Experience an African safari in Topeka: Camp Cowabunga opens this weekend – The Topeka Capital

Standing in the middle of Camp Cowabunga‘s Dung Beetle Square, visitors to the Topeka Zoo’s newest exhibit can get a feel for what it is like to go on a safari in Africa, from an authentic safari Land Rover and a “safari loo,” to of course, the animals themselves. 

Camp Cowabunga, which is based on zoo director emeritus Gary Clarke’s experiences leading safaris, opens to the public Friday.

Visitors walking along the arrival pathway will have the chance to glimpse African lions. Zoo director Brendan Wiley said the area is the “anchor exhibit,” which has been updated and expanded.

The entrance features a mixed species animal exhibit where patas monkeys, guinea fowl and tortoises will be on view. A longtime zoo icon, the bronze lion sculpture named Genesis, marks the beginning of the exhibit which opens onto Dung Beetle Square.

Displayed in the square are the Land Rover sourced from South Africa, a hot air balloon basket and a canoe, all of which are modes of safari transportation. 

“What we’ve tried to do with this experience is plant enough se and ideas that people can use a little bit of imagination and really imagine what it might be like,” Wiley said.

The square also includes mosquito net tents, a three-sided safari loo, a bucket shower and a campfire circle. The exhibit is part of a larger master plan for the zoo that involves opening a tract of land for the elephants. 

“When that’s done, you’ll be able to sit here at campfire circle and watch the elephants go by,” Wiley said.

The project began when zoo officials wondered if the elephant area could be expanded. They moved one exhibit and began developing what was then called “Heart of Africa.”

“It’s like, well we knew someone that knows Africa,” Wiley said. “Once Gary got involved, it was so good having him back, actively involved in the zoo — his knowledge base, not just with exhibit design, but also with what makes that safari experience so special.”

Clarke said a lot of effort was spent on the graphics and he hopes people take the time to read the signage. Like on safaris, people get anxious to see everything, he said, but they should slow down and they will get so much out of it.

The exterior of the indoor area is designed to look like four large safari tents.

The first three tents are named after the first three lions that lived at the Topeka Zoo while the fourth tent is known as Gary’s Tent.

Inside there are educational displays about the safari experience and Africa.

The animals — including three new African painted dogs that arrived from New Orleans — can also be viewed. Wiley said the zoo plans to add a female in about a month so they can breed the endangered species.

Gary’s Tent features artifacts and memorabilia from Clarke’s safaris.

Clarke became the Topeka Zoo’s director in 1963 and stayed for 24 years. After retiring, he led 140 safaris in nine countries. Traveling on his own, Clarke also visited other countries in Africa. He recalled that during a trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo, he was advised to go in disguise and went as a priest.

Staff and volunteers have been putting the finishing touches on the exhibit.

Rep. Fred Patton, R-Topeka, has installed fencing for ostriches, planted trees in the monkey exhibit and on Tuesday was sanding poles.

“It’s been great,” Patton said. “It was cool to have spent all this time coming up with something, planning it and while it seemed like it took a long time, it’s cool that it’s finally here. It’s going to be good for Topeka.”

Wiley said people will gain a different understanding of Africa and the safari experience at Camp Cowabunga.

“Not everybody can afford to take that safari experience,” he said. “But you can come here and get a taste of it. And I hope that they leave this experience having learned, not just about the safari experience, but about the animalsI hope they have fun. There’s a lot of things built into this to simply make people smile and something that the Topeka community can be proud of.”

Clarke said the exhibit sets a new standard for the zoo.

“If I can’t be in Africa, Camp Cowabunga is where I want to be,” he added.