Tuesday, April 04, 2006

A Small Trip in Time

El Oasys Parque temático del Desierto de Tabernas

I’ve got this new car. I say ‘new’ in the sense that I have recently acquired it rather than ‘brand new’ as with heated seats, airbags and a television on the dashboard. It’s a huge old white Mercedes diesel that takes several minutes to get up to speed, a bit like a boat. I imagine howling down a speaking tube to the engineers down below ‘full speed ahead – there’s a straight bit coming!’…
The other day I steered it to Mini Hollywood past Tabernas to see the recent additions to the zoo there.
The zoo is a generous 25 hectares of cages, runs and paddocks which backs onto the Mini Hollywood cowboy town, knees-up can can show and hangman’s rope. All coming highly recommended by this reporter.
We (there were three of us in my party) were met at the gate by the company biologist. I entertained him with my plans to seed the surrounding hills with wallabies to encourage tourism. You should try saying ‘wallaby’ in Spanish, by the way. He seemed a little out of his depth as I droned on about the empty space and lack of biodiversity. ‘But there’s over eighty autochthonous species in the park,’ he argued. Boring ones, I pointed out.
We passed through the gates and allowed an eager photographer to take my likeness in a cowboy hat and pistola (picture ready at exit) and carried on through the intriguing looking cowboy film-set cum Clint Eastwood memorial park, past a very surprised looking ornamental Indian wedged in a window and into the zoological garden, called the Oasys.
We had been invited to see the improvements on the reptile house, which is a large single-storey building with snakes, lizards, terrapins and crocs in large and well-decorated tanks (with no smells), good lighting, interesting displays and surprisingly frisky inmates. The hall appears to be the work of Dr Herman Schleich, a herpetologist, explorer and writer. He has spent many years in such odd places as Cabo Verde and Nepal and now lives in Tabernas, no doubt with a pet chameleon clinging to his shoulder when at home. He has done a fine job of the display.
We moved on to larger things, including a superb and dramatic stadium full of tigers. A guide holding a crib-sheet followed us around: she confessed to me that she preferred cats to snakes. We continued past marmosets, parrots, porcupines, prairie dogs, past the bar-restaurant, past the macaws, duck, pheasant, lynx and panther to another new enclosure, where the bears live.
The park is massive and the backdrop to the whole thing is, of course, the Tabernas desert. The whole effect is most dramatic.
Waiting beside the bear-pens and the deep valley below them was a train-wagon waiting to take us slowly off to the larger animals, including two lumbering hippos, a clutch of camels (of both persuasions), some wolves and a variety of deer who looked, on the whole, pleased to be behind a different fence. They have secretary birds and buffalo. Giraffe and wildebeest.
As we chugged slowly past, the clouds came to a rare decision and it began to rain, which is always an agreeable yet novel phenomenon in the desert. The hippos looked faintly pleased and the giraffe tutted and went inside.
We continued on foot back towards the spiritual centre of the zoo (I think I had already mentioned the bar?) and helped ourselves to some refreshments. A magnificent male peacock watched from a nearby wall.
From here, we repaired to the snake-shed for another look (via the bat-cave and a room devoted to animals tracks). I noticed on this second visit that there was a model head of a Tyrannosaurus Rex (I’m generally quite observant that way) and a collection of fossilised lizards, crocodile and froggy toys, African and Asian denizens of the forest and desert floor rendered in wood, and several books on show from the pen of Dr Schleich.
The rain had stopped and we had been in the park for several hours. A bit wet but thoroughly satisfied. It was time to leave. The way out of the zoo takes you past a huge and little-visited cactus garden with perhaps as many as two hundred and fifty varieties collected from all over the warmer bits of the world. Some are in flower now, producing blooms which are rarely seen.

El Fraile
From here, you are in the alley behind the cowboy town of El Fraile, which you will suffer a strong sense of déjà vu. As far as I know, and the museum of posters and projectors will back me up here, if it wasn’t shot in Tabernas, it wasn’t a spaghetti western. The museum, we’ve crossed the main plaza by now (without getting shot at by some loitering desperadoes) is crammed with posters of The Greats. I shall mention my own favourites here (sorry, Clint): Anthony Steffen, Giuliano Gemma, Lee Van Cleef, Bud Spenser and Terence Hill. Marvellous, and, with the exception of Van Cleef, all Italians. Music from the greatest Italian composer of them all, Ennio Morricone, echoes from gigantic speakers disguised in the roof; that dramatic piece with the single chord - just as it did in a Fistful of Dollars: dum di di dum di… dum di di dum. People are outside in the plaza, gathering…

And then the Hero, upon being given a four-barrelled shotgun in The Stranger Returns, quips, "Old man, there'll be hell raised in the village tonight,"

El Oasys is just to the west of Tabernas. Coming from Vera, take the motorway towards Almería and turn off towards Sorbas. Taberenas is the next town (the old N430 to Almería) and the park, still remembered as ‘Mini Hollywood’, is on the right, a few kilometres past Tabernas.

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