Tag Archives: Tourism

20 unexpected things about South Africa

I was very fortunate to visit this staggeringly beautiful country and it’s been the most incredible, thrilling, awe-inspiring experience of my life. I feel so blessed to have seen magical places and animals, and meet such inspirational people along the way. It really has been a dream come true, but here are some of the MOST unexpected things I came across during my travels:

#1 Everyone has a braai

Virtually every Friday people have a braai- typically the same as a barbecue with PLENTY of unusual meats. On the menu is a wide variety, including kudu, ostrich, crocodile and the famous Biltong. Accompanied by much drinking, smoking, dancing, star gazing and laughs. And I thought people in Spain liked a fiesta…

#2 Everyone can speak at least 11 languages

You literally walk off the stuffy 10 hour flight from London Heathrow to Joho and hear a myriad of clicking sounds, trills, calls, hi’s, shouts of seemingly unconnected languages. People here are remarkably talented when it comes to speaking different languages, and makes me feel incredibly derisible to only speak a mere two. There are eleven official languages of South Africa: Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Swazi, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu. Pheww! Dutch and English were the first official languages of South Africa from 1910 to 1925. Afrikaans was added as a part of Dutch in 1925, although in practice, Afrikaans effectively replaced Dutch, which was then no longer spoken. Thanks Wikipedia.

 

#3 How salty the sea is

This is an odd one- but having swallowed a bucket load during cage diving, sea kayaking, whale watching and surfing… the water is unusually salty compared to the Uk’s Atlantic. This is because the Agulhas Current which passes along the coast is, like the Gulf Stream, one of the strongest currents in the world ocean. It carries warm and salty water from the tropical Indian Ocean along South Africa’s east coast. South-west of Cape Town it makes an abrupt turn back into the Indian Ocean. In this process huge rings of water with diameters of hundreds of kilometre are cut off at intervals of 3 to 4 months. These so-called “Agulhas Rings” carry extra heat and salt into the South Atlantic, making this a key region for the whole Atlantic Ocean. Just take a look at the Etosha salt pans in Namibia, covering an area of approximately 1,900 square miles (4,800 square km). So get your surfers salt sea spray hair-do in South Africa!

Yeah baby, you can work it like this too!

Etosha Salt pans, Namibia

#4 Monkeys will raid your kitchen

Okay so we all know animals like to pinch your food. In the UK its usually seagulls at the coast and foxes raiding your bins at night. But when you see a 50kg Baboon legging it out of your kitchen bearing its HUGE canine teeth…then its rather grotesque bottom to you, you KNOW you’re in Africa. Vervet monkeys, although a lot smaller will also try their hand at pick pocketing. Having said that, within Europe it is possible to see a precocious primate pinch your picnic…Gibraltar in Spain is home to Europe’s only ape (other than ourselves), the Barbary ape. They’re notoriously known for stealing tourists’ food, so even at home you’re not safe!

#5 People smoke like there’s no tomorrow

I thought Spain was bad…but in South Africa, the cheap price of cigarettes (roughly £1.50, or €2 for the best quality makes) means people smoke as if they need it to breathe! The air is consistently filled with smoke, it’s seemingly unreal. SO if you’re a non-smoker like me, a strong Oust spray or perfume is required when you travel, otherwise you end up smelling like a chimney! In addition, the amount of cooking fires people have just about anywhere means you literally walk around smelling like a smoked salmon…yummy if you’re a brown bear. Thank goodness you’re in South Africa then.

#6 How bright the stars are…the wrong way round

When you look up at African skies- you’re instantly taken aback by the shear clarity and detail of our most beautiful galaxy. Billions of stars scattered across the vast expanse of the universe, like eternal diamonds, glinting and constant…but wait a minute, isn’t the Big Dipper supposed to be over there? So this this is to do with the rotation of the Sky. Because the earth is rotating the sky appears to rotate. Viewed from above the north pole, the earth is rotating counter-clockwise. For an observer on the earth, objects move from east to west (this is true for both northern and southern hemispheres). More accurately put, when looking north, objects in the sky move counter-clockwise. Though all objects rotate in the sky, the observed path stars make in the sky depend on the observer’s latitude. Some are always in the observer’s sky, some of the time, and others are never observable. SO don’t get your stars in a twist! Astrophotography is especially remarkable here, so remember to bring a tripod, I was lucky enough to witness a Blue moon too, as well as the crossing of Jupiter and Venus!

