Zoo's secret to safari: Take it down a notch

Posted at 7:00 AM, Jan 22, 2016

CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden wants to take people beyond its exhibits and bring them to where some of their favorite animals are -- in their natural environments.

Each year, the zoo offers trips to exotic destinations, and this year’s Travel with the Zoo program is headed to Africa: Guests will visit Botswana, Kenya and Madagascar. The all-inclusive excursions are escorted by a zoo naturalist who guides travelers through the tour. Spots for all three trips are still available.

Volunteer education program manager Doug Feist will guide this year’s first trip to Botswana, in April. During his 32-year career at the zoo, Feist has visited Africa 16 times as escort. He said the goal is to introduce participants to the rich diversity of wildlife, habitat and culture.

Feist said people most often want to see the "big five" of African animals: lions, hippos, rhinos, elephants and leopards. But as the trip progresses, he said, a new world opens up to them as they begin to notice the variety of creatures and vegetation in their surroundings.

Those on the zoo's tours of Africa often see wild animals in their natural environment. Photo by Cincinnati Zoo

“That’s really where the magic happens,” Feist said. “So instead of just darting from this to that, which a lot of people really like, I think taking it down a notch, spending time breathing the air and taking in the sky, the way the light plays across the plains is absolutely captivating. And you’ll see a black-footed cat or a leopard tortoise because you’ve taken the time to watch and wait and be quiet.”

See the video from the 2015 trip to Tanzania.

The trips follow a busy schedule, with guests going out on two to three tours per day. Feist said all vehicles offer guests a window seat, as well as an expert guide on hand to help spot wildlife and answer questions. To see nocturnal animals, such as aardvarks or evening-foraging hippos, he said they often offer a night drive, which departs at sunset.

“Seeing it with your own eyes is a life-changing experience,” Feist said. “In Kenya a few years ago, we were at a watering hole near the dining tent, and right about dinner time -- almost if on cue -- a black rhino wandered up to the hole. And it was just an amazing moment.”

Anderson Township resident Kim Weist said she experienced numerous awe-inspiring moments during her 2014 zoo trip to Kenya. She said waking up to see an elephant scratching its trunk just outside her window proved to be captivating. But above all, she said two moments will be forever etched in her memory.

“I took a hot-air balloon ride, and I was in the air at sunrise -- it was one of the most amazing things to watch the world wake up,” she said. “And I saw my first male lion with a full mane, just standing there. It was amazing in real life. You see them at the zoo, but to see them just own the land, it was amazing.”

Guests of the zoo's trip to Africa will also experience local culture on their stops. Photo by the Cincinnati Zoo

While Weist said she is fairly well-traveled, she still felt a bit intimidated by the idea of an African vacation. After looking at a number of options, she said she chose the zoo’s trip because of its long history with conservation, both locally and in the wild.

“I wanted to pick a company that cares -- and if anyone’s going to do that, it’s going to be the Cincinnati Zoo,” she said.

Feist said there’s no such thing as a typical traveler on these tours. On one trip to Kenya, he said, the ages ranged from 6 to 92 years old, with families, couples, retirees and people traveling on their own. He said while the trips include a full schedule, guests don’t have to be in incredible physical condition to keep up. He also lauded the accommodations.

“The accommodations are incredible, and the staff at these facilities is wonderful,” he said. “The chefs and the food are phenomenal -- everything you can think of, a little bit of an Asian spin to barbecue. I’ve even had great stone-baked pizza. It’s really beyond words of description, it’s wonderful.”

Many trips sponsored by the zoo are open to the public and zoo employees. Zoo communications coordinator Angela Hatke said she’s always wanted to go to Africa, so she made the decision to just sign up. She said she was a bit unsure of what to expect, as she’d never traveled with a group before. However, after hearing Feist talk about strong friendships forged during the trip, she felt more at ease traveling without a companion.

“I’m really excited, and I think it’s nice that it’s all planned out for me,” Hatke said. “I really want to see elephants in the wild, and I would have no idea where to start. So this is all done, so all I have to do now is just show up and go.”

Trip itineraries, costs and pre- and post-trip extensions can be found on the zoo’s website.