Have you ever dreamed of going on safari, but a trip to ride across the plains of Africa seemed a bit out of reach?
It may not be quite the same, but just down the road in Salley, South Carolina, you can reach out and touch quite a few African animals.
Eudora Wildlife Safari Park opened as the first drive-through safari in South Carolina on Mother’s Day 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, with about 100 hoofed animals and birds that are not typically seen in many zoos.
The animals roam freely about the 130-acre open grassy fields, interacting with one another much as they would in the wild. One major difference is they also interact with the humans driving through the park who offer carrots and feed to any takers.
Mark Nisbet, owner of the safari park, has been working with animals for more than 30 years, providing educational and interactive animal shows for events from New York to Florida.“I grew up in a third-floor apartment in Morganton, North Carolina,” he says, “and my mom let me keep chickens and rabbits on the balcony. She was a school teacher and was always taking me to the library with her. I would read National Geographic and learn about all these different animals.”
It was always his dream to have his own drive-through safari like ones he had visited through the years.
“We only had about 30 acres at the time. About 15 years ago, the Corley family that owns the property adjoining ours began harvesting timber,” Mark says. “That’s when I had the idea about buying additional acreage.”
Over the next several years, Mark purchased an additional 140 acres to add to his farm and went about clearing the land, pulling out stumps, and sprigging the grass, as well as fencing the property.
With his educational and interactive business doing well at the time, Mark added his first giraffe to his menagerie. Then came the pandemic and along with it, cancellations for most of his shows scheduled for fairs and events.
“While events were being canceled, drive-through safaris were taking off,” Mark says, “because it was something that families could do without getting out of their cars. It was the perfect storm for us.”
In anticipation of opening weekend, Mark recruited neighbor families to give the safari a test run. “I created the path that the cars would follow with my lawnmower,” he says with a laugh. “We wanted it to be realistic, to drive up and over hills, to meander through the park.”
On opening day, only 10 cars arrived, but with word-of-mouth and the help of social media, after just two short weeks, bumper-to-bumper traffic lined the road with waits of up to five hours long. “We had to deal with issues we hadn’t even considered,” says Mark. “Cars were running out of gas or overheating, so we had to keep filled gas cans available and even had to help a few people out with a tow truck.”
The following year saw the long lines of vehicles begin to normalize a bit more. Mark and his team took the opportunity to reinvest some of their earnings from the prior year into new buildings and attractions.
So what can you see at Eudora Wildlife Safari Park? When visitors to the park first enter the gate, they receive a printed guide that will help identify the wide range of animals, all of which are herbivores — no carnivores allowed. They also have the opportunity to purchase buckets of carrots and feed pellets.
Just a few hundred feet into the 3-mile drive, alpacas, llamas, eland antelopes, and Gir cattle begin to trudge toward the vehicles in search of a handout. The “oohs” and “ahs” can be heard from park-goers who are brave enough to lower their windows and allow the animals an opportunity to reach in for their favorite snacks.
Peals of laughter and squeals of delight emanate as more animals approach — the Tibetan yak, the Brahman cattle, and the Auodad African goat, all in search of a tasty morsel. None are shy about poking their head in the window, both to the amazement and sometimes great reluctance of those riding in the car, SUV, or truck.
Also, quite a few ostriches and emus make Eudora their home, and they are none too shy about popping their heads as far into visitor’s car as possible in hopes of grabbing whatever food is nearby. “It’s a bit of a love-hate relationship with the ostriches,” Mark says with a laugh. “Some people absolutely love them and others are a bit afraid because they can be aggressive,” as noted by windows quickly rolling up when the big birds approach.
As visitors’ vehicles continue down the path through the open range, other animals come into view, including a new herd of wildebeest, recently introduced in the park and still becoming acclimated to their new surroundings. “I am working with them to help them learn not to be afraid of the cars driving by,” says Todd Taylor, a staff member who has worked with Mark for many years and spends much of his time on his golf cart riding the pathway. “I’ll bring pellets out to them, and they’re slowly coming around,” he says, as the entire herd heads toward his familiar voice.