#7 Number of cows and quantity of meat you eat

Agriculture is HUGE in South Africa. In terms of cattle, in the UK there’s now 1.84 million dairy cows in the UK dairy herd, whilst approximately 80 % of agricultural land in South Africa is mainly suitable for extensive livestock farming… that’s a LOT OF COWS. South Africa produces 85% of its meat requirements, with 15% imported from Namibia, Botswana, Swaziland, Australia, New Zealand and the EU. Local demand generally outstrips production, even though there are untapped reserves in the communal farming areas. SO THAT’S WHY they have a lot of Braai’s. Of course it doesn’t stop at cows, you can also chomp on Zebra, Springbok, Kudu, Crocodile and the famous Ostrich. If you head over to Oudtshoorn, not only can you ride ostrich and have a selfie..but have a leather bag and burger to go with that. Not my cup of tea but hey!

#8 How cheap things are

Clutching shopping bags, glugging wine, and lounging on pristine beaches: South Africa’s weak rand is drawing few complaints from foreign tourists getting more bang for their buck. According to a recent Post Office study, a Briton buying £500 in local currency can get 22.3% more for their money, or an additional £91.03, compared with one year ago. The current exchange rates from £ to rand are: £1=20.7 South African rand. I mean that’s remarkably weak…having said that, in the past if was far weaker, only now are South Africans able to benefit from tourism. You can get your regular shop for less than a fiver, go out on a safari for £13, get a taxi for £5, fine-dining for £5, accommodation for £10 or less. Hence why there is such a draw to places such as Cape Town and Plett, the strength of the pound in particular means it’s hugely attractive for students too, looking to enjoy their student finance money!

#9 How little locals actually travel

A sad fact that reflects the state of poverty amongst many white and black South Africans. The strength of others currency against the rand and low wages means locals rarely have the spare cash to experience the delights of SA themselves. The median hourly wage in Pounds in the UK (net) is £5.90 versus £1.05 in South Africa. This is something that should definitely be addressed in terms of local discounts, but it’s encouraging to see that in National Parks residents pay half the price. SO we can consider ourselves very lucky!

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#10 The squeaky sound of the sand

The stunning sands of Plettenberg bay, Mossel bay and Knysna actually squeak! When Marco Polo heard them in the Gobi Desert, he believed they were spirit voices. Ancient Chinese literature describes ritual celebrations of their divine power. After generations of mystical interpretations, researchers are finally closing in on a scientific explanation for the acoustics of sand. They now agree that the phenomenon of noisemaking sand is made possible by the action of displacement, which produces musical instrument-like vibrations in sand grains. The exact recipe for noisy sands is still only wholly known in Mother Nature’s kitchen, so next time you walk on a squeaky beach, know that there’s even an equation that science provides to explain why (there’s even a book on squeaky sand…I’m not kidding!

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#10 The light

Probably one of the most magical things about Africa in general is the ephemeral light during dawn and sunset. When I recently visited, the sun rose 7am, painting the myriad of trees and mountains in golden, pink, burnt umber and orange shades. It brings about such a powerful feeling of belonging and inspiration– along with the equally magical chorus of bird song. At night, when sadly we have to see the sun slip away into the darkness, the hues and intense saturation truly makes you feel alive… casting sharp, vivid colours and creating immense silhouettes; a painters and photographers dream. But then as soon as the sun began to set, it seemingly disappears, as if someone has switched a light switch off, to then reveal a vast sky with scattered diamond-like stars winking at you from the distance. Small Cape river frogs will sing you to sleep with their sweet chirpings, as well as the amorous male crickets… (Anyone for “can you feel the love tonight?”) If you’re lucky you can see Venus and Jupiter in the distance, as well as the Milky way, Southern Cross, Dipper, but of course all in reverse in the Southern hemisphere!

