Enjoy the creature comforts of a stay in a safari-style hut amongst the wolves, lions and rhinos at Whipsnade Zoo's new overnight experience, Lookout Lodge.
My top tip when staying overnight at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo? When you venture on an obligatory 4am mum-trip to the loo with one of your brood, don't forget to take a torch with you.
You need to cross the compound from your lodge to the toilet block and it's almost complete blackness out there on the chilly Chiltern Downs.
If you're not spooked by the eerie howls from the resident pack of wolves or the ridiculously nearby roar of lions, you're likely to be tripped up by one of the zoo's free-roaming residents unless you shed some light on your situation – be it a wallaby with his cute joey peeking out from her pouch, deer or (in our case) a mara (which looks like a cross between an oversized rabbit and a pigmy deer).
As my torch picked out the gleam of her eyes just before I almost fell over her, she made a strange purring sound as if to calm me down. I checked that I'd closed the gate to our 'compound' behind me as I'd been warned that these king-size rodents are attracted to warmth and had already wormed their way into the toilet block and would just as quickly make themselves at home in our cosy lodge if we weren't careful.
That's just one of the up close and personal encounters with wildlife you'll get on a wonderful overnight adventure at the zoo.
The experience began at zoo closing time, 5pm, when all other visitors are leaving, with a welcome talk and coffee, tea or glass of bubbly at the Lookout Café, situated high on the Downs with a view overlooking five counties.
A keeper talked us through the various animal exhibits that had been placed on the tables to give us a taste of what was to come – a six foot snakeskin, an ostrich leg, and some sterilised giraffe poo (remarkably small rabbit-like pellets considering the size of the animal) plus a dollop of preserved lion poop, complete with skin and hair from whatever animal it had recently eaten.
As the adults in our group grimaced, the kids grinned through all this talk of ablutions and one of our keeper guides warned us that poo would be a recurring theme on our trip. "You can't visit a zoo without coming across poo on a regular basis," he smiled.
After checking in to our accommodation – Rhino Lodge – one of 8 immaculate timber-built huts, kitted out with comfortable beds plus a sofa bed for the children, crisp cotton sheets, a kettle, drinks, heater and toiletries, we all embarked onto a reconditioned army truck to begin our one and a half hour 'safari' through the zoo.
First stop, the bongos – beautiful, gentle-faced, striped African antelope. Much to our delight we were allowed to feed them their cabbage and carrot tea.
Then it was on to the meerkats who, on-cue, performed their delightful lookout act, rearing up onto their hind-legs. Maybe someone should tell them to relax a little and that their usual predators – snakes, hyenas and eagles - are in scant supply in Bedfordshire.
Our guide told us that they once freaked out when they mistook an errant glider from a nearby flying school for a new species of gigantic bird of prey. Bless.
Our truck took us next to see the magnificent rhino. Baby Ajang - which is Nepalese for enormous – was born at the zoo, weighing in at a healthy 13 stone when average rhino babes tip the scales at eight, so mum Behin is obviously thriving in this environment.
Then it was on to the 'Passage through Asia' – rolling fields with no barriers between us and the animals, housing yak and camel (who at one point got a little too nosey for comfort so we sharply moved on), plus seemingly scores of different breeds of deer.
The keeper pointed out a lone horned antelope living amongst them who'd had an identity crisis after falling in love with a pretty bambi and deciding he wanted to be one of them.
Then there were the huge Serengeti lions lazily snoozing in their grassy compound, separated from us by just a sheet of - one had to assume - massively-reinforced glass.
A keeper threw in some bagged rhino poo to 'stimulate' the lions. Normally, they'd run up to it, roll in it and throw it around. But, as they'd recently been fed, only two of the youngest could summon up enough energy to even stand up, stretch and look at it from afar.
Still, it was amazing to see these creatures up close – especially without having to clamour through crowds to get anywhere near the viewing areas. Having the zoo to ourselves was a real treat.
Next stop was the Wild Bite Café for dinner. It's billed as a barbecue, but it's better than that. Yes, there were burgers and sausages for the children but there was also grown-up steak, salmon, lamb and vegetarian grills along with heaps of excellent salads and delicious arrays of bite-sized desserts you can fill your plates with, plus the option to buy beer and wine as an aside.
After stoking up with delicious food, the sun was setting and it was on to our torchlit tour of the zoo, a walk back to the lodges taking in the animals most active at night.
The flamingos were first, strutting around their lake. 'Michael' gave us a 'moonwalk' display (he's so-named because of his unique ability to walk, glide-like, backwards).
We also saw the lions (still asleep); cheetahs sheltering under their heated rock, cold-eyed wolves that appeared to ignore us until we turned our backs on them and who only then stealthily followed our steps. Our guide warned us not to walk with a limp as they can spot a frailty a mile off - spooky!
We also paid a visit to a friendly moose (called Chocolate, of course) and then it was back to our lodges for a warming hot chocolate ourselves. (Another top tip: wear layers upon layers for this nighttime trek, as it does get cold. You get to the point where you start envying the zebras basking in the heat of their infrared heated sheds.)
We all slept well tucked up in our compact cosy lodge. Then, after an early morning start and a full cooked breakfast, it was off to feed the animals their breakfast. First stop, the cheeky chimpanzees who ran to greet us and then dutifully spat at us for staring at them (at least Elvis, the cheekiest of the chimps did).
We couldn't help laughing when - in an epic fail - he aimed one mouthful of spittle right back at his own eye. He wasn't amused at our hilarity – and as a parting shot, sucked up some orange juice from the floor and spat that at us instead. Poor chimp Phil wasn't feeling well – he coughed and sneezed but our guide keeper assured us he was taking his calpol and that he'd feel better soon.
All that sneezing did mean Phil captured our hearts of course so most of us aimed the juicy oranges and apples at him as we threw in their feed. Not that he caught any, hard as he tried.
We were also lucky enough to feed the wild boar, brown bears and deceptively cute wolverine (who in the wild, drop from trees onto the backs of their prey of moose or reindeer to kill them). It meant we got close-up views of animals that are normally pretty shy.
Our tour finished at 9am, leaving us a full hour to enjoy the zoo to ourselves before the gates opened to regular visitors and making us feel a little like royalty.
We got to see the whiffy Hippo pools cleaned out, then dutifully pooped in immediately again as a means of marking territory (you see, poo really is a theme at the zoo.)
We made the most of our stay and spent the rest of the day visiting some of the animals we hadn't yet seen – giraffe, elephants, sea-lions and penguins.
Our overnight experience was a real privilege. We learnt a lot from our guides, the keepers who have so much knowledge, respect and love for their animals. And we can't wait to fall asleep to the sounds of the wild sometime in the future again...
Details: Lookout Lodge overnight experiences operate from April to October, priced from £115 per person, children aged 5-13, £30. Price includes B&B, complimentary arrival drink, sunset tour, dinner, torchlight tour, hot chocolate before bed, morning tour and entry to ZSL Whipsnade (Or London) Zoo on departure day.
www.zsl.org or call the booking line on: 0207 449 6269
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