Todd takes time to talk with two young brothers from Augusta, Georgia, who are visiting the park for the first time. Inquiring as to their favorite animals in the park: both replied, “the big-horned cow.” Todd explains those big-horned cows are African Watusi, which have the largest circumference horn found on any cattle breed. Watusi are considered by some African tribes as sacred animals.
“Education is a key part of what we do here,” Mark says. “The joy of what we do is to educate and entertain at the same time.”
About halfway through the park, Mark installed a second hut where visitors can purchase more buckets of treats. “Sometimes the animals at the front of the park get more attention, and visitors tend to feed them as they’re so excited to be interacting with animals,” he says. “We added this hut so they would not run out of food.”
Morgan Spicer, DDS, with Carolina Smiles Family Dentistry, visited the park with a friend after hearing about it from a coworker. She learned first hand about portioning out snacks for greedy animals. “I advise you to ration your treats because we had so many animals come up at the beginning of the ride,” she says.
During the second half of the tour, the zebras and camels make their appearance, but Mark cautions against feeding them. “Zebras are more aggressive toward each other, and you never know when one will try to push another out of the way trying to get to the food,” he warns, “so we advise that you just enjoy watching them as you drive past.”
Most of the zebras at Eudora were born at the farm, while the other animals come from breeders across the United States as well as a few from other petting zoos and rescues.
As you approach the end of the drive-through, the giraffes come into view from their separate enclosure. Visitors can then park and spend some time at other exhibits, including a petting zoo, parakeet adventure, and pony rides, and they can grab some human snacks, including corn dogs, funnel cakes, and ice cream.
Plans include new exhibits for the parakeet adventure as well as a new tortoise exhibit and camel rides. Parkgoers also have a chance to get up close and personal with the giraffes as part of the walk-through exhibits. With African-themed enclosures and music leading the way, a guide introduces visitors to Elliott, who stands 15 feet tall at 6 years old; Amari, who is 3; and Dakari, age 2, who winters at Eudora and spends his summers in New York.
“Don’t be surprised when Elliott leans over the top of his enclosure in search of a treat,” Mark says. “And he loves to give kisses with his prehensile tongue that he uses to reach the upper leaves in trees.”
The walk-through safari also features ring-tailed lemurs, black and white rough coated lemurs, binturongs, macaws, cockatiels, and sun conures, as well as wallabies and three red kangaroos named Rocky, Apollo, and Creed.
Alyssa Yancey, who works in internal communications with Savannah River National Laboratory, and her husband, Steven, a senior investigator with the Lexington County Sheriff’s Office, have taken their young sons, Everett and Jase, to Eudora Wildlife Safari Park on a couple of occasions.
“I first heard of the park after some friends posted about it in a moms group on Facebook,” she says. “We initially went to see a dinosaur event they were having and did the drive-through.” She says Steven was not too enamored with the large birds, but she captured photos of him making funny faces with a llama. The family returned again, but rather than driving through themselves, they took advantage of the guided wagon tour, where guests can interact even more with the animals and environment and ask questions of the tour guide.
“It was very educational and so nice to have someone telling us what each of the animals were,” she says. “The kids got a much closer experience on this tour.”
Alyssa likens Eudora to other safari drive-throughs she has visited. “I grew up going to The Wilds in southeast Ohio, and we have been to Fossil Rim in Glenrose, Texas,” she says. “It’s neat to have something similar to what I grew up with right here in our own backyard and to share it with my kids.”
Today the park features more than 400 animals and will add an additional half mile to the drive-through safari. Mark built Eudora Wildlife Safari Park with the intention of providing an environment in which children and adults of all ages could learn more about the preservation, conservation, and protection of exotic animals, but the sign at the front gate best describes what he hopes every visitor will experience — “This place is not part of the ordinary troubled world, so relax and enjoy!”