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#11 The variety of birds

South Africa is world renowned for being a birdwatchers paradise, from the stunning iridescent plumage of the Orange-breasted Sunbird, to the cryptically coloured knysna warbler- it is most certainly a top-class spot for any avid twitcher. Of the 850 or so species that have been recorded in South Africa, about 725, (85%) are resident or annual visitors, and about 50 of these are endemic or near- endemic to South Africa, and can only be seen in the country. You can literally be walking in your back garden and spot a beautiful Golden Oriole, or hear the rather raucous calls of the Egyptian Geese. But if you’re not feeling adventurous and want to find the birds for yourself, head over to Birds Of Eden in the Crags- the world’s largest free-flight bird aviary- it truly is a class above the ones in Europe. Having volunteered there myself, the sustainability of the project is exceptional and the species you see are truly stunning.

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#10 Lack  of desserts 

I’m no foodie, but even I will indulge in a fruit salad or yogurt after dinner to cleanse the pallet. It seems here your daily food routine is: Breakfast: Granola, rusks or toast, Lunch: jam sandwich, Dinner: Meat and MORE MEAT…veg if you’re lucky! Also people eat REALLY LATE here: between 8-9pm. In Spain I must say it’s quite similar but I think an earlier 7pm dinner suits many of us better so we don’t all feel like an obese lion and have to literally roll to bed with all that meat in your belly. And during winter when the sun goes down by 5pm, you often feel like a torpid bat by 8pm. Slurp it all down with some Rooibos tea if you can, it’s excellent for digesting food!

#13 How empty houses are

Okay, so no, I didn’t break in like my monkey friends so often do to pinch a bag of apples. But the ghost-time quality of the more luxurious houses and overgrown weeds hinted the lack of human inhabitation. Also locals have told us how many Europeans and westerners will buy such homes as holiday get-always and visit during the summer to escape the increasingly wetter winters at home. So Plett is indeed a playground for the rich!

#14 Berg winds

A week after arriving I experienced an intense hot-blow drier wind which was truly glorious, despite it being winter. It’s one of Plettenberg Bay’s unusual weather phenomenon’s, where squally anticyclonic wind blowing off the interior plateau at 90 degrees to the coast will produce a hot dry outflow of air across the coast. It’s a welcoming change from the sharp cold air that dominates during the mornings and evenings, where the berg winds are especially frequent off the west coast and can raise temperatures to 25-35 °C. Humidity can also drop from 100% to 30% or less- a perfect night to go out and enjoy the stars with the clear dry air, or if you fancy a dance, heading into town with no need for straighteners to control that frizz girls… Berg-brilliant!

#15 The frequency with which you have to tip

I have NO problem at all with tipping- it feels good and people deserve it if they are giving you a service. However, so many people are willing to do things for you, as a student you soon run out of money! Literally everywhere: petrol stations, restaurants, EVERYWHERE YOU PARK YOUR CAR, attractions, even toilets! SO carry some spare change with you where you go!

#16 Surfing when sharks are about

Surfers are crazy- I will say this outright. But then again so are most extreme sports people; cavers who risk their lights busting mid ascent, climbers who play with the forces of gravity, and surfers who like to skim on shark infested waters..! But I really admire them; the way they glide over the water, moving their body in rhythm to the waves, tilted their body…waiting for the right moment to execute a move. And also the fact that they’re not in the slightest way deterred if a shark has been spotted. I recently photographed a surfer in Plettenberg Bay who insisted that a small shark close to the shore would pose no threat if he surfed correctly… Needless to say I gave up the offer of a lesson in return for taking photos! Maybe in Australia…

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#17 How many surfers actually inhabit Jeffery’s Bay

Okay so yes it’s the Surfing capital. But still, it feels like a student town but with surfers. It’s an amazing place to be, with such a cool al-fresco feel about it. We visited when it was raining, but they all seem to be very proud of this most ancient of sports, with a buzz in the air even after the International surfing competitions. We just arrived after the infamous Mick Fanning shark attack which was on everyone’s lips. No surfing today then!

