Young explorers can pretend they are following in the footsteps of Bear Grylls on entering the mysterious world of Chester Zoo’s £30m Islands project when it opens next spring.
Islands brings together the animals and plants of south east Asia – Philippines, Papua, Bali, Sumatra, Sumba and Sulawesi – here in Cheshire, with construction work on the seven hectares-site well underway.
Gareth Simpson, operations implementation manager, has the job of ensuring the ambitious scheme, funded from zoo money, is delivered on time and on budget. Firing the imagination of young minds, to inspire the next generation of conservationists, is one aim of the project which is projected to attract 150,000 extra visitors a year.
Gareth explained: “There will be some very soft-themed signage and you will have a map as well, to guide you, an explorer map, because that's effectively what we are doing here. There's been people who have gone out, done the exploration and left little hints for you as you go, like 'don't go this way' or 'beware of tigers over here’ and things like that, so we will be really building up the mystery as you work your way around.”
Guests will enter through a narrow opening where they will catch a glimpse of an impressive waterfall and the white beach of Coral Sands. The whole area will be navigated by a series of paths and footbridges plus a 15-minute journey on water in a cable pulled vessel holding 17 passengers, offering a completely different perspective.
A highlight will be when water-borne guests approach the banteng stable where the long-horned cattle, normally found in paddy fields, will wallow in the same water as the boat.
Gareth continued: “So as you come down and round, you will be in the same water as the banteng, or it will give that visual appearance. You will be very close to them and they are cattle that really love to wallow in the water so it really will be a great attraction.”
Another highlight on foot will be the 15 metres-high Monsoon Forest entered via an incline and through an opening as though going into a cave but topped by an inflatable polymer roof similar to that used at Cornwall’s Eden Project – the climate will be thermostatically controlled at a hot and humid 26-29 ° C. Every detail has been considered from the artificial rockscape and the smell of the rainforest to the sound of thunder claps and buzzing mosquitoes.
“It’s completely immersive,” said Gareth. “There will be rain as well, not necessarily on our visitors, but around the sides and you're into our tree top research station which will mimic ones that we actually see in south eat Asia where the zoo is working on projects out there.”
“We will have orangutans, we will have macaques, at the entrance here we will have rhinoceros hornbill, birds that are absolutely amazing, the size and the colours. Going up to the top we will have tanks with different reptiles and have the opportunity to get hands on to see some of the bugs and other insects. The whole point of what we are trying to do is make it as natural as possible for them, not only for them, but for us to see them too.”
View a video animation of Chester Zoo's Islands Project
There will be an opportunity to go eyeball-to-eyeball with crocodiles at two glass tanks – one for swimming (for the animals not guests) and another for sunbathing.
Other enclosures will feature Sumatran tigers, warty pigs and the tall cassowary bird with its third six-inch claw - heightening the ‘safe danger’ experience.
A total of 42,000 plant species will be on site – south east Asian flora indoors and ‘mimic species’ outdoors including foliage to hide the A41 so the illusion is not undermined.
The educational side of the project is important and so, for example, a mocked-up illegal bird market will teach youngsters about the darker side of the world in which we live. And there will be ‘a ranger station’ by the warty pigs stable, just as you would find in real life, complete with laundry hanging on the line and a vegetable patch.
It has not been decided whether the admission price will rise following the opening of Islands but it seems a safe bet. However, dwell time will be extended at the zoo – which already pulls in more than 1.4 million visitors per year – and Chester too, with spin-off benefits for city restaurants and hotels.
Sponsors are sought to offset the costs, so if any companies fancy their name in titles such as ‘Islands sponsored by Crocs’, then they are invited to get in touch!