â€ś Safaripark Beekse Bergen / Beekse Bergen 31 / 5081 NJ Hilvarenbeek / Tel: 0900-2335732 (Â€0,15p/m.). â€ž
Setting the Scene
ItÂ’s a warm Sunday morning in September, around 9.30 am. Behind us a series of traditional African round huts with thatched roofs separate us from the safari park beyond. Small children are swinging excitedly on the fibreglass tusks of a large grey model elephant as we wait for the park to open. Their parents are watching strange peacock-like birds strut up and down and the cameras are clicking away, practicing for the bigger beasts beyond the gates. We can pick up a few words uttered by the excited children in a strange guttural accent Â– oliphanten, shimpanzay. Is it Afrikaans? Are we in South Africa? What is this safari park?
But no, weÂ’re in Holland, the language is Dutch and we are waiting for the Beekse Bergen safari park to open. The park is about half an hour from Eindhoven airport (accessible with Ryanair from Stansted or Dublin) and close to the town of Tilburg. Expecting Brits to have heard of Tilburg would be like expecting Dutch people to know about Basingstoke Â– i.e. unless you have reason to know about the place, itÂ’s pretty much off the radar screen. ItÂ’s a very different, unseen side of Holland thatÂ’s not the most beaten of beaten paths for the average English tourists.
Â‘The biggest African safari park in the NetherlandsÂ’ say the posters proudly as we bite our tongues and donÂ’t dare to ask if itÂ’s actually the only African safari park Â– the good old English reserve suggests it might be a bit rude to ask.
Why are we there?
My husband and I have been invited to an anniversary celebration. Our friends Ineke and Marit have invited about 30 family and friends to join them for a day out at Beekse Bergen.
The age range of the group runs from nieces and nephews of pre-school age up to our friendsÂ’ parents who are in their seventies. We have three people in wheel-chairs Â– one is a fancy Â‘Stephen HawkingÂ’ battery powered one. We look like we are there to test out the disability access of the park. Our hosts have booked us all in as a group package Â– weÂ’re going to get a snack, followed by a bus tour through the park with our own guide and then ending with a traditional Dutch lunch Â– i.e. bread and cheese! In the afternoon, we can all stick together or go off and wander on our own.
For info - in case I forget later, all the wheelchair users got around just fine. As some of the kids got more tired in the afternoon, pull-along carts were available for their parents to drag them round.
When everyone had arrived we went into the park and headed for the restaurant. This is located next to a big muddy hole Â– IÂ’m guessing it might one day be a hippo pool or some other aquatic feature. The centre of the restaurant is built in traditional Afrikaaner round-house style with a high thatched roof decorated with spears and shields. ThereÂ’s even a rope bridge swinging from the ceiling. ThereÂ’s a terrace outside where you can sit and look at the mud hole Â– should you wish to. We were served coffee and a choice of cakes with or without whipped cream (or Â‘slagroomÂ’ in the local lingo Â– never fails to induce an attack of the giggles when I see that on the menu).
The Bus Tour
After drinks and buns we all headed off for the bus tour. We had our own private bus and by-passed the queue of normal punters who were waiting patiently in line for the regular bus service. ThereÂ’s a thoughtfully provided childrenÂ’s play area adjacent to the bus stop so the kids can play whilst you wait your turn.
Our bus arrived Â– a big old zebra-striped vehicle with a dodgy clutch. Our driver/guide was a young lady called Anna. She gave an introductory speech and then got all the other passengers singing along with a traditional Dutch celebratory song that seemed to involve lots of Â‘hip de hip hoorahsÂ’ at the end. After inviting some of the kids to speak into her microphone, we set off to see the beasties.
The tour takes in a variety of pseudo-African environments with the animals subjected to differing levels of freedom. In general the herbivores get to run around a bit more than the carnivores so consequently youÂ’ll see gatherings of giraffes eating from a high feeder with loads of zebras hanging out with them to eat the bits the giraffes drop. The lions and other big cats are in large spacious cages but separated from their potential prey. The lions were without doubt the biggest IÂ’ve ever seen with two giant males doing a good impression of Aslan in the recent Narnia film.
