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Almost Africa

ZOOS are, of necessity, an artificial experience. Some furry being sits in its cage. You stare at it; it stares at you. On to the next cage you go, dreaming of impossible safaris where you get to meet wild animals on their own turf. Well, a real safari in the African bush is out for many of us, but you can have a pretty fair imitation of one at the San Diego Wildlife Park, here in the San Pasqual Valley, 30 miles north of downtown San Diego.

The wildlife park, an 1,800-acre preserve that's the breeding ground for San Diego's famous zoo, has huge expanses of chaparral that are home to tapirs, giraffes, zebras, eland, wildebeests, and many other exotic species. The animals live in conditions that permit them to be observed and protected, but which are otherwise as natural as possible.

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You can encounter the animals on a monorail tour that whisks silently around the periphery of the preserve. But from May to September, on Saturdays and Wednesdays, visitors can take a special tour aboard a flatbed truck right through the preserve, pausing here and there as animals bustle up for handouts.

The animals are separated by fences according to area of origin. You can take the East African-Asian plain tour or the South African-Asian waterhole tour, or both. On most ``insiders tours'' I still feel like a tourist, but not on the ``Photo Caravan,'' to give this experience its official name.

Our truck groaned and bounced on dirt roads, the sun blazing down in an almost African heat. The sky was cloudless; the landscape consisted of dusty hills with scruffy vegetation here and there. In addition to a driver, we were accompanied by a cheerful blond keeper-guide to identify different species and give us the inside scoop on individual animals' quirks and on the excitement of being a keeper. Downtown San Diego seemed a thousand, not 30, miles away.

The first of our series of close encounters was in ``Eastern Africa,'' where three giraffes hastily assembled around the truck. I reached into the feed bucket for a carrot to distract one that was drooling on my purse. With a rotating of tiny ears and batting of large bulbous eyes, it slowly lowered its head and extended a pointed bluish tongue. Carrot obtained, it jerked its head back in an awkward seesawing motion that made me realize why six-foot necks are not more common in the animal kingdom.

It's fabulous to be so close, to be able to see the folds of skin at the base of the neck, like a badly upholstered sofa, and the tidy patterns in the short, stiff fur. And yet it's a very protected situation, for you cannot leave the truck, and the keeper is right there to protect both animals and visitors.

Our next panhandler was Dinka, a white rhinoceros, who is an almost cuddly beast. He let us pat his back - indeed he barely noticed - as he secured his horn under the frame of the truck and pushed up playfully, sending shivers all through it. ``Dinka's a real mellow animal,'' our guide said. A rhino's back, for those who have not examined one closely, is as broad as a table and feels rough and dry, a lot like dried mud. Dinka has a suitcaselike mouth into which an apple, barely the size of a rhino back tooth, disappeared as into an abyss.

``They're all real used to each other here,'' our guide said, as we left Dinka, a number of graceful eland, and the giraffes reposing under the scanty trees.

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Many of the animals in the park were born here; the zoo's animals produce around 400 offspring a year. A number of these are traded to other zoos. The park has had particular success in breeding species endangered in the wild, such as the South African cheetahs, Przewalski horses, lowland gorillas, and slender horned gazelles.

Keepers have to count the animals every day and look out for those that have strayed from the herd. Straying may indicate that an animal either has become weakened, and thus liable to be killed by other animals, or may have just had a baby - newborns are removed for special care and feeding. The fact that so many animals are hand-reared is one reason they are so friendly.

It's not just a thrill getting close to these exotic animals, it's also very instructive. You are, for instance, close enough to see the difference between the square mouth of one type of rhino and the pointed upper lip of another. In ``southern Africa'' we encountered a black rhino, which nuzzled the truck with his flexible lip.

Meanwhile, an ostrich, waving its big wings gracefully, did an absurd tiptoeing dance, which is an ostrich's way of striking terror in the hearts of its opponents, according to our guide. Another, with fine gray feathers on its long stringy neck, banged its beak on our guide's hand, pecking up bits of carrot like a chicken eating corn.

Some animals trail hopefully after the truck. One was Wally the wapiti, a fluffy gray deer from the mountains between Soviet Mongolia and China. ``He's not quite sure what he is,'' said our guide.

There was an amazing variety of deerlike creatures, which kept their distance. I remember a herd of impala on a hillside, silhouetted on the skyline, the cream pin stripe on the golden fur of the eland, the steel blue of the nilgai against the tan landscape, and the nimble, humble look of Russian saiga, bony little creatures with great curved noses.

Most animals are good tempered, though one, a tapir, who was kept locked in a special pen until we were out of its enclosure, did a dance of rage on the other side of the fence, trotting back and forth, plainly wanting to give the pickup the thrashing of its life. But for the most part, you pass by pastoral scenes - a zebra and a rhino drinking from the same trough, for instance.

This trip takes you so far from everything in your life - it seems almost surreal to hop into your car and get on the expressway back to San Diego. Practical information

The tours are held on Saturday and Wednesday, though Wednesday is recommended because there are fewer people on the truck. There were only four on my trip. (Maximum is 10.)

There is no shade of any kind, and the sun is strong; some people might prefer to wear sunblock and/or a hat.

The tours are somewhat costly; if you take either the East Africa or South Africa, you pay $50 per adult, $35 per child; for both it costs $75 for an adult, $50 for a child. This may sound exorbitant, but it's cheaper than going to Africa. And it is costly to maintain a place like this, where the animals' food - oat hay, alfalfa hay, fruits and vegetables, alfalfa pellets, and so on - costs $35,000 a month.

Each section of the trip is an hour and three-quarters. Everyone in our group took the double tour, which I would recommend. Three-and-a-half hours seemed too short, if anything. A packed lunch is provided midway, and cold drinking water is available.

Reservations are necessary; to obtain a form, contact Photo Caravan, San Diego Wild Animal Park, 15500 San Pasqual Valley Rd., Escondido, CA 92027. Or call (619) 747-8702.

In the summer the park has free concerts by well-known groups on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings.

If you have a choice of camera lenses, remember that you can't leave the truck, so be prepared for some fairly close shots. I had a small telephoto lens, which was fine for animals in the near distance but not for our friendly freeloaders. A standard lens would have been fine.

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