â€œ Mandai Lake Road / Fon:2 69 34 11 / Ã–ffnungszeiten 19.30 Uhr bis 24 Uhr. â€ž
As night falls over Singapore, there are many options open to the visitor as to how to spend their evening. With the possible exception of buying another round of slings in the colonial elegance of the long bar in Raffles Hotel, the Night Safari has to be one of the best attractions on offer for an evening out, and it is certainly the most unusual. A lot of visitors mistakenly think that the Night Safari is simply the Singapore Zoo toured at night, a confusion that is perhaps accentuated by the fact that they are situated next door to one another and run by the same organisation, Wildlife Reserves Singapore. They are, however, two separate venues. So what makes them different? Well, while Singapore's zoo is a fantastic place to visit, it suffers from the same problem that all zoos have - visitors come during the day, and a large proportion of animals are nocturnal. In the tropics this is especially pronounced, with an estimated 90% of creatures only become active at night. While some zoos have tried to overcome this issue by building nocturnal houses to reverse their inhabitants' body clocks (Chester zoo springs to mind here), this can only really be done on a limited scale with a selection of smaller creatures. Unfortunately, this means there are an awful lot of animals that you are only ever going to see sleeping when you visit a regular zoo, which is what makes the Night Safari such an interesting idea - it is the world's first nocturnal zoo.
**Introducing the Night Safari**
Camped on the peaceful shore of the Seletar Reservoir in the lushly forested central catchment area of Singapore, the Night Safari is a hugely popular attraction in Singapore, drawing in over 1 million visitors each year. Despite the increasing popularity for zoos to offer nocturnal tours of their premises to visitors, there are still, I believe, only two or three other comparable attractions in the world (in China and Thailand).
Although an excellent premise, nocturnal zoos would only ever be feasible in certain geographical areas both because of climate and the fluctuating length of nights in some parts of the world during the year; imagine trying this in the UK, with freezing winter nights and long, light summer evenings delaying your opening times in peak season. Taking advantage of the hot climate and static ratio of day to night in the tropics, the Night Safari in Singapore can operate on regular hours throughout the year, knowing it will always get dark quickly at around 7pm. It is therefore also possible to coordinate the opening of the Night Safari with the closing of the zoo, a popular double for day-trippers. The zoo closes at 6pm daily, with the Night Safari opening its doors (a five minute walk away across the car park) at the same time. While the first tours don't start until 7.30pm when it is properly dark, opening the entrance plaza early gives exiting zoo visitors somewhere to wait (and spend money) in the meantime.
Once it does get dark, you have the chance to experience a wildlife park set in a humid-tropical forest setting that's divided into eight geographical zones (such as the Himalayan foothills, Indian subcontinent and Asian river forest). The park currently houses over 1,000 animals from 120 species, of which 29% are endangered. You can explore it at your leisure: on foot via three well-marked walking trails and by tram. Like the main zoo, the Night Safari uses the "open zoo" method of design. This means there isn't a cage in sight; animals live in large, naturalistic enclosures and are kept in their place by moats and boundaries (such as cattle grids) that are cunningly concealed behind water features, under foliage out of the line of sight of visitors. The effect to the visitor is an almost unobstructed view of the animals, with the landscape subtly manipulated to get you as close as it is possible to safely get, giving the impression that you are indeed on safari. The effect is further heightened at night, when barriers become almost invisible in the dim lighting.
Despite the after-dark setting, it is still possible to see the animals well enough, thanks to a careful lighting design that creates a moonlight effect around each enclosure; it is enough to see the animals quite clearly, but not enough to disturb or bother them. This is important, as nocturnal animals have proportionally bigger eyes than humans do, with very large pupils to get maximum benefit from the low light levels of their environment. Bright lights are therefore frightening and potentially damaging to these animals, so don't even try to use the flash on your camera. If you are caught using a flash, you could well be thrown out of the park (this is Singapore, remember), so take a camera that can cope with low light levels or leave the photographs altogether.
The entrance plaza is the hub of visitor services for the Night Safari, providing refreshments, shops and entertainment - this is where arriving visitors will gather before their safari experience begins. After experiencing the excellent choice of good food in the main zoo (indeed, everywhere else in Singapore - eating out is something of a national obsession over there), I hoped for more of the same here, as this would be where we would be eating our main meal of the day, given the lack of any local competition. The entrance plaza offered only two options for meals - Ulu Ulu, a quite expensive restaurant, and the cheaper Bongo Burgers. With the cost of visiting mounting up, we opted for the cheaper burger stand (I think meals were around the $10 mark, with drinks extra) - and experienced the only example of poor service we came across in our time in Singapore. Appetiser: half the menu was out of stock even though the stand had just opened. Main course: our food (undercooked, luke-warm and unappetising) was dumped unceremoniously on our table in a paper bag, despite customers before and after us getting plates. Dessert: this was the only food area we found in Singapore that had no fans to keep visitors comfortable while they ate, a ploy we assumed was to make visitors spend more money on drinks. This was a very disappointing start to our safari and I would urge other visitors to either budget for the full restaurant meal or to eat elsewhere before arriving.
