St. Louis Zoo To Open Animal-Themed Hotel

St Louis zoo hotel penguins
Flickr, Jorge Rodrigo Gonzalez

The St. Louis Zoo has some major expansion plans in store for the next several decades, including an open savannah, a gondola crossing the park, a formal restaurant and a boutique hotel. The Missouri zoo will be making big changes to their existing park and developing a new site, bringing the total campus to over 100 acres, and creating new animal habitats and attractions. Don’t get ready to book yet, the full strategic plan is not due until the end of 2014, and construction could still be well into the future.

Where else can you overnight with animals, even if you don’t have kids?
Cincinnati Zoo has several after-hours options for families and kids, such as family camping outside the giraffe exhibit or inside the manatees building. You can even travel with the zoo on an African safari to Kenya.

Cleveland Zoo has a variety of fun overnight programs for children, but the adults have the option of a cash bar and make-your-own s’mores in the summer months. Costs are $90 to $300, depending on tent size.

The Houston Zoo Wild Winks program is primarily for children, but private events can be arranged. Want to sleep without the fishes? On November 1, adults can attend the annual Feast with the Beasts fundraiser event with 80 local restaurants providing food and drinks, animal appearances, and a performance by Smash Mouth. The zoo also hosts trips to Yellowstone, Alaska and Kenya.

San Diego Zoo Safari Park regularly offers “roar and snore” overnight camping excursions for children and families, and an “adults-only” option where you can learn animal facts for mature audiences only. Tickets range from $140-$264 per person, depending on age, membership, and tent size.

The Washington National Zoo hosts adults only for summer snore & roars including wine and cheese and an after-hours tour. Families and kids can choose their favorite animal or regional tour, from Amazonia to chimpanzees, but eat before you arrive, dinner is not on the menu.

Welcome To The Jungle: Thailand’s Khao Yai National Park

Waterfall in Khao Yai National Park, Thailand
Adam Hodge, Gadling

I was 12 years old when I discovered the jungle wasn’t for me, and I hadn’t even been to one yet.

It was “Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World” that did it for me. Enthralled though I was by the idea of a Professor Challenger-esque expeditionary jaunt into unchartered territory, I was quite perturbed by some scenes in the movie. Even when you took away the dinosaurs, the tropical landscape seemed treacherous and thick with danger.

For instance, even the ground was unreliable. More than one character in the movie slipped on the unpredictable muddy jungle floor, often accompanied by a onomatopoeic schlippp and was promptly eaten. The hippie paleontologist lost his footing on wet rock. Crunch. “That’s not for me,” I thought. I don’t care for the wet.

Then the “moveable feast” fled through a break in the woods and into the long grass. “Don’t go into the long grass!” one of the characters urgently and repeatedly screamed as they did, and I nodded yes, listen to that man – for the long grass hid dozens of velociraptors. And, I thought, thousands of leeches. Sound advice either way.

Several years later I went on a jungle trek in Costa Rica, which I anticipated with a certain amount of dread. The real thing was stickier, itchier, sweatier and wetter. In short, it was much worse. The real world, as I discovered was far more sinister than “The Lost World.”

But I’m nothing if not forgiving. I gave jungles repeated chances throughout my travels via a certain amount of self-inflicted amnesia and a masochistic determination to enjoy the ecosystem. I like the idea of the jungle in principle – full of life, and so on. So I hiked in India, Malaysia and other tropical places, each time with the same itchy, sticky, anxiety-inducing result.

Then I heard about Khao Yai National Park, supposedly one of Thailand’s unsung treasures, and I knew it was time to test myself again.It’s Thailand’s most popular park, but the vast majority of tourists are Thai. Some 74,000 foreigners visited in 2011, which sounds like a lot. But compare that to Phuket, Koh Samui or Chiang Mai, which each receive over 2 million foreign visitors a year. Around 240,000 foreigners visit out-of-the-way Sukhothai, a six- or seven-hour bus ride from Bangkok. Khao Yai, as far as Thailand goes, remains “undiscovered.”

With a quixotic resolve I decided to check it out, and I made the 125-mile drive in good time, paying my $16 entrance fee and $1 camping fee as I rolled in during the early afternoon. I had seen an elephant by the side of the road on the way in. “This is promising,” I thought.

