The main draw of safari-parks is also the main drawback. Of course everyone wants the cute monkeys to jump on their bonnet, but the worry is that the visit to your local dealership to replace every rubber seal on the vehicle the next Monday morning will set you back even more than the Longleat tickets. Thankfully, Mini, the car people, had a solution, they lent me one of theirs. Simians do your worst!
Imagine a world where you can get your car washed and still drive freely through a field of rhesus macaques, you fill the boot full of prime cut steaks and waft happily past Amur tigers and, what’s more, you’re not going to be beltching out diesel fumes from your slightly oily ULEZ non-compliant motor, but instead driving one of the most advanced but practical hybrid cars in Britain. Well this summer that the reality down at Longleat thanks to Mini UK’s ‘roar-some’ new partnership, I left my own car parked up at the entrance, and took control of one of their new fleet of Mini Countryman Plug-In Hybrids.
Longleat have acquired the fuel efficient beasts to shine their sustainability credentials further, with keepers being assigned the vehicles to help with their animal-y tasks and vets jumping in the Minis at a moment’s notice to rush and tend to limping llamas, lions with laryngitis and camels that’ve got the hump.
I arrived at the country’s leading safari park around lunchtime on a Saturday during the summer holidays. I know, what was I thinking? My journey to the tropical lands of Wiltshire, which (thanks to Longleat) boasts an incredible array of exotic animals over sixty acres, had begun.
My journey to the tropical lands of Wiltshire, which (thanks to Longleat) boasts an incredible array of exotic animals over sixty acres, had begun...
The new, Plug-In Hybrid Countrymans (Countrymen?) are ideal run-around cars, with ample space for children, and it turns out that a car that’s effectively made for London driving really comes into its own in the deep countryside of the West Country too.
After some paperwork I was handed my temporary new car keys (if you owned the car you’d probably just use your Mini phone app, which is pretty nifty).
Wrestling children’s seats from my current car and installing them in the Mini’s spacious back seat was a doddle, there’s much more space than you’re expecting. Then it was time to be wafted in electric-car silence to the start of the circuit.
it was time to be wafted in electric-car silence to the start of the circuit...
First it’s to the Rothschild Giraffes. This is one of the few points when it’s fine to get out of the car, with parking provided, to go and ‘meet’ the animals, which can be stroked and fed or just admired for their size and beauty. Then back in the car you drive past the lofty creatures, along with the odd camel.
Next it’s warthogs (plenty of ‘when he was a young wart-hoooooog‘ if you’ve under 90s in the car) and flamingos, a treat given we can’t go to Kensington Roof Gardens any more, before it’s to the main event (sorry big cats).
the traffic slowly wheels its way in formation past the large 'at your car's own risk' disclaimer sign...
As the traffic slowly wheels its way in formation past the large ‘at your car’s own risk’ disclaimer sign, the rhesus macaques jump onto the cars, clinging to wing-mirrors and door handles, gnawing the rubber seals around your window and chewing the windscreen wipers. And it’s totally cool, it’s not your problem. Secretly I regretted not smearing peanut butter on the windscreen simply to attract more (I assume this is very not allowed).
Any children will be utterly thrilled by the experience, but you’ll be too enamoured to even try and play it cool.
After monkeys it’s on to deers (you can skip this if you like, though feeding them is pretty cute) and to rhinos before the other major draw, the big cats.
You're literally driving into a sealed enclosure dressed as a tiger's lunch...
It’s only at this point that I released that the Longleat Minis are stylistically covered in giraffe print. It’s a great design. It’s also a big cat’s favourite food. You’re literally driving into a sealed enclosure dressed as a tiger’s lunch.
Tigers, cheetahs and lions ticked off (and wolves) it’s back to base-camp and the inevitable ‘what did you think of the car?’
And it’s difficult to not think it was great. The fully electric range is 26 miles, more than enough for an inner-city commute, and you can plug it in overnight to save using the hybrid engine at all.
Having driven one of the new Mini Countryman vehicles before, the amount of space is both a surprise and a pleasant one! Perhaps inappropriate in a macaque enclosure, but the car drives like a go-kart in sport mode, handling incredibly well but also a call-back to it’s original predecessor, the old-school Italian Job era Minis.
The trip to Longleat on a summer’s Saturday is long and traffic filled, taking you down narrow country lanes as well as past Stonehenge. The irony wasn’t lost on me that the main safari park experience is effectively being sat in a further, this time self inflicted, traffic jam. What better way to face the traffic than in a Mini Countryman?
I felt the interminable wait for the dual carriage way to funnel on the A303. I hardly noticed the tedious traffic in Longleat itself because I was driving the new Countryman. Well, that and the monkeys.