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A day out at Pairi Daiza: It’s all about the animals
Spread over 80 hectares with a vast lake at its centre, the award-winning Pairi Daiza animal park is largely contained within the ancient walls that once encircled the former Cistercian Cambron Abbey in the province of Hainaut.
It’s an intriguing combination of the medieval and exotic: abbey ruins, 18th-century architecture, ancient walls, water features, botanical gardens and sumptuous architecture inspired by all corners of the globe.
The landscaped grounds are extensive, with steps, ramps and other elevated areas, so be prepared to walk a considerable distance. A 20-minute steam train is an easy way of taking in the sights and getting a snapshot of all the park has to offer. It’s run by a group of train enthusiasts and costs an extra €5.
Founder and CEO Eric Domb originally opened the site as the Paradisio bird park in 1993 before changing its name to Pairi Daiza (Persian for ‘enclosed garden’) in 2006. But since then, he has been on a mission to continually add species and ‘emotions’ by creating eight distinct worlds where animals are placed at the centre of their natural habitats and visitors are taken on a global journey. The number of animals has now risen to 7,000, including 700 different species.
The Kingdom of Ganesha recreates the sounds and sights of southeast Asia and Indonesia in particular, from a Balinese temple, to rice fields, stone sculptures and exotic plants. Sumatran Orangutans and Asian elephants are among the animals on show. The elephant herd - the largest in Europe - is taken for regular walks in the park as well as bathed in freshwater ponds.
The Land of Origins contains Africa’s big five: lions, elephants, Cape buffalo, rhinoceros and leopards as well as lowland gorillas. Giant pandas are the main draw in The Middle Kingdom, honouring China with numerous temples and gardens.
The scenery changes and the temperature appears to drop when you enter The Land of the Cold. It evokes the vast regions of the North, from Scandinavia, Russia and North America to the Arctic and Antarctic. Siberian tigers, reindeer, bison and other northern species are already on view, while with work ongoing in the zone, penguins, polar bears and walruses are soon to make an appearance. A Beech 18 hydroplane – in perfect working order – is one of the carefully-sourced objects that are intrinsic to the ambiance of each scenography.
Pairi Daiza also has a scientific mission. Active in numerous breeding programmes to save endangered animals and birds, the park is enjoying particular success with its pandas and elephants. In 2014, it welcomed a pair of giant pandas from China. A male cub Tian Bao was born in 2016, followed by twin cubs in August 2019. In the panda pavilion, big screens currently relay images of mum Hao Hao and cubs. In the wild, female pandas cannot care for twin cubs and abandon one of them. So each of Hao Hao’s cub is placed in an incubator for 48 hours at a time, while the other gets some quality time with her.
Pandas may be a star attraction, but it really is as much fun observing some lesser-known species. Simply watching racoons at play, porcupines enjoying a siesta or bats hanging upside down provokes a similar thrill, whatever your age.
The Cambron-by-the-Sea aquarium is another fascinating and educational discovery zone, as is the collection of reptiles, snakes and creepy crawlies in a life-size ship, anchored in the waters of The Land of Origins. Elsewhere, there’s opportunity aplenty for the public to interact with the animals by feeding and petting some of them. For children, or adventurous adults, the suspended and swinging walkway in The Middle Kingdom offers an elevated view of the site.
The abbey towers provide a dramatic backdrop to the Raptors Village, which features speckled owls, American eagles and other birds of prey, while the amphitheatre hosts two daily shows. The worlds theme extends to all of the eating outlets: in the Chinese garden there’s a tea house as well as restaurant, African specialties in The land of Origins, while The Izba in The Land of the Cold is an enormous lakeside Russian-style house serving buffet meals. Alternatively, there are picnic spots throughout the park if you prefer to bring your own food.
· The park closes on 12 November before re-opening for the festive season from 14 December to 5 January
· Under 3 years: free
· Age 3 to 11: €29 (€27 online)
· Age 12 and over: €34 (€32 online)
· Car park: €7
· Train: Cambron-Casteau station (10 mins walk)