Jamala Wildlife Lodge, National Zoo, Canberra: The lion sleeps with you tonight

Bathing under the gaze of a lion is disconcerting, to say the least.

I am taking a bath when I notice a pair of eyes fixed on me. Less than a metre away, a giant head bangs against the window, huge front paws propped on the sill. Our eyes meet, mine full of fear. 

It's opening week at Jamala Wildlife Lodge at Canberra's privately run National Zoo and I wonder, how thick is this glass? I look across the jungle bungalow where I am spending the night for an escape route, should this maned beast smash through the glass, all the while reassuring myself with titbits of lion-based information gleaned over the years.

Didn't actress Tippi Hedren and daughter Melanie Griffith keep a lion in their California home? And wasn't Christian, the lion that was bought from Harrods and reintroduced to the wild in Africa, quite tame?

Childhood memories came back of Mum and Dad driving the Volkswagen Beetle through the bleak and dusty Bullens Lion Park on Sydney's outskirts. Strict instructions were given: windows were to be kept firmly shut and doors locked.

I remembered schoolyard tales of the man who dared to walk from his vehicle, only to be savaged by a pride, and the tamer who was turned upon. 

I have managed to slink out of the tub and one of the regal beasts emits a guttural roar. The other two - there are three at my window now - respond in kind. They're just curious; it's as new to them as it is to me. I'm immersed in their habitat, a spacious African-like savannah on the banks of the Molonglo River in Canberra.

"We tried to pick up a little bit of Africa and drop it into Canberra," lodge owner Richard Tindale says. "The feeling and the atmosphere when you walk into the lounge areas and their rooms is that you're in an African game park." 

Tindale is talking about the uShaka Lodge, the seven-room main building of Jamala Wildlife Lodge. He, wife Maureen and six adult children - three of whom work at the zoo - are passionate about animal conservation, and Africa. The family bought the zoo in 1998 when it was little more than a rundown aquarium and petting zoo. 

They have just opened 18 luxury bungalows and treehouses decorated in African motif, including animal print accessories, mosaics and artworks. Lions are carved into wooden doors. The Tindales picked up a lot of furniture and pieces from years visiting Africa. They also commissioned a leading South African sculptor to fashion "the Big 5" that adorn the dining room known as the Cave.

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It is all part of a growing trend in Australia: overnight stays at zoos, from Sydney's Taronga Zoo glamping option to Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo's self-catered accommodation – with Jamala the first to offer hotel-style luxury.

Jamala's uShaka Lodge was formerly the owner's residence. Here, the pick is the master suite on a private floor. It has two bedrooms and private access to the shark tank allowing guests to experience hand feeding. Outside, there's an infinity pool, spa and a terrace on which to relax on while the monkeys watch.

The Giraffe Treehouses have a petting zoo full of alpacas in the frontyard. The main attraction, Hummer the giraffe, is still a little shy in his newly expanded environment, but keepers expect he will be greeting guests soon for balcony feeds.

Those staying in the jungle bungalows can choose to spend the night - like me - with lions, or cheetahs, brown bears or Malaysian sun bears. Heated pads attract the animals to the den-like decks by the windows.

At sundown, white lions and hyenas drop in on dinner for the Cave "animal in residence" program. They look on with sleepy indifference from the windowed room attached to their enclosures as guests feast on such South African delights as bobotie - a dish of spiced minced meat topped with a creamy layer of egg custard - and malva pudding.

Like any overnight zoo stay, the primary objective is immersion. We are taken on two safari experiences with zookeepers Renee and Natalie. We stroke Bernice the Burmese python, pat dingoes and get slobbered on by Hummer the giraffe – it's good luck for a year we are told. In the morning, on the top paddock of the open-range zoo, we meet African hunting dogs, cheetahs and ring-tailed lemurs, feed carrots to elands and stroke a crash of rhinos.

Jamala Wildlife Lodge is named after a beloved king cheetah that died at the age of four from renal failure.

"We probably get a bit too close to some of the animals," says Tindale of Jamala's passing. "Jamala was a king cheetah - one of only 30. He used to come and lie on my chest."

Tindale's love of big cats lured him away from a couple of lucrative businesses in the mid-1990s. He sold up and travelled the world  to see animals in the wild. "I came to the conclusion that, other than Africa, the big cats are going to die out at some stage; there won't be too many left," he says.

The  Tindale family's original idea was to run a big-cat breeding facility, but when the aquarium and land around it came up for sale, a zoo evolved. They take in rescued animals from circuses and work with other zoos worldwide in an effort to conserve endangered species.

As well as Jamala Wildlife Lodge, they offer wild animal encounters and a Zooventure Tour where, among other animal experiences, you can hand-feed a Sumatran tiger.

