An impala walks toward a trailer with staff members.
ALBANY, Ga. — On a tranquil Wednesday afternoon, a wildebeest calf slowly approaches a pre-occupied elan, with intentions that are likely more curious than predatory in nature.
With a single glance, the calf’s mother — which is grazing just a few feet away — manages to wrangle her wild “beest” back to within a safe distance of her protective bubble.
It’s one of a dozen serene snapshots patrons at the Parks at Chehaw are likely to get when the park opens its African Veldt exhibit on Labor Day.
The new attraction sits nestled on more than 40 acres sprawling park that straddles the Lee County/Dougherty County line and will provide a different kind of experience for the zoo-going public.
“It’s an all-around different experience for our guests. As opposed to looking at animals through viewing nodes and looking down into exhibits and stuff like that, we’re going to actually take you out into the exhibit and you’ll actually go inside the exhibit with the animals,” Assistant Curator Ben Roberts said.
While some other parks in the state have drive-through exhibits, most are along pre-planned routes or roads. On Chehaw’s African Veldt, you’ll find no roads, only grassland, a smattering of trees, a watering hole and a bunch of exotic animals.
“We’re trying to create an experience here that you can’t find anywhere else,” Chehaw Executive Director Doug Porter said. “We want people to feel like they’ve been dropped down in Africa.”
Veldt is a South African word meaning “grass land,” or “wide open space.” It’s an apt description for the space Chehaw has dedicated for the new attraction.
Roaming the veldt are a variety of exotic animals native to the African continent. Zebras, ostriches, elan, impala and wildebeest all call the new exhibit their home.
While the exhibit will debut to Chehaw members exclusively beginning on Saturday, before opening to the general public on Sept. 3, its concept is one that was conceived nearly 30 years ago by its patriarch and the patron-saint of the wild kingdom — Jim Fowler.
“It’s something that Jim actually came up with many years ago as something he called an ‘Expedition Ride,’” Porter said. “And while it’s taken us a while to bring it to fruition, the veldt is his brainchild.”
Fowler, of course, was a prominent figure in the zoological world during the 1970s and 1980s. A fixture on the “Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” and the star second only to the animals on “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom,” the Albany native has spent most of his adult life championing the causes of conservation and pushing Chehaw to be a unique gem in Southwest Georgia.
Many of the animals that now call the veldt their home came from Fowler’s farm — a donation to the park to get the exhibit off the ground. Because of that donation, parkgoers will now be able to watch the elan migrate around the veldt in herds; to hear the “click” made by impala as they strut across the grassland, all in a one-of-a-kind environment.
Patrons who show up to take advantage of the exhibit will have to pay an additional $5 fee, but will climb aboard a specially made viewing trailor manned by a trained Chehaw guide who will not only help them identify the animals, but will share facts about the creatures to the public, making it as much an educational exhibit as one of wonderment.
“The goal of this exhibit is to create an overall experience for the guests — the families, the moms, the dads, the children. When they go out into the exhibit, we want them to develop an appreciation for nature, for Africa, for the conservation of wildlife and natural resources, and one of the ways we’re going to to do that is to give them an unusual experience,” Porter said. “We want them to have a ‘wow’ experience; the kind of experience they won’t get anywhere else.”