ESCONDIDO — "It's cheaper than going to Africa, I'll say that," Christine said as she scanned a rolling savanna where giraffes, gazelles and elephants ambled within a few dozen yards of a tent she shared with her husband, Jim.
For the Claremont couple and more than 50 other safari wannabes like me who spent a chilly Saturday night in March at the San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park, the aptly named Roar & Snore camp out was also enlightening, fun and a little eerie. But not necessarily restful.
"Oh God, where did I put my earplugs?" my partner Wesla asked soon after bedtime, as sonorous snoring erupted from nearby tents. "That's going to be louder than the animals."
Not always, we would learn. More on that later, along with the truth about rhino flatulence, grisly lion treats and how to train an elephant.
But first: Why are we here? Like Christine and Jim, we couldn't make it to Africa (or so I thought, until my editors agreed to send me; see "South Africa" article, left). Instead, for Christmas, Wesla had given me a night at the 1,800-acre park in Escondido, where countless beasts and birds fly, swim, roam and mate, many with only a moat to protect them from herds of camera-wielding bipeds. Or vice versa.
For $129 each (plus $35 for park admission), Wesla and I got a tent, dinner, breakfast, three after-hours walking tours and plenty of face time with park staff during an adults-only edition of Roar & Snore, which is also offered for youth groups and families with children.
Among our fellow campers were veteran park-goers and newbies such as Tammy and her daughter Tara of Virginia Beach, Va., visiting during Tara's spring break from college.
"In the past we've cruised," Tammy said. "We thought we'd do something different."
That it was. Wesla's verdict: "A really cool experience."
After a two-hour drive from Los Angeles, Wesla and I pulled up to the park gates, checked in and by 4:45 p.m. had spread our sleeping bags across the vinyl floor of our 9-by-14-foot canvas home near Kilima Point.
We had paid an extra $20 each for a so-called vista tent overlooking the nearly 70-acre East Africa habitat; cheaper ones are off the rim.
Below us grazed a dozen hoofed -- what? After searching in vain for signage, I collared Candace, one of several perky camp guides.
"We're a nonprofit," she said. "We put up as many signs as we can afford."
Then she clued me in: Those were Thomson's gazelles, sporting dark racing stripes. And over there were reticulated giraffes, a few fringe-eared oryx, a regal-looking defassa waterbuck, several African crowned cranes and, atop distant hills, African and Asian elephants.
Closer in, near the camp's dining patio, a couple of hulking white rhinos snuffled in the dirt.
"They're kind of gassy," Candace said, giggling. Something to do with inefficient digestive systems. Turns out you can get too close to nature.
Above us, swirling turkey vultures that I had mistaken for hawks cruised for roadkill. It was not the only time that night I would feel like prey.
Speaking of food: A buffet of grilled hamburgers and hot dogs, veggie burgers, barbecued beans and green beans, consumed at communal picnic tables, made for mostly happy campers, although some growled that the $8.25 mixed drinks were more mix than drink.
Just as well. We would need sharp senses and sure footing for our post-dinner forays: two brisk 90-minute hikes through the darkened park.
"Our adventure begins," camper Christine said, grinning like an excited 5-year-old as two dozen of us trooped behind Candace down a dusky road toward predator habitats. I felt like a child sneaking into the zoo after closing.
Candace fed our fantasies.
When we passed a pacing female cheetah that glared at us with shining eyes, Candace said, "You just finished dinner. You smell like food."
Thanks to a moat and a swath of electricity-charged grass, we were spared. Not so some visitors.
"Every once in a while, a not-so-bright bunny gets in the enclosure," with predictable carnage ensuing, Candace said.
Lounging lions seemed less wild than mild, which they kind of were, having been trained, she said, to open their mouths for tooth inspections and tolerate sundry pokes and probes. Their favorite summer snacks, though, were chilling: frozen rabbit's blood, which park employees dubbed "bloodsicles."
Not all our guide's insights were as G-rated. Hoping to give other males a chance to mate, staff had shunted a Cape buffalo to a habitat by himself, we learned.
"He's nicknamed Longfellow, and it's not because he likes the poet," Candace said of the horned Lothario.
We paraded past African black rhinos, nyala antelope and more animals before returning to camp for a snack of cheesecake, cookies, hot cocoa and coffee, and then heading out on our second hike.