Exploring Out of Africa, Wildlife Adventure Park
Story by Keerthi Vedantam
The sun felt like it was nearly touching the rocky soil—an unmistakable characteristic of the sub-Saharan desert this time of year—while the unfailing spring breeze reminded us of home: Arizona.
Nestled between Prescott and Flagstaff is Out of Africa, a wildlife park that has called Camp Verde home for the last 11 years. On any given day, it’s visited by families, couples and classes on field trips. I visited the park with Carolyn Curcuru and her daughter, Olivia.
The 12-year-old girl transferred out of the car and into her sturdy black wheelchair with thick tires to conquer the stubborn road ahead. Her long brown hair wrestled with the wind as she adjusted herself. Hanging off the back was a multi-colored JanSport backpack.
Olivia didn’t attend the field trip her 6th grade class took to Out of Africa this past year.
“I always call in advance to see if the field trip will be accessible,” Carolyn said. The 90-mile drive through Arizona hills didn’t seem worth it; in past field trips Olivia often felt left out, even with the promise of accessible spaces.
On one such trip to an airplane museum, students wandered through vintage planes while Olivia sat outside as her mom went in to take a video for her to see. On another, after lunch, students scrambled onto a jungle gym sitting on a bed of soft wood chips as Olivia sat a few feet away on the sturdy ground, chewing her food considerably slower.
“When my friends get to go off to a place that I can’t go on, it bugs me,” Olivia said shrugging nonchalantly. “It doesn’t feel as fun.”
Our goal today was to make sure Olivia didn’t feel left out as we explored Out of Africa.
The Feeding Tour
If you ever have the opportunity to have a giraffe’s tongue thisclose to your face, you take it.
It’s one of the most popular activities at Out of Africa, and a great way to observe the animals in their natural habitats. Because the park is large and unpaved to allow animals to roam freely, the feeding tour took place on a bus. There was an even-footed slope toward the accessible entrance to the bus with a sturdy ramp and just enough space for Olivia to shift herself out of her wheelchair inside the vehicle onto a seat.
There was only one space where she could realistically transfer out of her wheelchair and not fall from her seat during the bumpy ride since the bus lacked seatbelts.
“Which side are the animals going to be on?” Carolyn asked a tour bus operator. Because the animals were free-roaming and aren’t forced to interact, the operator said, there would be no way to predict if Olivia–or anyone–could feed them.
During the tour, Olivia watched as others fed giraffes on the other side of the bus, too far away for her to reach.
“I don’t mind,” she cheerfully told me as the entire bus began to reek of giraffe saliva, “Honestly, you guys smell.”
For the rest of the ride, she marveled at the other animals, including an ostrich who thought her egg-shaped toy was actually an egg.
An excited Olivia didn’t want to wait for the tram to see the reptiles that were farther up the hill.
“We can just go ourselves,” she told her mother.
“But if you get tired then I have to push you,” Carolyn responded.
Olivia thought about it for a minute. Then she smiled sweetly: “You can get your steps in!”
The tram ended up being the crucial part of the trip as we trekked through the rocky hills to visit the lions and tigers and potentially human-eating snakes (oh my!).
“If the bus lurches forward I usually have to ‘mom-seatbelt’ her,” Carolyn said. Throughout the entire ride, if we rolled over a particularly large bump, Carolyn protectively laid her arm across her daughter so she wouldn’t lurch forward.
It’s clear Carolyn and Olivia have done this before. They casually talked strategy before transferring from a seat to Olivia’s chair, and the transfer itself was a dance of sorts–Olivia and her mother knew how to move together in the easiest way to transfer Olivia.
“It wasn’t too bad,” Olivia said, “But it would have been nice if there were seatbelts, maybe.”
Considering the hilly, unpaved location of Out of Africa, we relied on the trams to move around the different locations of the park. They were mostly on-time and the drivers made good conversation as we all talked our favorite movies.
The Tiger Splash
Featured on the Today Show, Animal Planet and Good Morning America, it’s never the same show twice. The Tiger Splash features some of Out of Africa’s tigers as they leap into water and catch balloons midair.
The animals aren’t trained; the keepers play with them using pool toys, balloons and water. Watching a tiger do what it naturally does is always beautiful, but it came second to the animal trainers who were equally as entertaining. It was a must-see.
Olivia slowly pushed herself down the steep, rocky path to a front-row seat close to the action, where we watched the trainers play with a beautiful Bengal tiger.
The way up was a different story.
“Do you need help?” Carolyn asked her daughter, sensing her struggle.
“No,” Olivia panted. After bumping into a particularly large rock: “Okay, yes.”
“Outside of paving [the walkways], there’s still more expansion going on,” said Ashton Powell, an Out of Africa representative. “We’re in the process of doing some modifications right now.”
Out of Africa is growing slowly, partly because it is not publicaly-funded and uses money made from ticket sales. Though the wildlife park requires large, unpaved areas for animals to roam freely, they are working towards a walkable park area that is tram-accessible.
“At the end of the day, we want to educate people about the animals,” Powell said. “The animals here are the ambassadors for those in the wild. They’re here to teach us about their cousins so we don’t go out there and dominate and kill them.”
For Olivia, the park did just that.
“It was cool to see the animals in their natural positions and act how they normally do,” she said. “And I learned a lot today about preservation.”
She wants places to be more considerate of people with disabilities so they may access all the sights and wonders of their trips.
“Go with the mindset of, ‘Well if I was in a wheelchair can I do this and can I do that?’ and take that perspective and plan everything based on it.”
Keerthi Vedantam is a Silicon Valley native studying journalism and graphic design at Arizona State University. She’s always on the lookout for good stories and innovative ways to tell them. Outside of Ability360, she produces podcasts and takes pictures. Keerthi lives on a steady diet of hot sauce and podcasts, and she wouldn’t want it any other way.