After a quick browse in the shops (a range of unexciting souvenirs that you could get cheaper elsewhere, and a child-friendly selection of toys and stationary) and a visit to the Balinese-style open-air toilets, we wandered over to the amphitheatre to see what entertainment was on offer. Two performances are put on each evening for visitors - "cultural performances" at 6.30pm, 8pm and 9pm, and the Creatures of the Night show at 7.30pm, 8.30pm and 9.30pm. I was interested in watching the cultural show, but to be honest it was less about culture and more about fire-eaters and dancing girls in pseudo-native costumes. I avoided the Creatures of the Night show given my low tolerance level for seeing animals made to pimp themselves for treats on stage; I caught some of the commentary from one of the performances as I passed by later in the evening, and to be honest the educational content would have been hard pushed to stretch a four year old. I would advise skipping these shows unless you have a burning desire to see a serval jump on command, and concentrate your time on the real star attractions - the animals in the safari.
**Safari Adventurer Tour**
They call it a safari adventure tour; I call it a tram ride. Either way, it is an added extra to your ticket price, but one that is well worth paying for. The zoo is organised with four walking trails and one tram route that between them take you around all 59 enclosures, and while they do cross over in some spots, the tram lets you visit parts of the zoo that you can't access on foot. The tram rides start around 7.15pm, just as it gets dark enough for the animals to awaken and before the walking trails are opened up, so if you can get on the first tram of the evening, you get a very peaceful experience as you glide around the empty, awakening park. The journey takes about 40 minutes, and the tram is staffed by a guide who introduces the animals to you and draws your attention to creatures you may be struggling to see at first. The effect is quite unlike anything I have done before, and quite reminded me of the "Jurassic Park" island tour scenes; the tram trundles slowly and quietly around the park, passing gently by the animals, some of which get remarkably close to the vehicle (the deer seem to be free-roamers rather than enclosed animals, as they were feeding right at the side of the road when we passed by - fortunately there were no velociraptors, however).
Your ticket buys one circuit of the park on the tram, and there are only two places where you are allowed on and off it, at the entrance and the refreshment lodge in the middle of the zoo. Keep this in mind - if you get tired later on, you can't just hop on the tram to get a lift back to the exit.
There are three walking trails - the fishing cat trail (which takes you around the Himalayan and Indian areas, with the titular fishing cats as the highlight), the leopard trail (housing big cats, Asian otters, tarsiers, fruit bats and flying squirrels) and the forest giants trail (taking you through the larger African animals and up into the trees). We liked that the forest giants area featured the "bridge of suspense" over a river, although after experiencing no suspense whatsoever in crossing it, we concluded that this was perhaps a charming mistranslation of "suspension bridge".
Walking around a night zoo is a bit of a spooky experience, and one that is completely different to exploring ordinary zoos; it has noticeably less human noises despite being busy, and I felt the presence of the surrounding rainforest far more than I did walking near forested areas in the day. Perhaps it was because the native insects are also nocturnal! Once you are away from the entrance plaza it gets very quiet, with the just the chirping of the rainforest insects (there are lots of them, so make sure you wear repellent) and murmurings of other visitors to keep you company (for some reason it is one of those places where you feel you must talk in whispers). Given this environment, the main zoo is more suited to travellers with small children, and I would only recommend taking older children who won't mind the dark to the Night Safari. Certainly, the few under-fives that we did pass seemed to either be scared or crabby at being kept up so late - not good for them or the other visitors.
Maps of the park are available to take around with you as you walk, but they are quite hard to read in the low light levels, so there is not a great deal of use in carrying them around with you to be honest. The paths are signposted, though, and there are several members of staff stationed around the park to give reassurance and directions. Equally, the routes are well designed, making it hard to get lost or miss anything important along the way.
The walking trails were surely a unique experience, and I saw several animals that were either incredibly rare (such as the binturong or Asian bearcat) or rarely seen in captivity due to the problems keeping them in traditional zoos (such as the sugar gliders). While I especially enjoyed seeing the giant flying squirrels (they are kept in a large gated biodome, and fly around your head as you walk through it), the most memorable part of the evening came quite by accident, as we walked past the Indian wolf enclosure. It was quite early in the evening, and the wolves seemed to still be asleep as we approached them. With little to see, we started to move on...until one of the pack began to stir and stretch. As we watched, he stood up on the promontory in the middle of the enclosure and started to howl. Howling is very much a community activity for wolves, so once one had started, it didn't take long for the other animals to wake up and cluster around him to join in, creating an eerie but strangely beautiful effect.
