You’ve seen him in Babycham adverts and a well-known Walt Disney cartoon but I never expected to come nose-to-nose with the real-life, polka-dotted, velvet-antlered version: Bambi in the flesh.
That pleasure awaits visitors to the newest wildlife conservation park in these parts: Reserva Animal La Pequeña África, a private estate the size of 22 international rugby fields on the fringes of Los Alcornocales, Europe’s largest cork forest.
If it hadn’t been for the park, Bambi would have been venison: an ex-deer; defunct; passed on; pushing up daisies. His Mum too, dead as a ‘doe doe’. Their heads would probably be hanging on some big shot’s trophy wall.
Bambi and his extended family were originally acquired for target practice by Juan Antonio Roca, Marbella Town Hall’s ex- (but not dead) ‘urban consultant’ who shot to infamy during the Malaya Case. When he wasn’t allegedly engaged in embezzlement, money laundering, bribery, influence peddling and other acts of malfeasance, the right-hand man of Marbella’s ex-(and dead) Mayor, Jesús Gil, hosted lavish hunting parties at his cortijo, La Morisca, a fawn’s skip from where his deer now safely graze. Roca, languishing in Alhaurín de la Torre jail, is expected to be banged up to rights for a good long stretch, and the deer no longer have to dodge bullets.
His loss is my gain. I’ll finally get to see Bambi’s Mum and Dad enjoying some rumpy-pumpy!
Before you recoil in disgust, this sex show is all above board (ask David Attenborough) and you don’t have to be a consenting adult to see it. During a short, three-week window in October you can book an excursion to watch the local babes shaking their booties at a bunch of ‘horny’ males during the berrea, the bellicose autumnal deer-rutting ritual that goes on in the Spanish countryside, as summer turns to autumn.
Last year, on my baptismal berrea, I spent hours crawling through the undergrowth, attempting to bring a small brown speck into focus in fading light: one solitary doe (a deer, a female deer).
I don’t know which one of us was more disappointed to find ourselves at a stag party with no males.
I hope for better luck this year at Reserva Animal La Pequeña África where the deer are more of an exhibitionist bunch and José Ramon, the park’s Director, has promised front row seats.
But don’t wait until October to visit this Dr Doolittle land where you’ll be amazed to hear yourself conversing with quadrupeds, parlaying with peacocks and speaking eland and watussi with élan. Many of the animals are at liberty and they certainly take them, unafraid to swap a nuzzle for a nibble on your bag of grain, sold at the gate for €1.
An Ape-to-Zebra inventory of unusual breeds from five continents – rescue animals and overspill from Spanish zoos – live in a semi-wild state in what must be the maddest menagerie in southern Spain (wear your walking shoes, you’ll walk miles).
These are some of the sights that sizzled for me:
There’s one species I encountered during my visit that I wouldn’t want to see again: the miniature mosquitoes that descend in biblical numbers for two weeks in June to picnic on bare flesh. Yep, I had to pick that fortnight.
One week later, I still had more spots than Bambi!
The Reserve is open to the public on Saturday and Sunday only, from 10am to 7pm. To find it, turn off the A7(N340) at San Roque and follow the C-3331 to Estación Jimena de la Frontera (the station, not the town) and follow the signposts. Tel: 956 640 210. Or why not take the scenic train?
Originally the Casa Rural Las Aves, the Reserve lets out accommodation to groups and wedding parties who have the freedom of the park and use of the lagoon-style swimming pool, surrounded by tropical greenery.
As the mozzies were enjoying us for lunch, we moved on for ours (but we’ll be back to try the Reserve’s menu soon).
We discovered Mingo, a culinary gem in Jimena pueblo, with a wide-open window onto the countryside. (Tel: 622 326 222, email@example.com). Run by Belgian chef Laurent and Irish colleen Mirella, they do a great 3-course lunch as well as salads and starter snacks. There’s a roast on Sundays and the chocolate tart is to die for!
Afterwards we worked off the calories with a swim in Jimena’s Hozgarganta River.
For more amazing rooftop views and great food al fresco, try the Hostal El Anon, run by our friend Suzanna for over a quarter of a century, something of a feat in Spain!