In 1998, a family in Canberra set about creating the National Zoo & Aquarium. Today, tucked snugly inside this private zoo we have Jamala Wildlife Lodge – a boutique, luxury hotel and truly unique wildlife experience.
Located an easy 5-10 minutes drive from Canberra, Jamala is far beyond any other hotel you might have been to before. Accommodation is all within the zoo its self, with some rooms joining up to the animal enclosures. Guests have the option of sleeping in 5-star African inspired suites next to sharks, lemurs, cheetahs, bears, tigers and even a group of lions.
With only a floor to ceiling pane of reinforced glass between you and these wild animals, it’s truly breaks the norms of traditional zoos. The animals can see inside your room just as well as you can see them, making for some unique encounters. Our guides jokingly told us that small children often attract the lions to pay extra attention to the tasty morsel inside their bungalow.
While lions and sharks sound quite exciting, we were over the moon with our tree house accommodations resident animal: a friendly giraffe named Hummer. But more of that later.
The National Zoo & Aquarium is a privately run, family owned zoo, which allows for most of the enclosure sizes to be far larger than found in other urban zoos. After a short afternoon tea and introduction to some beautiful snakes, our guides Tanya and Kelly took us for a tour through the zoo to see where we would be staying that night. Our guide’s enthusiasm for their job was infectious. On the first of many walks through the zoo we got to learn some more about the history behind The National Zoo & Aquarium as well as hearing the stories behind the zoo’s residents. We were introduced to some cheeky monkeys, patted a wombat, and fed meerkats. We also met a colony of Little Penguins (fairy penguins) who are all named after rappers including Snoop Dog, RZA and Tupac.
The zoo is an active participant in the worldwide conservation and breading programs essential for keeping many species around the world alive and well. Some of the special animal residents include a Malayan Sun Bear who was rescued from a tortured life in a tiny cage and endangered Sumatran Tigers who are part of an essential breeding program. This and other programs the zoo runs made it clear that the animals came first at all times and we were guests in their home.
After walking through a field of timid deer and not so timid alpacas, we were finally at our tree house hotel. Our guides let us know that our neighbor, the 15 year old giraffe Hummer does not like to be patted, but he defiantly likes to snack on carrots which we then got to hand feed him at his head height on our room’s balcony. He is a friendly giraffe who was quite happy to munch away on some straw and get a few photos with us. Have you had a giraffe selfie before? At Jamala it’s almost impossible not to get one!
That evening as we sipped our champagne, bit into delicious canapés and mingled with the fellow Jamala guests on a private deck, two lion siblings who live at the zoo joined us for their own dinner. The National Zoo has one of the largest groups of big cats in Australia. These two lions happily munched on some fresh meat, safely behind bars less than a meter away from our group.
Later on as we enjoyed our delicious five-course dinner these two big cats snuggled together in the dining rooms adjoining floor to ceiling glass lion cave. My plus one and I wined and dined at one of the large communal tables with the other guests who ranged from married couples to international visitors who loved animals, after all the excitement of the first tour of the night we all had a lot to discuss over our Australian craft beers and wine.
The five-course menu catered for everyone’s dietary requirements and features seasonal fresh produce. We were particularly impressed by the delicious lamb and a fresh and filling mushroom risotto. We were nicely full by the fourth course when the dessert came, after one glance at the beautifully presented sticky date pudding and mango sorbet we just had to fit it in.
After some coffee, tea and chocolate animals it was time to call it a night. Conveniently, our guides were there ready and waiting to drive us in a mini bus all the way back home.
The next morning we rose nice and early for a private stroll through the zoo. If you have ever been to a urban zoo you would understand the frustration of always having 100’s of people running around. The advantage of staying inside a zoo meant that we had the entire place to ourselves that morning on the walk to breakfast.
After a filling breakfast and chat to some of the fellow guests it was time for the morning zoo tour. Our guide for the morning was Ty, who enthusiastically let us know we were going to get a private tour of the newly expanded, closed to the public section of the zoo to meet some new animals. Only guests of Jamala get this VIP treatment, and we were all excited to see what was behind the locked gate.
The National Zoo & Aquarium is undergoing an extensive expansion, adding an additional 30-acres of exhibitions with world-class wildlife facilities. Some of the new guests you will get to meet in the future include a family of rhinoceros (who we got to pat), a pair of cheetahs and a herd of giraffe. There was also a very special surprise animal, which, at the time of writing, we are not allowed to mention but trust us, it was cute and you will want to see him for yourself.
After the fantastic experience with our highly knowledgeable and qualified guides there was no doubt left in our minds that these animals were very well looked after by people who loved what they did. To make the experience even more wonderful, funds from your stay at Jamala directly fund the zoo’s impressive breeding and conservation efforts. Jamala Wildlife Lodge is a major step to bolster the conservation programs that are run by the zoo.
Over the course of almost 24 hours, we met many happy animals up close and personal, ate some delicious food and relaxed in truly stunning, luxury accommodation. While this feels like a once in a lifetime experience, we left with a grin from ear to ear and a promise to return one day for another fantastic wildlife encounter.
Tomas Zagoda is a filmmaker, writer, coffee addict and tall person who does not play basketball. You can follow him @TomasZagoda.
Jamala Wildlife Lodge is available for large and small groups as well as couples. Bookings are essential.
You can read more about what to do in Canberra here.