My second wildlife experience came soon after, as I rounded a bend and almost ran over an entire troop of pig-tailed macaques. They ambled up onto a guardrail and watched me blankly as I drove by. I have had some particularly poor experiences with macaques, who I consider to be the jerks of the jungle. Yet these simply stared at me placidly. The jungle was increasing in esteem in my mind.

Macaques in Khao Yai National Park, Thailand
Adam Hodge, Gadling

To be fair, I hadn’t left my car, nor had I been in the jungle, really. But that such simple things would improve my opinion of this place should indicate how much of a nightmare I had come to consider it to be. I stopped at the small park canteen and ate a notably average late lunch, and my opinion of the jungle soared yet again.

My campsite was located in a pleasant clearing, and I was one of only four other campers there. We were outnumbered almost 10-1 by a herd of sambar deer, the most bovine representatives of the family cervidae. A small pond broke melodically into a wide and short waterfall just beyond my tent, the soft music of which was joined by the near-ceaseless chomping of the campsite’s immobile platoon of ruminants. I counted this as another point for the jungle. Just as I was thinking this, a Great Hornbill soared overhead and planted itself on a tree at the edge of the forest. “Wow,” I thought. “Maybe I have the jungle all wrong.”

As the sun went down, I met an old German couple that told me they were going on a night safari, and would I like to join? Of course I did. We hopped in the back of a pick-up and with the aid of a massive spotlight were able to spot several porcupines, some muntjacs, civet cats and even an Asian narrow-headed soft-shelled turtle. “This is going swimmingly,” I thought, and congratulated myself on my own perseverance.

I went to bed early in a positive frame of mind. As I fell asleep to the sound of pattering rain on the tent roof and the incessant mastication of the vigilant deer, I noted to myself with a certain amount of foreboding that I had yet to actually go into the jungle proper.

Sabar deer in Khao Yai National Park, Thailand
Adam Hodge, Gadling

In the morning I awoke with a start to the sound of car tires on gravel right next to my tent and checked the time: 4:45 a.m. “I wonder who would be leaving now,” I thought. It’s still dark. I listened more closely. The car appeared to be rolling back and forth just next to my head, tires crunching gravel. But I heard no engine. It stopped unexpectedly and I fell asleep but awoke minutes later to the same noise. I rolled over and unzipped the flap ready to deliver an inquisition. Bursting forth from the flap a terrified group of sambar deer bounded away. They had been ripping up the grass on all sides of my tent. I grabbed a handful and yanked, and it sounded like the crunch of a car tire on gravel. What I thought was a car was just a herd of insatiable deer.

I fell back asleep and awoke again 30 minutes later when the deer returned. I yelled and heard them stop. They resumed moments later. I tried to sleep, tossing and turning for another hour, dreaming of eating venison. Eventually I admitted defeat and tore down my campsite. “Oh well,” I thought, “I’ll get a good start on the day.”

Clothed and fed, I arrived at the trailhead for what was to be a five-hour walk, passing through long grass, a salt lick where I hoped to see elephants and, finally, the heavily treed forest where if I was lucky I might spot some gibbons.

The rain from the night before had made the path through the grassland extremely slick. I stopped and read a sign that had been covered by long pointy grass. Cogon grass, it said, is “… a favorite food for sambar deer and guar. Once mature, however, the leaves become hard and develop sharp, serrated edges that deter foraging animals and can cut curious humans.” Don’t go into the long grass.

Khao Yai National Park, Thailand
Adam Hodge, Gadling

On the way to the forest I passed the salt lick. The only evidence of elephants was a giant pile of dung. One can’t fault the elephants for not being around, I thought, and went on into the forest.

No sooner had I passed the treeline than my head became the focal point for the errant orbit of several large biting insects. They seemed impervious to the bug-spray shower I had taken that morning.

I pressed on, slipping along the muddy path and sweating heavily inside my jacket. It was only 9 in the morning and the sky was overcast, but the humidity was intolerable. I had a choice between exposing my skin to all manner of itchy things or mentally working through my portable sweat lodge. I went with the sweat lodge.

