now home to 46 endangered species.) Most visitors experience the park and its 3,500 denizens from an electric monorail that skirts the edge of the reserve on a five-mile, 55-minute ride. But as we discovered last month, “Roar & Snore” participants get a much more intimate view: A night spent overlooking the East Africa compound, a sprawling, 125-acre fenced valley laced with giraffes, rhinos, gazelles and lots of other wildlife.

We arrived at the park entrance a bit after 4 on a hazy spring Friday afternoon and joined the loosely assembled group--retired couples, students and families. (Children must be at least 8 to participate, though a sleep-over program at the sister San Diego Zoo--both parks are run by the San Diego Zoological Society-- takes kids as young as 4.).

As we lugged our sleeping bags and overstuffed backpacks the half mile to the picnic area-turned-campground, we realized we should have paid closer attention to the brochure warning us to bring only what can be comfortably carried. But the strain was more than offset by watching tired tourists heading in the opposite direction for the exit--closing time is 5 p.m. Soon we would have the whole place to ourselves.

The dome tents--supplied and set up by

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the park--were clustered like a colony of green igloos on a tree-shaded knoll just outside the perimeter of the fenced East Africa compound. We plunked our gear inside, then turned to watch a couple of giraffes ambling elegantly near the fence.

Our guides invited us to join them at a row of picnic tables rimmed by monkey-pod trees, where gallons of thirst-quenching lemonade waited. The more curious among us were invited to peruse laminated book pages with information on some of the animals we were viewing.

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As hamburgers and chicken sizzled on a huge outdoor grill, we were treated to a show-and-tell--the first in a series of scheduled events, all optional. My daughter stroked the back of a docile 30-pound South American boa constrictor--it felt like a muscle on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s forearm. I tugged on the prehensile tail of a brown, furry kinkajou with nervous eyes. This South American rain-forest creature looks like a distant cousin of a monkey but is actually part of the raccoon family. He was found half-starved, foraging in a trash bin in downtown San Diego, the obvious victim of an exotic-animal smuggler.

We all got to handle an ostrich egg the size of a football. The bird is considered extremely dumb. How dumb? Well, the creatures always put one egg in front of them while sitting on the nest so they won’t forget why they’re there.

Our group attacked the grilled grub with the gusto of a herd of wildebeests, which is just what we could see grazing nearby. Funny how the outdoors can make simple pork and beans so appetizing.

But the food was no competition for the animals. “Look, a white rhino! I see two of them!” Elizabeth yelled out, causing everyone to pause in mid-munch. Kids rushed to the fence while grown-ups peered through binoculars--an item as essential as a sleeping bag on this outing.

Satiated, we were ready to help digestion along with a twilight trek to observe some nocturnal animals just emerging from their daytime slumbers. It turned out to be the highlight of the stay.

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Ranger Susan Normandia proved an excellent camp guide. Her enthusiasm for the park and its animals was matched by her knowledge of its flora and fauna. As we walked along the Kilimanjaro trail, she noted that five varieties of bats live in the park--and whooosh! We got buzzed.

Approaching the Sumatra tiger compound, I strained for a glimpse of a big cat and scanned the tall grass with my binoculars. Suddenly I saw his huge head about 30 feet away, then his crouched body. A pair of intense green eyes snapped into focus. They were staring right back at me, unblinking.

“Oh look,” Susan said, in a blase tone. “We’re being stalked.”

God bless the inventor of the chain-link fence.

Farther up the trail we came to another compound, where two lionesses emerged from a wooded thicket.

“Here, kitty, kitty,” one camper said, giggling.

The felines walked right up to the fence--we could have reached out and stroked their whiskers. They both had the deliberate and quiet manner of a predator checking out dinner. The giggles stopped, and a hush enveloped the group.

Then one of the big cats yawned, and the other sat down panting, still staring at potential prey. And cursing the fence?

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After walking uphill a few minutes, we stopped at the Kupanda Banda pavilion, where we got to rest on folding chairs arranged in front of a screen while our guides orchestrated a slide-show game. They played a taped sound, and we tried to guess what animal made it. (That’s where we learned that elephants make about 20 distinguishable sounds.) After a few seconds, they’d project a slide of the animal.

This activity provided a lot of fodder for the jokers among us. “My husband snoring!” squealed one woman upon hearing a grunting sound. It turned out to be an elephant seal.

“My mother-in-law!” cried another. It was a laughing hyena.

By now we’d turned into a raucous group, so the guide directed us down the hill for a bit of star-gazing that was thwarted by heavy cloud cover. No one seemed to mind, though. We sauntered back to camp for a bit of flashlight viewing of the animals from a nearby observation deck, then a late-night snack of hot chocolate and s’mores around the campfire.

It was approaching 10 p.m. Someone had finally turned off the water-reclamation pump, an irritating industrial sound that threatened to ruin the aural experience.

Ah, lights out. Time to settle into cozy sleeping bags like a family of bears in a den, rested and ready for the sunrise bird walk. As we drifted off, we could hear a quartet of croaking frogs, a few crickets.

Then Mother Nature turned up the volume.

Screech, caw-caw, grrrrruunt, moan. Whoop, whoop, whoop, wheeeeeee!

“What’s that?” a wide-eyed Elizabeth asked.

Maybe it’s the same tiger that escaped during those heavy rainstorms last year, I said, recounting an earlier conversation I had had with a camp guide.

“Ohhhhhh Mom.”

Elizabeth was soon snoring louder than the lions. It would have taken a herd of wild elephants to stop me from joining her. But my poor husband, a light sleeper, spent a restless night deciphering sounds.

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Our wake-up call came at 5:45--from a loudspeaker and twittering birds. Bleary-eyed, we made our way to the other campers clutching steaming cups of coffee and trying to shake kinks out of bodies unaccustomed to sleeping on the ground.

Our guide started us at a brisk pace on a nature trail through the southern area of the park that is not open to the public. This behind-the-scenes route goes through a marshy area and lots of nesting herons and egrets that would probably take flight if they were subjected to daily hordes of tourists. Near a compound of nesting ostriches, the guide pointed out wood storks and brown pelicans, also on the endangered-species list. Overhead a couple of snowy egrets soared like feathery glider planes, their long necks and beaks creating an elegant silhouette.

We returned from the hour-long trek with elephant-size appetites for pancakes, sausages and fruit salad. Then it was time to break camp and head back to the entrance.

Despite the early rising, we had plenty of energy for more animal viewing. As we made plans to deposit our gear and return to the park, we chatted about the previous evening. It was our first time camping as a family, and it had proven to be a painless introduction to the call of the wild.

GUIDEBOOK

Family Field Trip

Getting there: Take Interstate 5 south past Oceanside, then California 78 east toward Escondido to I-15 south; exit on Via Rancho Parkway and follow the signs. Park telephone: (619) 480-0100.

About the program: Roar & Snore is held on Friday and Saturday nights through Oct. 29. Children must be 8 or older to participate. The one-night program runs from 4 p.m. to 8:30 a.m. Cost: $70 for adults, $55 for children ages 8-11, includes tent, lectures, walks, meals and entrance fee ($17.45 for adults; $10.45 for children 3-11).

Reservations: San Diego Wild Animal Park, Education Dept., 15500 San Pasqual Valley Road, Escondido 92027-7017; tel. (619) 738-5049. The registration form includes an information packet.


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