So what did we see on the bus tour? IÂ’m going to have to check my photos and work this out as we didnÂ’t get given a map. Lots of different types of zebra, loads of antelopes deers and boks, rhinos, camels, lions, cheetahs, leopards, giraffes, rhinos, ostriches and other big birds, some funny looking horse type things, kangaroos (donÂ’t ask, I have no idea what they were doing there). The driver would stop in each new area and tell us about what we were seeing. SheÂ’d explain how fast a cheetah could run or a kangaroo could jump and give us some interesting facts about the animals. At least thatÂ’s pretty much what I thought was going on. Apparently if weÂ’d wanted to, we could have had a CD recording in English to follow the tour but we declined, happy to just look out of the windows.
As we drove around, Anna would pass round samples to illustrate what she was saying Â– an ostrich egg, a set of antlers, a long horn like a walking stick, a rhino horn and some other odds and ends. Whilst this was fun for the kids and adults alike, we couldnÂ’t help thinking Â‘ThatÂ’d never be allowed back home. Some kidÂ’s going to poke his eye outÂ’ but it was clear that the Dutch are less hung up on health and safety and avoiding litigation than the Brits.
Half way round we stopped for a display of birds of prey. As ex-members of a B of P centre we have seen lots of these displays and this wasnÂ’t the greatest. The crowd was too big with too many grizzly toddlers and the birds were quite distracted. However, it was a good chance to get off the bus and have a bit of fresh air. In the same part of the park you can see pelicans, penguins (yep, they do have penguins in South Africa so thatÂ’s not as weird as youÂ’d think) and some ring tailed lemurs.
Back to the bus and off for more critter-spotting. You have two options for driven safaris Â– the bus (either the safari parkÂ’s zebra bus or we saw tour groups going round in their own holiday tour buses) or your own car. At times the congestion made it feel a bit like we were animal spotting on the M25 on a Friday afternoon. This wasnÂ’t too much of a problem because most of the time, nobodyÂ’s in much of a hurry. However, thereÂ’s a bit of a log jam by the second lion enclosure where you enter through a double gates system to isolate the lionesses from the rest of the park.
Back to the start point and we disembarked and headed back to the restaurant for rolls and cake then we set off on the walking tour.
Different ways of getting around
There are a number of different options which, as far as I could figure out from the (very Dutch) website are all included in your entrance fee. These are the bus tour, the walking tour, the boat tour and a tour in your own vehicle. The bus tour leaves from just inside the park gates and toes in a loop. However, you can get off half way round and come back on the boat if your prefer.
A walk in the park
The walking route takes a loop through the middle section of the park and was, in some ways, more enjoyable than the bus tour. You could get good views of the animals in your own time rather than having to move at the pace of the bus. The walking route takes in both some of the animals you saw on the bus and a lot of new ones that you can only see by foot. These included some of the big cats - cheetahs, leopards, lynx Â– as well as wild dogs, warthogs, lots of apes of various types, elephants Â– including EuropeÂ’s largest elephant, a sad looking chap kept in isolation because he gets pissed off with all the attention.
In the middle of the walking route you find a cluster of African huts with fast food vendors, souvenir stalls and picnic tables. This is also where youÂ’ll have the chance to feed the goats Â– a highlight for all the kids (no pun intended). Ineke handed out bags of dried peas and we all piled into the goat enclosure. I picked a cute little fella who nibbled softly at my hand. Ah, how sweet! Then the attack of the aggressive pregnant mother goat started. I was pursued by a feisty little demon goat, barely higher than my knee and as broad as she was high, this little madam wanted all of my peas and was willing to fight to get them. By the time I staggered out of the enclosure IÂ’d been thoroughly mauled and my trousers were covered in muddy hoof prints. Hubby was laughing so hard that the photos came out blurred.