Offering a range of accommodation from camping and self-catered accommodation to all-inclusive decked African-style lodging, zoo stays have upped the comfort stakes. 

Responding to public demand, at Taronga Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo, the Zoofari Lodge has recently undergone a $2.1 million redevelopment. Each of the 10 lodges features a double bath and a king-sized bed with sweeping views of giraffe, zebra and eland roaming the savannah. 

In September 2014, the zoo opened the fully equipped self-catered Savannah Cabins and there is also the family camping experience, Billabong Camp, which opened in 2013. The zoo recently won the award for unique accommodation at the NSW Tourism Awards.

An overnight stay features a twilight tour at feeding time at the lion, cheetah and black rhino enclosures before heading back for fireside drinks and dinner. Come morning, a pushbike provides the perfect vehicle for viewing the zoo at your own pace.

 "We differ from other zoos, as we have a wide variety of accommodation options," Taronga Western Plains Zoo's accommodation manager, Penny Costello, says. "I see that people are looking for value and unique experiences in their travels, I think that we tick all the boxes when it comes to the diverse needs of travellers." 

Sydney's Taronga Zoo Roar and Snore could offer the best city views anywhere. It's a glamping option with purpose-built tents - named after different zoo animals - each with a double and single bed (with room for a second single). All linen is provided; eating areas and bathrooms are communal.

After a buffet dinner, you hike through the zoo on a night safari to see the nocturnal animals and hear about the zoo's conservation projects. The morning not only brings sensational Sydney panoramic photo opportunities, but also two behind-the-scenes experiences with various animals. The Roar and Snore program began 10 years ago as a camping experience at the zoo's education centre.

"It grew quickly into today's luxury camping experience," Libby Hodgson, Taronga Zoo manager, marketing and tourism, says. "We've been able to give people once-in-a-lifetime experiences that not only increases the visitors' knowledge and passion for wildlife, but also supports Taronga's work. Almost 80 per cent of Roar and Snore guests indicate they are going act more sustainably in future, from choosing sustainable seafood or using recycled paper."

Hodgson says there is growing demand for more immersive and experiential activities in zoos. "Coupled with that is an increasing awareness and desire among families to ensure their children connect with nature and get to experience nature and wildlife."

Knowing this, Taronga Zoo is expanding. It has just opened a treetop rope course called Wild Ropes encouraging young people to experience both the zoo and nature from a different perspective. Also new for children is the Backyard to Bush exhibit, where they can meet and touch guinea pigs and rabbits. 

And this year's Taronga's Twilight concerts are going international. Until March 21, the harbourside amphitheatre will host some of Australia's best bands, as well as international guests such as Belle and Sebastian and Rufus Wainwright. 

Elsewhere, Melbourne Zoo has just opened a $5 million Lion Gorge enclosure, where you can get so close you can feel the beasts' breath. In parts, designers have used glass and in others they have used strong mesh to separate the lions from the humans.

Tindale agrees with zoos reinventing themselves to offer more varying and immersive experiences. "We have found that the closer people get, the more impact it has on them. Our Meet a Cheetah program has been so good because you take people who really didn't have much interest and, all of a sudden, they are passionate about it because of that experience," he says. "Here, it's a bit more hands-on; you can get closer to the animals." 

Not too close come bedtime, though. Back in my bungalow, securely tucked under the sheets in my canopied king-size bed, and assured by the Tindales that the safety glass is the best on the market, I am hoping the lion sleeps tonight. Luckily, the carved Maasai "watchful warrior" next to the bed is keeping me safe.

I am happy come morning, though, that the night was filled with more roar than snore - a regular reminder I am in the same range, albeit with my own creature comforts, with the kings of the jungle.  

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

jamalawildlifelodge.com.au

taronga.org.au/accommodation

taronga.org.au/taronga-western-plains-zoo

zoo.org.au/melbourne

visitcanberra.com.au

STAYING THERE

Jamala Wildlife Lodge accommodation starts at $400 and ranges up to $850 a person based on twin share, and includes afternoon tea, a three-course dinner, drinks, overnight accommodation, breakfast, and afternoon and early-morning zoo tours to feed the animals.

Taronga Zoo's Roar and Snore starts from $288 an adult and $184.50 a child (five to 17) and includes guided night zoo safari, tent accommodation, dinner, refreshments, breakfast, two back-of-house tours and admission to the zoo the following day.

Taronga Western Plains Zoo's Zoofari Lodge includes a two-day admission pass to Taronga Western Plains Zoo, one night's accommodation at Zoofari Lodge, behind-the-scenes tours, African-style canapes, a banquet dinner and dessert, buffet breakfast and standard bicycle hire for two days. Bushland View Lodges start from $269 an adult, children (1-4 years) from $49 and children (5-15) from $149.