#18 The number of activities you can do

It’s incredible the shear range of activities you can get up to here. In the 6 weeks I visited, I literally only had a single day where I didn’t do much, just because of the shear range of places to visit and get up all sorts of adventurous fun! Plettenberg Bay’s position in the Western Cape means it is perfectly situated to enable tourists to lounge and walk along their stunning white beaches, dine like a king (or queen) in many of its finest restaurants for less than £5, launch yourself of the world’s largest bungee, go on horseback ride safari’s, swim with seals, paraglide, skydive, rock climb, surf, see monkeys, big cats, falconry, craft markets, whale watching……The list is endless! The hikes are especially rewarding and offer the most spectacular scenery. Keep checking here for updates on how to do it on a student budget!

#19 How cold their winters actually are

JUST because its Africa doesn’t mean it doesn’t get cold! I initially thought this; perhaps it just me being foolish or hopeful, but I really did expect it to be warmer! My poncho was a lifesaver which I fashioned into a hiking rain jacket, beach towel, pillow and fashion throw… Do take one on your trip as well as waterproof hiking boots, socks, umbrella, rain jacket, warm jumpers and jackets to peel off. It will get warm all of a sudden when the sun comes out, but in the shade it can get to a chilly 10 or 2 at night!

#20 The Kindness of strangers

This isn’t unexpected I must point out, but its more of a beautiful fact… All my life I’ve been told how dangerous South Africa is; that everyone looking at you is simply there to steal, mug or kidnap you. And don’t get me wrong…I’ve had some pretty close shaves since being there which were unpleasant! As well as being stolen from. But the kindness of strangers is something that stands out the most for me: from locals helping 3 distressed girls on a busy motorway with a bust car (yep that happened to us!), to people offering their smiles, inspiration, laughter and reassurance… and now I can proudly say that many of them are now my friends!

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Western Washington University students and I at Addo National Park- my final leg of the journey!

GO TO SOUTH AFRICA- ITS AMAZING!

Bioparc Fuengirola Zoo

Komodo dragons, Bengal tigers, Western Lowland Gorillas and Binturongs….not only are they found across the furthest stretches of the verdant Indonesian islands, equatorial Africa and the depths of the everlasting stretches of Asian forest, but this array of superb species are all found in the rather non-tropical heart of the Costa Del Sol.

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Situated in the busy coastal town of Fuengirola is Bioparc zoo. This spectacularly simulated zoo with over 260 species and 1600 animals, with collections from Equatorial Africa, Asia and South America was established in 1981 with the name Fuengirola Zoo. As a member of EAZA and AIZA it partakes in the Endangered Species Breeding Programme (EEP). The zoo was entirely rebuilt in 2001 and renamed Bioparc with its new ethos and free of barriers concept. There is glass of course! But the overall impression makes it feel like you are watching them in the wild. The architectural design of the enclosures attempts (and in my opinion, succeeds) to recreate the natural habitats of its fury, scaly and smooth inhabitants. The entire experience allows you to stroll through each of them in a rather immersive fashion, encapsulating the feel of the wild ecosystems and the continuity of the design is overall very pleasing to the eye.

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Take this man made Baobab tree (Adansonia digitata), yep, it’s made of concrete and clay! Originally constructed from wires them plastered with cement, it accurately depicts this revered tree, which can store over 30,000 litres of water during the rainy season. It is often called the “upside down tree” for obvious reasons or “tree of life” due to its succulent fruits which ripen during the dry, scorching African and Australian summers. The seeds are incredibly nutritious and the bark is used for all sorts; including musical instruments, waterproof hats and homes. The leaves can handily treat kidney problems, bladder disease, asthma and insect bites. These ancient trees can live for over 5,000 years and have been central to local folklore in Africa as well as traditional remedies. All are deciduous and can reach impressive heights of 5-20 metres. Their rather bloated pinkish barks are easily carved/hollowed out and lived in by several African tribes, with up to a staggering 40 people residing in the cavern. Other unusual uses for the tree have included a bus shelter, storage barn, shop and prison!

