From Kingussie to Aviemore the "new" A9, built during the 1980s, runs closely parallel to the line of the older A9, now renumbered as the B9152. The old road has a lot to offer, being both much quieter and more interesting than the road that replaced it. Two miles south west of Kincraig, a junction on this old road leads you underneath the new A9 to one of the Highlands' major visitor attractions, the Highland Wildlife Park.
The Highland Wildlife Park occupies a very large site within what is effectively a bowl set into the rising ground on the north side of the valley of the River Spey. It is easy to overlook entirely if you stick to the main A9, so its scale comes as something of a surprise. The park is very roughly circular in shape and comprises three main areas. The first is the entrance reserve, which you drive through after passing the gate kiosks. The second is a large "walk-round area" around the visitor centre and car parks. This has many of the elements of a traditional zoo, but without any of the space constraints. And the third is the main reserve, which you drive around following a loop of road which in places runs along the edge of the "walk-round area" allowing a number of species to be viewed from either area, or from both.
Cyclists and walkers are collected from the gate kiosk by the patrol vehicle and transported to the visitor centre, so it is possible to appreciate much of the park without your own car. Disabled visitors will find that much of the "walk-around area" is wheelchair accessible, with the parts that are not being clearly marked on the map in the guide issued to visitors on arrival. Some otherwise inaccessible parts of the "walk-around area" can be viewed by disabled visitors from their own cars. Disabled parking is provided at the (fully accessible) visitor centre and there are adapted loos.
The Highland Wildlife Park opened in 1972, and since 1986 it has been owned by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, which also owns Edinburgh Zoo. For much of its life its role was to focus on Scottish wildlife, both past and present, ranging from Wolves to Red Foxes and including both wild and domesticated animals. Since the beginning of 2007 the park's remit has expanded dramatically, to include species, especially endangered species, native to tundra and mountainous habitats in many different parts of the world. The result has been to allow the park to work much more closely with Edinburgh Zoo and to offer visitors the chance to view a much wider range of species in this remarkably beautiful setting.
The heart of the park is the visitor centre. Here you can find the Antlers Coffee Shop serving a range of meals, snacks and drinks, and the Wildthings Gift Shop, which carries a range of books and gifts and, on our visit, a lot of emphasis on tiger cubs. This area is also home to the park offices and an education centre.
The "walk-round area" surrounds the visitor centre and the different elements are reached by paths leading from it. The Highland Wildlife park is undergoing significant change as it explores the full potential of its new role, and new species are arriving fairly frequently: so those reflected on this page are simply a snapshot.
At the time of our visit the undoubted stars of the show were the Amur Tigers, housed in a purpose built enclosure opened in late 2008. Two Amur tigers, native to eastern Siberia, were moved to their new home at the park from Edinburgh Zoo and have since demonstrated their approval of their new surrounding by producing three cubs. These had made their public debut only a week before our visit and were seriously cute, apparently completely unfazed by the attention they were getting. Small wonder the gift shop was doing a good trade in toy tigers: stroking the real thing would probably not be a wise move, especially with mum and dad prowling around nearby.
Reaching the tiger enclosure takes you past the home of the Snow Monkeys. These Japanese Macaques enjoy a home complete with an island in a lake they can reach either over a rope bridge or, as some are happy to demonstrate, swimming. Viewing screens mean you can sit and enjoy your lunch on the cafe's terrace while watching the Snow Monkeys tuck into peanuts nearby.
The main circular path through the "walk-round area" heads steadily uphill from the tiger enclosure to reach a viewpoint at the highest point within the park. From here you can see much of the area it covers and this is a particularly good spot from which to appreciate the layout and scale of the main reserve. From the viewpoint you proceed downhill past the enclosure of the wild boar, which they seem to have turned into something resembling a building site before anything actually gets built. Various species of goats and antelopes occupy the rockiest areas of the centre of the park. Not far beyond is the Wolf enclosure, another highlight of any visit.
On the other side of the main car park is a forested area in which you find enclosures housing species such as the Eagle Owl, the Capercaillie and the hyperactive Pine Martins. Here the most charismatic residents are more felines, the Scottish Wildcats. At first sight these seem very like domestic cats, and interbreeding with domestic casts is one reason why there are now thought to be fewer than 400 left in the wild in Scotland. But look a little closer and they do have quite distinctive markings and tails, and they tend to be larger than domestic cats. They also have a "don't mess with me" expression and attitude which is fascinating.
Nearby is the enclosure which is home to the European Beavers. A platform allows you a close view of the lodge the residents have built over the past few years, but their largely nocturnal habits mean you are fairly unlikely to actually see a Beaver.
As you drive around the main reserve animals you are likely to encounter include herds of Red Deer, which are native to the surrounding mountains; as well as European Bisons which became extinct in the wild in 1919; and Przewalski's Horse, the only true living wild horses, which are also sadly extinct in the wild. In the entrance enclosure the limelight was claimed when we visited by the newly arrived Bactrian Camels, which seemed nearly as interested in the passing cars as the occupants of the cars did in them. Just don't let one hear you calling it ugly...