It seems only fair that, having moaned recently about my various Edinburgh-based mishaps, I should offer up a slightly more positive experience in the name of balance.
Back in June, following my final film of the 67th Edinburgh International Film Festival — documentary filmmaker Jennifer Steinman’s utterly exceptional Desert Runners — I attended Edinburgh Zoo Nights to mark a friend’s birthday. It was in fact my first visit to the zoo, at any time of day.
Only the second such event to be held at Edinburgh Zoo, Zoo Nights gives ticketholders after-hours and adults-only access to its exhibitions and services. In addition to animal handling and educational talks, the organisers also offer face-painting, silent disco and performances by street artists — as well as kiosks selling everything from sushi to champagne
With buses not due to depart from Charlotte Square until early evening, we met first at Ghillie Dhu on Rutland Street. A traditional Scottish pub that takes its name from local folklore, the venue — which comprises a public bar, private snugs and an auditorium often used for ceilidhs — is always a great place to start a night, with its hearty atmosphere and kilted staff adding to the sense of occasion.
Having shared a bottle of wine, and made a few cursory introductions, we made our way across Princes Street to the waiting buses. Following a quick registration, we found seats towards the back of the coach and together traveled across Edinburgh to our unusual destination. With the event already sold out, we joined the hundreds of other pre-booked partygoers slowly filing into the zoo’s grounds.
Unsure exactly where to start, we did a quick lap of the nearest attractions, following a tour group along the Budongo Trail, through the chimpanzee enclosure, and then on to the circular meerkat exhibit. This took us almost immediately to the face-painting area, which had already attracted a considerable crowd.
Resolving to return later on — the park was open from 6 until 10, though anyone staying to the very end risked missing the last bus back into the centre — we relocated to a clutch of catering tents a stone’s throw from Penguin Rock. No-one in the group had eaten, and so we ordered noodles, sourced some Pimms and sat on the grass to watch the birds as we ate our dinner.
After discovering to our disappointment that the animal handling places had been booked up within minutes of the zoo’s opening, we instead went in search of the other animals. While an early misreading of the map by our appointed navigator left us far north of the main attractions, we eventually found our way to perhaps the zoo’s most famous exhibit: the United Kingdom’s only two Giant Pandas.
Tian Tian and Yang Guang — which roughly translates to Sweetie and Sunshine — arrived in Edinburgh back in 2011, after a 5,000-mile journey that began in Chengdu in China and received international attention from the world’s press. Born less than a fortnight apart back in 2003, the pandas were loaned to Scotland for a duration of ten years following a long period of negotiation.
While not exactly the most dramatic animals in captivity (that honour must surely go to the tiger), Tian Tian and Yang Guang nevertheless draw a considerable crowd each week, and that evening was no different. Housed separately outside of mating season, the pandas simply chewed bamboo and slept in isolation, untroubled by their late night visitors, but did so with a grace and personality that was never less than captivating.
Speaking of the tiger, it was then time to visit the big cat enclosures on the other side of the zoo. Passing Pygmy Hippos, Cassowary and Sun Bears we made our way to the first of the felines; following the path uphill past the jaguar, Amur leopard and Asian golden cat, we finally coming to a stop by the Sumatran tiger. Although lurking towards the back of its cage, the animal was still an arresting sight, and looked far happier in captivity than the sorry creature I’d seen in Syktyvkar.
Not wanting to be stranded halfway up Corstorphine Road at 10 o’clock on a Friday night, we began to meander back towards the exit. Calling in at Living Links, a facility housing capuchin and squirrel monkeys, and the silent disco (it was full, but still worth a look) we tried once more for face-painting, and, once again unsuccessful, boarded the bus back to town, where we had another booking at Electric Circus.
Despite one or two disappointments, then, it was still a fantastic — and novel — night out. If you were better prepared, and targeted the animal handling and silent disco with greater immediacy, there is no reason why you shouldn’t get the most out of the experience. At just £20 (food and drink not included), it’s hardly going to break the bank either.
Go easy on the Pimms and you might even remember it.