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On my route around the park, I first encountered a Lowland Gorilla, which was a remarkable specimen; a large adult male who’s been around for quite some time now. I do feel sorry for the poor old chap, Ernest, I can’t help but imagine him in his native forest in the Congo. The gorillas first arrived 2004 from the Royal Rotterdam Zoological Garden; Kim, Xara and Ernst. Brazza monkeys also inhabit the enclosure and are perfectly happy to share their space with their larger counterparts. The enrichment includes trees and tyres with a small artificial waterfall and stream, and visitors can see him through a large 6x6m glass frame. Photography is made a LOT easier with this architectural pleasure! Indeed this is a thought, for all of the enclosures contain this if not open air plan. Although mind, keep your ISO up to at least 800 in the shade, then switch back to 200 when back in full daylight. The Spanish sun always causes a lot of contrast in your images, whereas in my experience in the UK its doesn’t create enough, so keep checking your settings when on holiday, and make sure you shoot in RAW so you can edit them later on in Photoshop.

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I also went into the lemur enclosure, where they roam free and approach you at their will. There are strict rules of not touching them, but they most certainly approach you if you happen to have fruit in your bag! I had apricots and apples in mine which caught the attention of a particular Red Ruffed lemur. The Ringtails were bursting with energy as we approaches, literally bouncing off the palm trees like fuzzy black and white pinballs as they jostled for the best position to knock each other over. Lemurs are highly social and communicative primates, and are the oldest- at the base of our phylogenetic tree. Our common ancestors once came from theirs too. Often the young males partake in “stink fights” by rubbing their tails furiously along their studded thumb projection on their hand, whilst females are often far more aggressive as the dominant, stripy- trouser wearing members of the troop.

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The Black ruffed were rather inactively grooming themselves, I would recommend visiting them earlier in the morning, I went at 11am, and they were still all fairly active, but even earlier or later on in the evening when the air is still and cool, is perfect. It’s a most wonderful feeling to get so close to our little hairy cousins, their large, amber coloured eyes protrude from their head and stare at you in a rather primitive fashion- its not like the sentinel and meaningful gaze of a chimp or Gorilla, but nevertheless still a magical moment. In the wilds of Madagascar these beautiful creatures are critically endangered (Red Ruffs and Indris), primarily due to habitat destruction. Over 90% of the forests have been destroyed, GONE FOREVER. Although replantation programmes are in place, it will take many years for the ecosystems to recover, indeed, any forests that are cut also require time to recover as the mycorrhizal fungi that connects and symbiotically associates with certain trees are also destroyed- life is NOT that simple! There is hope though now, many breeding programmes across the world are now able to add to the genetic pool and many babies are born each year in captivity, ready to be released into the wild when the time is right.

Walking over a reassuringly, well-constructed bridge, Chimpanzees were frolicking and residing next to a cool pool with nothing more better to do than pick their noses and groom their companions. Their gaze is entirely different to that of the Lemur, behind those dark emblazoned eyes is something far more meaningful and intelligent, which is of course one the reason why we share 98% of our DNA with them. Some of the relaxing poses were remarkably similar to that of a human, scary in some way! Even reminding me of particular yoga move my teacher is fond of- I don’t think I will be able to get a mental image of that chimp out of my mind now during my next session! Flashes of “Rise of the Planet Apes” also come to mind, but then you are reminded of the high elevation the impossibility of one nabbing a bamboo cane to use as a vault pole to escape… but you never know.

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The stunning leopards were up next through the maze of palm trees, who were also relaxing on a log. The mother, Toni and the once cub, (now a two year old, he has grown a lot since I last saw him!) Again, another small enclosure for a big cat, but nevertheless a well-constructed one. Some scientists argue that cubs, having been born in captivity have no prior knowledge to life in the wild, thus it is not unethical to keep them in enclosures. My argument is that evolutionary and instinctively these animals need VERY LARGE areas to roam as they would do in their natural habitats. It’s hard-wired in their DNA, so how on earth are you supposed to observe natural behaviour and reintroduce healthy characteristics and traits into the gene pool with this sort of restriction? It is however remarkable view, only 6 metres away from one of the rarest felines in the world. Its coat was irrefutably a thing of beauty, dappled in the light, with brown swirls and rosettes splayed along its golden back and delicate face. Its flank was cream coloured, and his large paws dangled down while he slept and rested his head on his mother’s back. He only stirred to look up at the young children tapping the glass, and then rather nonchalantly returned to his dream state. What a privilege.

