I recently turned 30, and in a bid to escape the inevitable party, my husband decided to whisk me away on a safari. For the night.
The idea was to experience something different and Safari Britain, who offer luxury camping and wildlife adventures from their safari style tented camps in the South Downs National Park, seemed the perfect alternative to the usual short break - and with a pretty small carbon footprint to boot. We threw our bags in the car, strapped up our baby and off we went, for a 30 minute drive to Firle, near Lewes in East Sussex, for a night on the Downs.
We abandoned our car and were met by Kim, who took our luggage to the camp site while we continued on foot. After a 20 minute walk through hilly meadows and woodland groves, we reached the enchanting site which appeared out of nowhere, nestled in a beautiful fold in the Downs. Endorsed by celebrity chef Valentine Warner, the camp site boasts roomy bell tents, a fully fitted yurt kitchen (a kind of wood lattice-framed structure), a drop toilet and outdoor shower as well as a yurt complete with wood burner and library to while away rainy days and chilly evenings.
We were introduced to our fellow campers including six kids, who were in the process of preparing their meal of nettle pesto, squirrel, rabbit stew and black and elderberry fool, which they had just foraged with their guide. They excitedly told us how they had skinned the rabbit which was now in the pot being cooked (one boy even kept the foot as a lucky memento), and how they picked other delicacies from the hedgerows with the wild food foraging guide. This guide was one of the many experts available to give guests an insight into a broad range of fields such as wild flower spotting, bat, bird and insect spotting, gamekeeper skills, falconry, landscape history and archaelogy, survival and even art and folk music.
England may not have the ‘Big Five’, but there is plenty of wildlife - albeit on a smaller scale - to give guests a similar thrill. Badgers, bats, birds of prey, foxes are just some of the creatures you can expect to see, or you can go out with the entomologist to look for mini-beasts. Also keep an eye out for rare wild flowers such as orchids.
As we settled in, we sat around the fire and shared some of the rabbit stew, which was surprisingly delicious. Our recently mobile baby enjoyed exploring the area and the company of the other children, showing off his vocabulary of body parts by honking noses and squeezing knees, much to their amusement as they chased him around the camp. Once he had settled down to sleep (which was surprisingly easy after an afternoon of roaming and fresh air), we enjoyed a glass of wine by the communal fire and candle-lit yurts, before retiring to our tent.
The bell tents, which come furnished with basic foam mattresses, duvets and pillows, are on a gentle slope which was not very conducive to a restful night's sleep, but they are spacious and very cosy. Although perhaps not five-star luxury, the site is a step up from the usual camping experience, utterly original and a great chance to reconnect with nature without roughing it.
Moreover, the fabulous setting gave it a real sense of 'being away from it all' and would be great for anyone looking to practice their caveman skills, get to know the local wildlife or simply chill out and relax in beautiful surroundings.
From an evening toilet visit I admired the superb views of the Weald at sunset; a delightful patchwork of woodlands, hills, market towns and villages. A light in a distant tower was piercing the dusky evening skies. During the night we heard owls screech and the wind howl as we huddled together, safe in the knowledge that - as their website points out - on an English safari, we are at the top of the food chain.
Somewhat bleary-eyed but invigorated we emerged from our tent the next day to a lovely fresh Sussex morning. We walked up the hill for an elevated view of the camp and enjoyed a spot of wild flower spotting before topping it off with an open air shower. There is nothing quite like standing under an ancient beech tree with a panoramic view of the Weald and Downs, whilst steamy water heated by a wood burner is blown across your back by the wind. On the whole a rejuvenating experience, and I could not have thought of a better way to enter my thirties.
Price: From £30 per adult (per weekday night); £20 per child. Safari Britain offers exclusive weekends (Friday to Sunday, max 16 people, May - September) for £1400 with all guided activities included. See www.safaribritain.com for more information.
How to get there: Approx 15 minutes' drive from Lewes, East Sussex, exact details are given upon booking.