Introducing Askaniya Nova
Just a few kilometres north of the border between Ukraine proper and Crimea lies a vast plain populated by roaming buffaloes, playing deer and antelopes, as well as sturdy, wild Przewalski horses and other exotic species. The 2300-hectare Askaniya Nova Reserve was the brainchild of a 19th-century German settler who acted on his slightly mad idea of importing animals from different continents to this unique natural steppe. In addition to the above-mentioned animals, there are zebras, camels, gnus, rare Central Asian saiga antelopes and all manner of birds, from pink flamingos to rare steppe eagles.
These animals live in incongruous harmony on what is Europe's largest remaining natural steppe. This is what the Ukraine of the Cossacks looked like – a parched, isolated, sprawling, yellow expanse. It evokes the central plains of Africa and, as in Africa, the best way to see the animals is on a safari.
Alas, that's easier said than done. The reserve does organise safaris in horse-drawn carts at 400uah for groups of four or less. Reserve-organised minivan safaris are also possible for larger groups. However, the reserve limits the number of visitors, and safaris are shut down entirely when there's an elevated risk of fire, which seems to be more often than not, especially during the dry summer months. Booking three days in advance is mandatory for safari tours, and you should call to confirm the day before you arrive. Book through the reserve office in front of the zoo in Askaniya Nova.
If you can't get on a safari tour, Askaniya Nova is still of interest for its zoo, its botanic garden and its austerely beautiful landscape. However, these features alone are probably not worth the hassle of getting out here. A few specimens of each species found in the reserve occupy well-kept open-air pens in the zoo.
Lastly, a word of warning: most travel agencies running package tours to Askaniya Nova out of Crimea and Kherson have no intention of taking you on safari. If you are coming on a package tour, confirm that your tour includes a safari rather than the standard three-hour zoo and botanic- garden tour.