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Further along were the stunning Sumatran tigers, with their enormous paws and burning eyes.. However it was clear to me that they were clearly disturbed. The incessant pacing and non-meaningful stare into the unknown are classic signs of “zoochosis” as coined by Bill Travers of the Born free foundation or stereotypical behaviour. This deeply upsetting behaviour is due to extreme boredom, frustration and usually a lack of enrichment. For all the marvellous recreations of the Angkor watt temple, complete with a mini-waterfall and stream, as well as large fallen logs and a bamboo forest, the enclosure was simply not large enough for this fierce some predator. I always get a thrill to see them, but no in this condition. They did play around with each other for a short time which was lovely to see, check out my video below.

Next up were the Biturongs… now a year ago I NEVER heard of them. With a monkey-like tail, body like a bear and a face like a cat many call this 2-3ft animal a bearcat. Their short, stocky bodies and coarse shaggy hair give it its distinctive appearance. They inhabit the tropical rainforests of South-East Asia in the densest and remotest regions, and their main threats to their survival in the wild is, ye you guessed it, habitat destruction. These little quirks of evolution reveal many fascinating insights into its family, the Viverridae which includes the Civets and Gneets, under the order carnivore… thus is not related to bears or cats, but part of a very old group of medium sized mammals found in the Old World (East). They primarily eat fruit, eggs, plant shoots, fish, birds, small mammals and carrion. However they have a mutualistic relationship with the strangler fig, whose digestive enzymes are strong enough to remove the husk of the seed, and thus plays a vital role as a keystone species, spreading the seeds far and wide. The scent glands located underneath its tail, which is dragged along the foliage when it patrols its territory, and the smell is apparently similar to buttered popcorn! Can’t say the same for a leopard! Living in the tree canopy, they are superlative climbers and use their semi-retractable claws to move with agility throughout the forest trees. With its prehensile tail to aid it (only the second carnivore in the Old world to have one, other than the Kinkajou) with its climbing. I tell you what, I’m beginning to think that having a tail would be pretty useful for my own, or indeed caving! Avatars have it right after all…Nearby were the Alligators too, which you can see at very close quarters, remarkable ancient looking creatures.

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The very exciting a new Komodo dragon enclosure was really interesting, it was my second encounter with one of these prehistoric looking reptiles. The enclosure resembled another one ancient temples at Angkor Watt, complete with its little stream and sandy court yard. It wasn’t very active initially, but then it picked up a scent as it flicked its tongue, tasting the air as it retracted it into its mouth, from which it can use the molecules of air to taste what its surroundings are giving off. It has relatively similar vision to humans, so it’s a useful sense to have. He then waddled towards a pile of small pebbles, which initially I thought were eggs, and started digging them up. Although they seem rather lazy and cumbersome in terms of their gait, they can move pretty fast as monitor lizards, at 20kmph. Of course they are known for their powerful bite which inflicts much damage to its prey in that the repulsive bacteria congregating in its mouth with almost certainly cause its victim to die of septicaemia or blood poisoning.

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 Later on I went to a “Jungle event/animal exhibition” whereby trained animals are on show, including kookaburras, Asian Otters, Sitatunga, Wild Peccaries and several other birds of prey. I always enjoy a good show, which is in both English and Spanish, wand lasts for around 20 minutes. By then my camera battery had run out and I was a spectator without a camera, which I actually enjoyed! Although I occasionally used my mobile. The last animals I went to visit were the flying foxes, VERY CUTE Old World bats which were busily scoffing down an assortment of succulent fruits such as mangoes and banana which seemed to be their particular favourite.

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Bioparc Fuengirola is a fantastic day out, one which I would highly recommend; it only costs you £13 with the discount card you can pick up at the Miramar centre. They even have African dance night, which I went to last year and was great, the atmosphere is electric and the buzz you get from dancing is positively euphoric! Its also a very good time to see the animals out and about. If you need any tips on getting there, or would like to know about any of the animals there, get it touch!

IMG_2466-001“Boundless Nature”