It’s extremely difficult to actually see anything interesting in the jungle. For one, the dense canopy makes it much darker at ground level. Since the jungle can be so thick even at eye level, you’re depth of field is limited as well. Add to this the fact that most animals don’t want to be seen or live in the canopy a hundred feet up and you don’t see much fauna of any note. Mostly, you see fungi and bugs – bugs that seem bent on using your body as a ladder, ambulatory transport or food.

Fungi in Khao Yai National Park, Thailand
Adam Hodge, Gadling

It had occurred to me as I was swatting things off and looking despairingly for any sign of quadrupedic or avian life that I had seen numerous paths diverge from what I judged was the main route. It had also occurred to me I had seen no signs on which to base this judgment. And then as the cloud of flying things around my head thickened and the clamor of the jungle swelled to a dull roar, I walked into a small clearing in which there were no signs but some four or five distinctive paths leading out.

At a loss and trying to wrest my sanity back from the little buzzing satellites around my ears, I plowed on down my best guess. Some 30 minutes later, the jungle was thicker and the path was winding down a steep muddy slope. I had the sense I was heading the wrong way, but there was no way to tell. Then, schlippp. Airborne and horizontal above a muddy hill. I thought, “Jungle, you got me again.”

Three hours into my walk and covered in mud, sweat and insect bits, I emerged into a field – the same field I had entered from. Notably, this wasn’t supposed to be an out-and-back hike. I had been turned around completely at some point, but I didn’t care. I was in the long grass, which at this point was much preferable to the jungle.

Caterpillar in Khao Yai National Park, Thailand
Adam Hodge, Gadling

I stomped out of the forest, past the salt lick, across the field of grass that wanted to watch me bleed and into the parking lot. I went to take a photo of the lethal grass for posterity and noticed my lens cap had gone missing. The jungle had truly taken its pound of flesh.

As I approached my car, the old German couple was standing under an umbrella gazing up at a tree and making quiet exclamations. I paused to greet them, and they looked at me slightly unnerved, taking a step back. I realized I must look out of sorts. They recomposed themselves and the husband, cleared his throat. “Look,” he motioned to the tree, “gibbons!”

I looked up at the gibbons and sighed. Then I looked down at my feet. Grinning to myself, I pointed at my legs. “Look,” I said to the Germans, “leeches!” I had acquired some five or six now-bloated passengers on my expedition. They looked at me smiling at them enthusiastically, which in retrospect I realize doesn’t make me seem all that sane, and they took another step back. I flicked off the leeches and waved the Germans goodbye.

Jungle Valley in Khao Yai National Park, Thailand
Adam Hodge, Gadling

I changed out of my filthy, sweaty clothes and drove off through the park, cursing the jungle. “This is the last time,” I thought. Then I passed a lookout, with a stunning view of a deep-green valley suffused with low-lying cloud. During the pause, I reflected on everything pre-trek. I realized that I like the jungle in theory, but I prefer to see it through a pane of glass or an elevated position.

But with time comes reflection. And due to my more-than-tolerable experience at Khao Yai the night prior to my own personal “Jurassic Park” sequel, my jungle rating had been raised from mild hatred to general disdain. I don’t think there’s a much higher recommendation I could give to Khao Yai.

Bushtracks Expeditions Lets You Build Your Own Safari From Scratch

Bushtracks Expeditions offers fully customizable safarisFor more than 20 years Bushtracks Expeditions has been helping travelers visit Africa to experience the classic safari to its fullest. After two decades in the business, it is safe to say that they’ve learned a few things about organizing an unforgettable excursion into the remote corners of the continent. Now, they’ve taken all of that knowledge and experience and placed it online in a new tool that makes it a breeze to customize every element of your own personal safari, which they’ll then organize to your exact specifications.

