Hidden in amongst 170 acres of woodland, grassland and lakes in West Norfolk is the county’s newest wildlife reserve, Watatunga. It is home to Europe’s largest collection of deer and antelope, many of which are severely endangered.
We recently arrived through the big front gates to explore the reserve on a guided buggy tour.
Roomy 4-seater electric golf buggies (there’s also a 6-seater, plus wheelchair accessible options), fit the whole family comfortably as you self-drive in convoy behind an expert Watatunga guide. Throughout the 90-odd minute safari, you are escorted through the changing terrain (from parkland to woodland, to field and track), with a live narrative from your guide (via radio speakers in your buggy), so you can learn about the birds and animals you might spot on your tour.
This is a genuine wildlife tour, framed around the relatively unpredictable force that is nature. Each time you visit, your experience will be different. Some animals are shy, while some will be out and about. At certain times of the year, there will be young or babies, and the weather and flora changes with the seasons. There is no guarantee as to what you will see, but we are positive that the entire experience is fantastic each time. Ours certainly was.
The day we visited Watatunga, the weather was perfect – blue skies dotted with white clouds, and warm sunshine. There is a fantastic build-up to the start of your tour as you embark along a track to the main reserve.
The focal point on the reserver is a large lake (watering hole?), which you circumnavigate before heading off out into woodland. Aside from the fact that it’s just a marvellous and breathtaking sight at the start of tour, imagine our delight when we spotted two Water Buffalo basking by the water’s edge as we came down the track. There is something magical about seeing such exotic-looking creatures ‘in real life’, happily doing what, presumably, Water Buffalo like to do.
These are Domestic Water Buffalo, which are fairly common across Europe as their milk is used to make Mozzarella. Their true, wild counterparts are, sadly, endangered.
Moving around the lake, we spot Blesboks, with their striking white facial ‘blaze’ (from which their name derives – ‘bles’ is the Dutch word for blaze). It looks to me like they’re wearing Japanese kabuki masks, though these antelopes actually originate from South Africa.
There are several species of Deer, and plenty of birds, all close enough to see in wondrous detail (and get some great pictures), but my personal favourite lakeside sighting has to be the Roan Antelope and the Scimitar Horned Oryx.
A ‘little and large’ odd couple, our guide and Reserve Manager, Jono, tells us that the little white Oryx (which are sadly extinct in the wild), goes everywhere with his Antelope friend. Norfolk’s answer to Timon and Pumbaa? Perhaps…
Gazing back across, from the far side of the lake, you really could be anywhere. It’s quite an exhilarating feeling.
We leave the lakeside, heading towards woodland. A Mountain Bongo, with gorgeous gently curved horns and a striped coat is grazing happily right beside the track we’re following.
Critically endangered in the wild, this female gave birth to a calf recently. Jono tells us it is bound to be nearby, concealed in the grass or bushes.
You might have thought that would have made the Mother protective or aggressive. Not so. We had to navigate around her, so non-plussed was she by our presence, and she actually approached the last buggy in our convoy for a closer inspection. What an opportunity to see such a rare creature up close – and get some wonderful photographs!
Before entering the woodland, we pass probably one of the only creatures on the reserve not free to roam, and there’s pretty good reason for that.
The Great Bustards are behind a fence and immediately start making a very distinctive and strange noise when we pass alongside.
About the size of a large turkey, these endangered birds were once native to the UK, but the last one was shot in Norfolk in 1832.
Watatunga are working with the Great Bustard Program to re-introduce this species back into the wild.
Jono informs us that the birds are not interested in our convoy because they think we may have food, but because they want to attack us. Oh. That’ll be the reason for the fence then.
He goes on to mention that he endangers himself every time he has to go in to feed them! Fortunately, we’re not witness to that.
We leave the Bongos and the Bustards and continue into a lovely section of woodland, where the recent rain has left everything exploding with green. Colourful Rhododendrons break the leafy backdrop, and if you’re eagle-eyed, you’re likely to spot several species of Deer that are hiding, as well as a magnificently coloured Javan Peacock that we just catch a glimpse of.
This part of the buggy tour is one of the hairiest, as we have to travel through puddles and at one point, ascend quite a steep hill. Not entirely without risk in a golf buggy. We all make it up, but I have to admit I closed my eyes (I was not driving by the way).
We emerge from the woodland alongside the lake once more, where there are nesting water birds, deer and antelope, and those Water Buffalo again.
A family of four, we all loved our experience at Watatunga. It is a Norfolk day out with so many captivating dimensions. Driving in convoy in the golf buggies across various terrains is fun enough in itself, especially for the kids. The natural surroundings are breathtaking, and just being around so much nature for a couple of hours is extremely relaxing.
Then you have the wildlife… spotting the various species, with Jono’s excellent live commentary, is really thrilling and quite wonderful. It’s a more open and ‘up close’ experience than you usually enjoy at wildlife ‘attractions’ (and I hesitate to use that word here, as humans really are the guests in their animal world at Watatunga).
Watatunga say that one of their remits is to inspire people to learn about the natural world, conservation and the plight of the world’s biodiversity. I’d say our visit ticked those boxes, and more.
A unique and highly recommended experience, with a noble heart, on our doorstep here in Norfolk.
Please note that access to the reserve is via guided tour only and must be pre-booked online via the Watatunga website. They also offer luxurious self-catering accommodation and private tours for small groups.
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