Virginia Safari Park

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Elisabeth and I spent Saturday and part of Sunday in the Shenandoah Valley with an overnight at Skyland Resort. Skyland and Big Meadows are my two favorite places to visit and stay along Skyline Drive in the Shenandoah National Forest. If you’ve not been to either, I highly recommend them both (with my personal favorite being Big Meadows Lodge).

Another thing I can now highly recommend is Virginia Safari Park. It’s located near Natural Bridge just across 81 on Route 11. Our plan was to swing through the safari park for a bit, take some pictures and then head on up the valley to Skyline drive for our overnight stay at Skyland. As it turns out, the safari park experience was so much fun that we went through it twice – a visit of about three and a half to four hours.

Basically, you pay at the gate, buy a few buckets of animal feed (looks like rabbit food) and then drive at your own pace along a few miles of winding gravel road through quintessential rural Virginia fields and woods.

Nothing about the surroundings is particuarly unlike the countryside I’ve grown up in around rural Virginia. What is remarkably different, though, is the constant attention you are receiving from llamas, camels, elk, ostriches, emus, zebras, pigs, bison, gazelle, deer of all kinds and numerous (and I mean numerous) other species (note: I’m going to need to research my plurals there). We didn’t buy the guidebook and, despite a lifetime of watching National Geographic and Discovery Channel, I couldn’t put a name to everything I saw, smelled, touched or from which I received a slobbery snuffle in the constant quest for bucketized snacks.

The whole experience is a blast. Yes, you’re going to end up with rabbit food all over the inside of your car, your windows are going to get pasted in slobber (as will your hands and arms in certain cases), you’re going to discover that llamas have horrid breath, that zebras like to taste the housing of your rearview mirrors and wipers, and that zebra sneezes can throw “liquid” all the way from the driver side to the passenger side and out the other window. Oh, and hold the bucket with both hands or the camel is going to just take it from you and munch on it with his head four feet over the roof of your car.

And, like I said, we did it twice. And we’re also going to go back in a couple of weeks and take a friend who is visiting over Thanksgiving. That will be the last couple of days of their season, so go now or you’ll have to wait until next year.

I took the batch of photos on our first run with my Sigma 24-70 f/2.8 DG EX Macro lens. I adore this lens, but it can’t quite focus closely enough (or wide enough) when a zebra decides to shove his entire head into your lap or an elk decides to snuffle the side of your face. On the second trip through, I shot the first half of close animal encounters with my Sigma 8mm f/4 EX Circular Fisheye. You get that traditional 180 degree fisheye bubble effect (I mostly use this lens for doing stitched panoramas), but the results inside the close quarters of a car are unmatched in terms of field of view and, more importantly, are highly comedic. 🙂

The drive through the winding park is the highlight attraction, but you can park your car and stretch your legs a bit walking around in the more zoo-like section of the facility. The most fascinating part of this section (among the kangaroos, various birds, goats, etc) is the giraffe feeding station. They apparently added this attraction this year and I’m sorry we didn’t get to spend more time in it. You can buy some “giraffe crackers” and then feed these docile, skittish giants at their head level. Their tongues look to be about six inches long and their eyes are about the size of billiard balls. The eyelashes give them a somewhat cartoony, feminine appearance. Next time we go back, I’m buying some crackers so I can interact with them a bit more.

All in all, it’s a fun trip and one we plan on repeating. I took over 600 shots and selected about 140 to which I have applied some basic edits for color, etc. I captioned a few of them to tell more of the story.

– Aaron

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