A serious point though, if this had been the UK weÂ’d probably have had to sign a disclaimer before being allowed near the goats. Afterwards weÂ’d have had to wash our hands with anti-bacterial gel. In Beekse Bergen there were no warnings, no hand washing facilities and no apparent concern. ItÂ’s a much more relaxed way of doing things although IÂ’m not sure that it isnÂ’t a bit too relaxed. Eventually I hunted down the toilets to wash my hands but nobody else seemed bothered.
Next we were off to see the new ape house (apenverblijf) Â– I believe this has only been opened this year. They have a large house with lots of swings and ropes and can leave the house to play outside whenever they want to. We got the eerie feeling that it wasnÂ’t entirely clear who was watching and who was being watched. Were we there to entertain them or vice versa.
Everything you could ever want to know about the park is there just for the reading at www.safaripark.nl Â…Â….if you understand Dutch. If you donÂ’t, itÂ’s difficult to find anything about this place. IÂ’ve googled the life out of Beekse Bergen without learning much at all. If you find yourself on holiday in the area, IÂ’m sure there would be info at any tourist information centre.
Here are a few of the things I gathered from the website which might be useful.
Safaripark Beekse Bergen
Beekse Bergen 31
5081 NJ Hilvarenbeek
Tel nr: 0900-2335732 (Â€0,15p/m.) (probably in Dutch)
** Opening Times
Jan 10.00 - 16.00
Feb 10.00 - 16.30
Mar to Jun 10.00 - 17.00
Jul to Aug 10.00 - 18.00
Sep & Oct 10.00 - 17.00
Nov 10.00 - 16.30
Dec 10.00 - 16.00
On Saturdays in July and August you can also book special evening safaris that run until 10 pm.
During our visit at around 4.30 pm everyone just started heading back towards the gates. It was an odd experience Â– a bit like the Stepford Wives Â– no announcement, no stewards running around, they just all turned and headed out. Very eerie
Standard adult entry Â€14.95
Under 3s Free
Groups >20 Â€10.95
You can also get Â‘packageÂ’ deals including meals and snacks as well as Â‘combiÂ’ deals for entrance to Speeland Beekse Bergen which is nearby (I think itÂ’s an activity park with go-karts, water slides and so on). The combi deal is just one Euro extra which would possibly be a bargain if I had a clue what I was getting.
** How to get there
The park is off the road N269 between Hilvarenbeek and Tilburg. You should be able to find plenty of sign-posting. Stop and ask if you get lost. Lots of parking is available.
** Accommodation Â– you can camp at the park and there are also Â‘jungalowsÂ’ (safari bungalows) for hire. I imagine these need to be booked well in advance. You should be able to book through the website although the link wasnÂ’t active when I looked.
The $64000 question Â– would I recommend it?
If you happen to be in the area looking for a nice safari park or a good day out then YES, go along and have a look. I thought it was quite good value for money, the variety of animals was good and they all appeared happy, relaxed and well cared for. I have been to lots of Â‘realÂ’ safari parks and animal parks in places like South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Tanzania but I havenÂ’t been to any European parks in the last 15 years. Consequently I canÂ’t compare this with the competition.
ThereÂ’s good and bad in European safari parks Â– the good is guaranteed animals, the bad is guaranteed animals Â– i.e. none of the sense of surprise and anticipation that comes from not knowing what you will find.
Whilst there are many different animals at Beekse Berge, the absence of hippos was unfortunate (they are my favourites) but the absence of crocodiles and snakes was a relief.
Would I recommend you fly over to Eindhoven specially to see the Beekse Bergen? Well itÂ’s generally a cheap route if you book early, you could get over, book a rental car or take a taxi, get round the park and be back at the airport in time for the evening flight. But realistically speaking, you probably wouldnÂ’t want to. But if you are there and you like safari parks, go and have a look.