It’s not too often that you come eye-level with a giraffe and hand feed it or that you enjoy a superb three-course dinner while watched over by white lions and hyenas.
It’s also more than a little out of the ordinary to get up close and personal with a seven-month-old cheetah cub or to pat the rough skin of a Southern White Rhino while making sure you avoid his horn.
However, these and a host of other experiences are all part of a world-class attraction right in the heart of Canberra that combines luxury and indulgence with the wide-eyed wonder of getting to know animals we’d often have to give a wide berth to in the wild.
Since opening its doors in December 2014, Jamala Wildlife Lodge has hit the big time on the national travel map, winning the Australian Hotels Association’s award for best deluxe accommodation for the past two years running as well as a string of other awards.
It is frequently booked out and draws a wide variety of international and interstate visitors to our city, but is it also a special opportunity for a ‘staycation’ for those living here?
Interested in doing the hard yards for our readers, The RiotACT took the opportunity to stay at Jamala Wildlife Lodge so we could bring you some insights into whether a visit should go on your ‘bucket list’.
However, before going further it is probably important for me to point out that I am wild about animals and – to take a bad pun further, as journalists love to do – the wilder the better. I am fast becoming the ‘zoo reporter’ at The RiotACT (even though no such title exists) and I love the fact that our office is located so close to this attraction.
I recognise that not everyone feels the same way as me and so if you are someone who doesn’t care for animals, hates adventure or is scared of your own shadow then Jamala is probably not the place for you. Everyone else can read on.
I was booked into one of the giraffe treehouses at Jamala Wildlife Lodge and my visit began at 1.30 pm on a recent weekday in the living area of the African-inspired uShaka Lodge, which was the former home of the zoo’s owners, Richard and Maureen Tinsdale.
The lodge is the hub of a stay at Jamala and has been beautifully furnished by Maureen Tinsdale with artworks and artefacts the Tinsdales have collected throughout Africa over the past 20 years.
This living area sets the scene for the visit, with your eyes drawn to a large shark tank which extends from one end to the other, while from the other side you are watched over by two black-and-white Colobus monkeys, Colin and Colby. The attractive monkeys look slightly surreal with their long fluffy white tails – almost as if they were playing dress ups and these have been attached on.
After guests have gathered together at the lodge we are given the special treat outside of meeting the seven-month-old cheetah cub Solo and his best friend and surrogate brother, a Border Collie/Belgian Malinois puppy named Zama.
Solo has just gone on public display at the zoo and the zookeepers thought it was a good opportunity to introduce him to a larger group of people. Although we didn’t get to pat the pretty, over-sized cat who is fast becoming the zoo’s ambassador, it is a great chance to get close to him as he walks past in his halter and has fun investigating his surroundings.
From there it’s time for the ‘afternoon safari’ which is really more a familiarisation tour around the zoo under the guidance of a very informed and passionate guide named Kai.
Although we are only seeing the animals from outside their enclosures, Kai leads us to many of the most interesting or endangered species and is able to provide real insights into their backgrounds and the conservation efforts being made on their behalf. Below are some photos of the animals we met.
After the special tour, it’s time to go to the giraffe treehouse for the first time while other guests go to rooms in the uShaka Lodge or to the special jungle bungalows, where only a glass wall separates their suites from either lions, tigers, Malaysian Sun Bears or a cheetah.
The treehouse is luxuriously decorated with African-inspired furnishings with special features including a four-poster bed and a mosaic of a giraffe in the shower.
However, the big attraction is the chance to feed Hummer the giraffe from the high balcony at the back of the treehouse. I felt like I already knew Hummer after previously writing an article about the friendly giraffe being the most popular animal at the zoo. It was a far more exciting experience though, to be able to hand feed him a couple of pieces of carrot from the balcony under the watchful eyes of a guide.
What fun to come face-to-face with this elegant creature and to see his long blue tongue wrap around the carrot in my hand. The only problem was that it was over too quickly and he was on to the next treehouse for more food.
Thankfully, this was not the end of the experience, with Hummer staying around the treehouses for the rest of the afternoon – making frequent visits from one to the other in order to eat the hay strategically placed in different locations. Despite the cold, I took out a cup of tea and was able to watch this beautiful reticulated giraffe from close quarters over a couple of hours – quite a rare experience.
Dining with lions and hyenas
As evening arrived it was time to head for dinner by walking through the Aquarium Rainforest to the Rainforest Cave.
The dining experience starts with delicious canapés and pre-dinner drinks such as Moet champagne on the terrace in the company of the other guests. It’s a cold night but the blazing fires keep us all warm.
Then it’s back down to the cave to sit at large tables for an African-influenced three-course meal and fine wines.
There is a choice of two different dishes for each and I start with an entree tasting plate of yellow curry coconut mussels, Miso and honey-cured salmon sosatie and egg custard with blue swimmer crab.
For my main, I choose the chermoula spatchcock with roast potatoes and green beans, while I finish the meal with a multi-layered mousse.
To say that the food was delicious is an understatement and it is clear that everyone is having a great night, assisted by the attentive waiting staff.
What really takes this dining experience to another level, however, is the fact that watching on as we dine in our large cave are two white lions on one side and two hyenas on another.
Only glass separate diners from these magnificent animals and it’s fun to see the antics as they relax, eat and sometimes snooze. The 10-year-old white lions, Jake and Mischka, are brother and sister and extremely rare, with only about 300 left in the world. This makes having dinner near them a truly rare experience.
After a good night’s sleep in the luxurious bungalow, it’s back to the Rainforest Cave for an early breakfast. At 8:00 am it’s then time for the morning safari which is designed to coincide with the time when the animals are starting to wake up and interact with the world.
This is more of a ‘backstage’ experience of the zoo where a smaller group of Jamala guests are able to feed and pat some of the animals.
Our guide for this tour is named Will and once again he is enthusiastic, knowledgeable and passionate about animal conservation. For example, he tells us about the role of palm oil in helping to destroy the habitat of the Sumatran Tiger and about the intelligence of the Capuchin Monkey, which he equates to that of a six-year-old human.
Jamala guests take up the opportunity to feed the Ruffed Lemurs, the Eland and some friendly deer.
A special highlight comes at the end of the ‘safari’ when we are given the chance to pat a massive Southern White Rhino through the metal railings and spend a solid amount of time getting to know the grand animal with his distinctive horn.
Afterwards, it’s time to pack up and head home. For me, that’s just a 15 minutes drive away – adding greatly to the convenience of this short vacation.
A luxury wildlife escape
All up staying at Jamala Wildlife Lodge is a really memorable experience benefiting from a full program of tours and activities complemented by luxury facilities, great food and the chance to get close to some amazing animals you would rarely have the chance to see in this way.
This is a five-star experience and so it is fairly pricey, with one-night rates ranging from $1,025 (weekday uShaka room) to $2,375 (weekend jungle bungalow). However, these rates are for a room and so can be shared between two people, with reduced costs for a third occupant.
The rates also cover all food and drinks as well as the special tours – meaning there is nothing more to pay for – and there are no travel costs for Canberrans given it is right on our doorstep. There is the added benefit of knowing that you’re contributing to the zoo’s conservation efforts.
This is not a real wildlife safari experience – you need to travel overseas for that. However, for Canberrans who love animals and are looking for a luxury escape close to home, this attraction has a lot to recommend it. I loved it!
Jamala Wildlife Lodge is part of the National Zoo & Aquarium and is located at 999 Lady Denman Drive in Canberra. For more details go to www.jamalawildlifelodge.com.au
The writer stayed at Jamala Wildlife Lodge as a guest of the lodge.