The Savannah Cabins family package, including zoo admission for two adults and two children, as well as one night's accommodation, costs $388. Billabong Camp rates for one night's accommodation start from adults $169 and children  5-15 years $95.

For the Twilight at Taronga concert series, Rydges North Sydney and QT are offering all-inclusive accommodation packages. See twilightattaronga.org.au

The writer was a guest of Jamala Wildlife Lodge.

 FIVE OTHER ZOOS WHERE YOU CAN STAY HERE AND OVERSEAS

WERRIBEE OPEN RANGE ZOO

The fully hosted overnight Slumber Safari at the 225-hectare Werribee Open Range Zoo includes behind-the-scenes animal encounters and views of the habitats staying in one of eight canvas-tented lodges, each with a balcony and ensuite. Feast on a buffet of African-inspired dinner, dips and champagne at sunset. The zoo is home to lions, cheetah, hippos, meerkats, gorillas and animals of the African savannah – giraffes, zebras, rhinos and ostriches. The Slumber Safari has been running for 12 years, but in 2011 the campsite was moved to a new location, which allowed the addition of  ensuites and other comforts. See zoo.org.au/werribee

ADELAIDE ZOO

Tented accommodation pitched on the rooftop garden of Adelaide Zoo's Education Centre - once a chimp exhibit - is the setting for the Wild Nights experience. This has been running for three years and is available from October to April. After-hours access allows visitors to see the only two giant pandas in the southern hemisphere, Wang Wang and Funi, before the zoo opens for the day. See zoossa.com.au/adelaide-zoo.

BRONX ZOO, US

At New York's Bronx Zoo, you can book ahead for a Family Overnight Safari, which includes animal sightings, singalongs, snacks and breakfast.  A sleepover called Night on the Town is also available at Manhattan's Central Park Zoo, but Bronx Zoo is the pick, because it is one of the largest metropolitan zoos in the world. Here, you get to meet baby gorillas and snow leopard cubs and get a wake-up call from the sea lions. At $185, it is good value for a night in New York, but you will have to bring your own tent, sleeping bag and picnic dinner. The safari runs on selected dates in May, June and September. See bronxzoo.com.

NATIONAL ZOO, PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA

One of the highlights of a visit to this South African city is seeing the gardens and animals at the National Zoo. Here, you can spend the night and wake up with Africa's greats of the animal kingdom stirring to life. After setting up camp, you will be taken on a guided tour to see nocturnal animals and learn about traditional folklore. It's pretty much "bring your own everything", including tent, equipment, food and drinks. Tables and chairs are provided for a bring-and-braai after the tour. Camping tours take place on Friday and Saturday evenings. See nzg.ac.za

LISBON AQUARIUM, PORTUGAL 

The renowned aquarium's Sleeping with Sharks experience allows you to not only observe marine life for an extended period, but to learn more the characteristics of sharks and how to participate in their conservation. Best of all, though, in the morning, the Oceanario de Lisboa - opened in 1998 as the impressive centrepiece of the World's Fair - is yours to discover. See oceanario.pt.

FIVE GREAT ZOO EXPERIENCES, AS RECOMMENDED BY FIVE ZOO MANAGERS IN AUSTRALIA

Richard Tindale, owner National Zoo, Canberra

"The game parks of Africa have influenced our design of Jamala Wildlife Lodge. Generally, we go to Sabi Sands, which is in the Kruger area, but also Botswana and Zimbabwe. Also, the Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo and the Werribee Open Range Zoo are both terrific and I will continue to go back there and enjoy those."

Sally Lewis, director, Werribee Open Range Zoo

"The national parks in South Africa remind me of our zoo, with their large open spaces and large herds. However, in Africa, they are all fenced in to protect them from poachers. At Werribee Open Range Zoo, we have predator-proof fences to keep out introduced species, such as foxes and cats, to protect native wildlife, such as the eastern barred bandicoot. This resonates with me, because threats to wildlife in both Africa and Australia are human-driven threats."

Libby Hodgson, manager, marketing and tourism, Taronga Zoo

"Taronga's sister zoo, San Diego Zoo, has really impressive animal experiences, where the habitat re-creation and display of animals is done in a tremendously natural way. It is all about showing how amazing wild animals are in a natural way that makes people feel part of what they're seeing - if you can get that right, the beauty and majesty of the animal will take care of the rest and really inspire people to do something to help wildlife."

Penny Costello, accommodation manager, Taronga Western Plains Zoo

"Although not a zoo, I'd love the opportunity to go to Africa and see some of the beautiful wildlife and see first-hand some of what Taronga are doing with the anti-poaching and conservation over there."

Steve Callery, general manager, visitor experience, Adelaide Zoo 

"At Singapore Zoo, they offer some amazing experiences, such as the Night Safari and Breakfast with the Orangutans, all in a beautiful rainforest setting."

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