The Night Safari was unlike anything I have ever done before, and I applaud Singapore's conservation authorities for taking this opportunity to let visitors be introduced to a side of the animal kingdom that we very rarely see. To say this is simply a nocturnal version of the main zoo would not be entirely accurate; while it utilises the same "open zoo" concept to house the animals at best advantage both for them and the visitor, the presentation was noticeably different. The main zoo is firmly an educational enterprise, there to encourage people to learn about and appreciate nature; the Night Safari, on the other hand, feels altogether more commercialised, and a bit more theme park-like. While conservation is still a consideration, (the Night Safari has seen the birth of Asia's first captive-bred giant flying squirrel and giant anteater), the whole time I was there I couldn't quite shake off the impression that this wonderful park has been undermined somewhat by adopting Western-style service over Asian hospitality. Despite these shortcomings, it is well worth visiting if you go to Singapore - and you are not afraid of the dark!
Address: 80 Mandai Lake Road, Singapore729826
Open: 6pm (entrance plaza) and 7.30pm (Night Safari) until midnight, daily
Entrance: Night Safari only, $22 adult & $15 under-12s / Joint ticket with zoo, $32 adult & $20 under-12s
Other Charges: Car parking $3.90 / Tram ride, $10 adult & $6 under-12s
Public Transport Access: http://www.nightsafari.com.sg/l2_t2.aspx?l1=2&l2=11&langid=1
All prices given are in Singapore dollars - at the time of visiting, there were approximately $2.1 to the pound.
Singapore Zoo, is by all accounts, well worth a visit. My recent trip to Singapore was unfortunately for business, so I was sadly obliged to be indoors for the whole day - limiting my chances to visit most of the daytime attractions. The zoo is not much fun at night really, so I missed out on that one. Never fear though - Singapore has thought of us poor business travellers. They have a Night Zoo! The Singapore Night Safari is in fact part of Singapore Zoo, and is situated in a lovely pocket of rainforest, a little way outside of the main built up "city" area. We were staying on the Sentosa Island, and were able to reach the park in a little over 20 minutes (mind you, you could do a circuit of the whole country on a Uni Cycle in an hour). Due to our meeting finishing at 5:45, we were a little rushed to get to the turnstiles by 6:30, when the attraction opens, but it is possible to stay inside until 12am - so there was no need to rush. Entrance to the zoo is Singapore $18.00 with a $6.00 charge for the optional (but in my opinion, essential) tram safari tour. In UK money, that works out as about Â£7-Â£8.00. As most visitors to the zoo will be skipping their tea, a good "International" buffet is available, as well as the usual fast food options. You can eat all you like for sing $13, with a Tiger beer on the side for about $7. Pretty good value all round. Once you have had your fill of the buffet, you can begin the tour of a very well stocked animal park. We were able to look at a couple of displays, including some impressive Sumatran Tigers, before hopping on the tram for a tour around the larger exhibits. The motor train takes you through various zones, where animals are grouped by their natural region. All enclosures are subtly illuminated to giv
e a moonlit effect. Most animals were fairly active, and a good commentary gave plenty of information on each species. The tour in broken up with a chance to take in some of the walks - such as the big cats and fruit bats. The bats were a particular favourite of mine. Expecting to have to really scan for small Pipestrel sized creatures in the walk-through aviary, I was fairly shocked when a giant fruit bat around 18" across swooped over my head. Outside of the aviary you can find snow leopards, Asian Lions and other big cats. we were lucky enough to catch the male lions in a full display of their vocal talents - pretty impressive! You rejoin the tram and complete the tour through the rainforest, often moving through enclosures where animals such as Taiper and deer are roaming freely. The guide makes a strong effort to enforce the environmental message - stressing how lucky we are to be able to see the animals at all, such is the precarious state of some of the species. Once you get back to the tram station you can take in the very informative, and entertaining Nocturnal Animals show. The display includes some great tricks from Civets (those little cat like creatures who apparently spread SARS), Asian Otters, Hyenas and a huge Python. All the animals seem to be in great condition, and handled with care and respect. We were unable to take in the fishing cat trail - where you can see the small cats actually working for their supper, hooking live fish from a running stream in their enclosure, but in our three hour visit, covered pretty much all of the other exhibits. The Night Safari was an excellent evening out of the hotel, and at the current exchange rate, better value than most UK attractions. Its a fairly unique experience, and would have to go on the must see list of any visit to
this small, but fascinating country.