Aged seven, I sat atop the park’s eldest Asian elephant and swayed as she took another deliberate step. In the fading summer heat, we walked with the elephants out of their paddocks and down to the estate’s private lakes.
Sunlight filtered through the trees and all was momentarily quiet save the sighing of trunks as they rustled through the undergrowth.
I later dismounted and watched as the keepers rode Chandrika, Damani and Raja into the lakes. Submerged to their shoulders, the trio trumpeted in joy and I saw cormorants scatter on the opposite bank, startled by their deep, throaty rumblings. The ensuing mayhem was captivating and I giggled as plumes of spray drenched keeper and elephant alike. I knew I would never forget the sight of these huge, mischievous giants playing together as their keepers laughed and helped rinse dust from the backs of their necks.
I have been told that, when I was a child, I was singled out for stalking practise by the park’s two newly arrived lynx cubs. Waddling along inside their enclosure, I was apparently unaware of the pair slinking behind me with their bellies low to the floor. Too small to do me any real harm, the lynx learnt their lesson when, finally springing from the undergrowth, they nearly lost their whiskers to my clutching, eager hands.
Growing up on an English safari park, my childhood is filled with tales such as these. I can recall the rush of air as rainbow lorikeets jostled one another for a perch on my wrist; feel the pinch of their feet and the flick of their tongues as they bent to lick spilt nectar from my hands. I remember the deafening chorus of oncoming humbolt penguins as we threw them fish, and feel the coarse skin of Arthur, the old white rhino, as I stroked behind his ear. I learnt the different breeds of grazing antelope and knew which monkeys were likely to rip the antenna from your car. I even had a favourite wolf, the black alpha-female who prowled with intelligent, lively eyes.
Often barefoot and frequently scuff-kneed, my brother and I ran feral though the estate’s woodlands and meadows, scattering rabbits and Soay sheep as we passed. We built dens in the middle of rhododendron bushes and fished frogs from the depths of fresh ponds. These were the years of wide-eyed amazement; a childhood of perpetual fascination and discovery and glee.
Having left the park some years ago, I now remember the wildlife and unspoilt woodlands with growing nostalgia. The mature, broad-leafed trees were home to such creatures as raven, nightjar and Rusa deer, whilst down by the lakes the occasional flash of electric blue told tale of kingfishers skimming above the water. During the rutting season, red deer stags clashed in the mist of early morning whilst in spring the ground thawed to make way for an abundance of flora. The 3,000-acre estate was a haven for many rich ecosystems; an oasis where the wild things ruled. My years behind its walls were pure, unchecked magic; indescribably spoiling and precious and rare.
Here are some of Lara’s favourite British locations for exceptional wildlife:
Main image © Susie Webster @websterwilds