This new online tool launched recently on the Bushtracks website where travelers are free to join any one of the company’s existing itineraries or completely build their own from scratch. That process can be as easy or as complex as you’d like, as the website gives you the option of starting with one of the preexisting safari options and simply tweaking it to fit your needs or you can begin with a completely blank slate and build the entire schedule into a dream excursion that will create memories to last a lifetime. And for those who don’t like to make too many tough travel decisions, there is even a safari wizard that asks you several easy questions then provides recommendations based on your answers.Of these, the tool that will be the most intriguing to experienced travelers will certainly be the “Build A Trip” option. This tool gives you full control over your entire African adventure, starting with the dates you are planning on traveling and the number of people in your party. From there, you’ll select your arrival destination from such cities as Cape Town, Dar Es Salaam, Nairobi and Windhoeck, amongst others. Once you decide where it is you would most like to begin your safari, you’ll then be presented with day-by-day options for the lodges that you would like to stay at and the activities that you would most like to do while you are there. Accommodations range in price but are all very comfortable with some high-end luxury options available as well. Some of the activities that you can choose from include such options as game drives through local wildlife preserves, trekking excursions, cultural experiences, visits to the spa and so on. You’ll fill up each day of your personal itinerary with all of the things that you’d like to do and Bushtracks will take care of organizing those events for you.

If you’re the kind of traveler who likes to have complete control over every aspect of your trip, then you’ll certainly enjoy the level of customization available here. Not only will you be able to build your perfect safari experience, but the expert guides at Bushtracks will do all of the work of putting the trip together. This kind of tool provides the best of both worlds, giving you the chance to design your own optimal experience while still getting full service from a well-respected travel company that has a reputation for delivering top tier service.

Alleged Poacher Trampled To Death By Elephant In Zimbabwe

An elephant trampled a poacher to death in ZimbabweTwo poachers illegally hunting inside Zimbabwe’s Charara National Park had the tables unexpectedly turned on them recently. The two men slipped into the reserve unnoticed where they had hoped to kill an elephant and harvest its ivory tusks for sale on the black market in Asia. But their excursion ended up going horribly wrong leaving one of the men in the hands of the authorities and the other poacher trampled to death by the very creature he was hunting.

Solomon Manjoro, along with his partner Noluck Tafuruka, allegedly entered the park a few weeks back in hopes that they could bag an elephant, grab its tusks and get out before anyone knew they were there. Apparently Manjoro manged to wound one of the big pachyderms but failed to deliver a killing shot. The enraged animal then charged the men, knocking Manjoro to the ground and trampling him to death. His body was discovered some time later.

Tafuruka managed to escape the wrath of the animal and ran off into the park. He was later detained by authorities who discovered him wandering the premises with an illegal firearm. His capture led to the arrest of a third man living in the capital city of Harare, although what his role in this story is remains a mystery.

Considering the number of elephants that are being slaughtered on a daily basis in Africa, the story of one poacher getting killed by the animal he is hunting hardly seems like justice. Still, I couldn’t muster a single ounce of sympathy for the guy. I’m just sad that his friend “Noluck” managed to get away relatively unscathed.

[Photo Credit: Kraig Becker]

Mountain Travel Sobek Launches 5-Day Flash Sale Monday

Mountain Travel Sobek Launches Flash Sale On MondayAdventure travel company Mountain Travel Sobek will launch a flash sale starting Monday that will offer substantial savings on some of their more popular trips. The five-day sale will feature a different discounted itinerary each day, giving travelers just 24-hours to grab the hot deal.

The discounted trips will be displayed prominently on both the company’s website and its Facebook page, although exactly which trips will go on sale remains a mystery at this time. Considering Mountain Travel Sobek offers dozens of itineraries to nearly every corner of the globe, it is possible that the flash sale could send you just about anywhere. With so many options in their catalog, travelers will also have to weigh whether or not they should grab a current deal or wait until the following day to see what is offered next. But once the 24-hour period is up, the sale on that particular trip is over and if you haven’t booked it, you’ve missed your chance.

In addition to the flash sale that runs next week, the company is also currently running a sweepstakes to give away the Ultimate African Safari in celebration of its 40th anniversary. One lucky winner will receive a 12-day trip to Tanzania, including airfare and travel gear, which will send them to the Serengeti to witness the greatest collection of wildlife on the planet. The contest runs through July 18. Enter here.

Although its origins can be traced as far back as 1969, Mountain Travel Sobek was officially launched in 1991 with the merger of two top adventure travel companies. Over the years it has continued the legacy set down by its founders, offering trips to all seven continents and constantly providing customers with exciting new options.

[Photo Credit: Kraig Becker]