In bed with the Tyrannosaurus Rex
Here's what unfolded during a family sleepover at London's Natural History Museum
Is that a raptor snoring?" my eight-year-old daughter asked, wide-eyed.
Waking in the dead of night to thunderous snores reverberating around us, I couldn’t immediately remember where I was. My nine-year-old son was on the ball though. “Raptors aren’t big enough to snore like THAT. It’s gotta be a T-Rex!" Not far from the row of gigantic fossils behind which we had settled for the night, there was indeed something loud, and quite possibly very large, snoring. And it wasn’t Daddy, because he had been woken by it too. Nor had we breached a gap in the space-time continuum and travelled back to the Cretaceous Period. Or been magically transported to the blockbuster Jurassic Park. Looking up, I could see the humongous skeleton of a more modern leviathan—the blue whale that had washed up on English shores in 1891—taking up most of the vaulted ceiling of our vast bedroom for the night, and it all came back.
We were participating in “Dino Snores", a sleepover event for families (£60, or Rs5,500 per person) at the Natural History Museum in London, home to 80 million specimens spanning 4.5 billion years on Earth. Designed to teach children about the natural world in a new and interesting way, it was certainly working, because, shaken from our sleeping bags by locomotive-like rumblings in the magnificent Hintze Hall in the early hours, we now knew that dinosaurs definitely snored!
On a torchlit tour earlier that night, we had learnt another pack of eye-opening facts about them, again, in the most unexpected way. After togging up for the adventure with dino T-shirts we had designed on-site, we struck out on the trail of the mystery dinosaur we had been instructed to find. Armed with paper to note down clues, and a crayon each to defend ourselves, we walked through the darkened halls guided by torchlight. It wasn’t long before we were hoovering up the clues and gathering the facts we’d been told to, expecting to scoot back to base in no time, and congratulating ourselves on a job nearly done.
No spooky skeleton or fearsome fossil, and we had brushed past plenty, was going to stop us from acing our mission. The clearly extinct and obviously fossilized don’t frighten us, we laughed as we went. In fact, we ooh’ed with delight when our torchlight found the imposing, 135-million-year-old Iguanodon, and we aah’ed in wonder when our beam alighted on the astoundingly tank-like Triceratops. But then something went bump in the night. Something that sounded distinctly alive. Our flashlights wobbled to a halt on a blinking eye, and razor-sharp talons clawing the air a mere hair’s breadth from us. It was scaly. It was screeching. It was one of those rapacious raptors!
It was also a robot, we realized quickly. One of several animatronic dinosaurs scattered through the museum. We gave it a wide berth regardless, only to back into one that chittered greedily in our ears. Careful not to stumble into any further large lizards, especially those that seemed to be monitoring our every move, we arrived at our last set of clues. The mystery dinosaur of our quest turned out to be an enormous, roaring, foot-stomping T-Rex, filling the room as only the king of the dinosaurs can. It seemed to take a swipe at us in the half-dark, making our entire torchlit tribe jump. Then, with a gnashing of large, glinting teeth and wild swerves of its gigantic head, the 15ft creature appeared to advance on us. And though everyone knew it was a robot and fixed to the floor, as a body we decided it was time for that king-sized snack we had been asked to bring along.
But enthusiastic as we were, many of us were not spring Oviraptorosaurs any more, and we woke the next morning with aches and pains worthy of explorers. Yet while my husband and I felt as if our old bones had been tested and bested by thin mats and those disturbingly thick snores, the children were raring to go. We found ourselves sitting campfire-style around a tottering pile of large boxes for one last communion with critters. And this bunch was very definitely alive. From furry friends like meerkats and South American chinchillas, to creepy crawlies such as African tarantulas and scaly slitherers like a young but already formidable boa constrictor, the man in charge trotted them out, one after another, to the delight and occasional horror of the hundred-strong crowd of children. Very few got the opportunity to touch, some more got to eyeball up close, but every child learnt something new that day. As well as the night before.
But amidst the lessons, the drama, and the comedy, a little swirl of mystery clung to our experience. Whose were those earth-shaking snores after all?