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Published February 10th 2020
A unique and luxurious wildlife experience in Canberra
The day had started like many others, cereal for breakfast, packing lunches and getting the kids off to school. But by mid-afternoon as I was hand-feeding a giraffe from the balcony of a luxurious African-themed treehouse, I realised this was not a typical Monday after all.
Look at this handsome face - Humbekhali the Giraffe
While hanging out with a giraffe could not be further from my usual daily routine, the location actually wasn't that far away, just a few hours drive from Sydney. If you haven't already guessed, we had checked in for an overnight stay at Jamala Wildlife Lodge.
I can tick this one off my bucket list - Giraffe Treehouse at Jamala Wildlife Lodge
Jamala Wildlife Lodge is situated within Canberra's National Zoo and Aquarium. The zoos owners, the Tindale family, are passionate about wildlife conservation, and have a philosophy that if you get people close to the animals, it will have a greater impact on them, and also on their views of conservation. It is this focus on the conservation of endangered and rescued wildlife that is at the heart of a stay at Jamala, where it is hoped that guests will take away with them the message that everything possible should be done to ensure that magnificent animals, such as tigers and lions, survive in the wild.
I had first heard about Jamala over five years ago when I read about the plans for the project in the newspaper, and had wanted to visit ever since. As one of my bucket list items, and having dreamed of staying here for years, I was pretty excited to be here. What I didn't know was that getting up close to the animals, and in some cases hand feeding them, is just one of the highlights of an overnight stay at Jamala Wildlife Lodge.
Our Jamala experience began in uShaka Lodge where we mingled with the other guests and enjoyed high tea on arrival. Stepping in to uShaka Lodge feels like you are about to go on safari. The lodge is decorated with a dazzling array of authentic African artworks, sculptures and artefacts that have been collected by the zoo's owners from throughout Africa. The interior design is impressive as are the huge windows of the shark tank at the centre of the room which draw you in to the underwater world and where you will see inhabitants such as Homer the Queensland Groper and Tawny, a Tawny Nurse Shark.
Stepping outside the lodge you will come across the pool, some oversized lounges and a couple of strange looking animals. At first glance, I thought the fluffy black and white coats on the floor of the enclosure were stuffed animals, but a closer look revealed they were actually two sleeping Colobus monkeys, named Colin and Colby. While they weren't very active in the afternoon, we found the next morning they were very energetic and entertaining as they chased each other around the enclosure.
Our first intimate wildlife encounter is just outside uShaka Lodge with Solo the cheetah and his canine companion Zama. We learn about their special relationship as companions for each other. Then after a quick safety talk we are invited to go on an optional afternoon tour with one of the zookeepers.
The afternoon tour is a leisurely walk around the zoo, visiting animals such as monkeys, lions, sun bears, koalas, penguins, meerkats and an emu. It takes about an hour and a half and our zookeeper guide Kelly was bright and bubbly and shared lots of information and stories about the animals. At the conclusion of the tour, guests are taken to their respective rooms. The room we had chosen for our overnight stay was a Giraffe Treehouse.
The Giraffe Treehouses are located adjacent to the Giraffe enclosure. As you walk up to the front door you may be greeted by freely roaming deer or the resident llama. You'll notice that the front of the treehouse does not look like a treehouse at all, it is not situated in a tree and there are no ladders to climb. The room is actually on ground level at the front but features an elevated balcony at the back, allowing you to be on eye level with Hummer the Giraffe.
The African themed furnishings continue in the treehouse. There is a beautiful four-poster queen size bed complete with canopy. The room also includes a lounge area, daybed, minibar, coffee and tea facilities, a large armoire, television and is generously scattered with giraffe motifs throughout. There is even a giant giraffe mosaic in the large bathroom. But of course, the most exciting attraction is your housemate in the backyard.
We did not have to wait long to meet Hummer. With Kelly's guidance and instructions we had the extraordinary experience of hand feeding Hummer some carrots and to see his handsome face up close and that long blue tongue in action.
Not my usual Monday - feeding Hummer is a unique experience
The guests of each treehouse take turns to feed Hummer and then he roams around in your backyard browsing on strategically placed leaves and eating his dinner. There were plenty of photo opportunities with Hummer mostly happy to oblige. We really enjoyed hanging out with Hummer for around two hours before it was time to head up for dinner.
Dinner is held in the Aquarium's Rainforest Cave and commences with pre-dinner drinks and delicious canapes on the balcony overlooking the Hyena and Lion enclosures. The canapes included bruschetta, coconut prawns and karaage chicken which were served with champagne or a selection of wines and beers. As we mingled with the other guests on the balcony we were treated to a visit from Jake and Mishka, the zoos two rare white lions.
We watch as the lions are hand-fed through the metal bars of their enclosure. The zoo keepers, Kelly and Will, answer our questions and offer to take unobstructed photos for us. Up this close, the sheer size of the lions is truly impressive as is the way they utterly destroy their dinner within a matter of minutes.
Our own dinner, however, is quite the opposite. Jamala guests are treated to a sumptuous 4-course meal in the Rainforest Cave. We are seated at two large tables with around 20 other guests allowing us to share our stories and Jamala experience. We hear about the Jungle bungalows which have viewing windows to the lions, tigers and sun bear enclosures. Other guests enjoy a viewing window to the lemur or meerkat enclosures or a wildlife encounter room.
My tasting plate entrée tasted as good as it looked
The African inspired dinner menu commences with a South African Bobotie – a mildly spiced mince casserole with an egg custard topping. For the entrees, mains and desserts guests are offered a choice of two dishes. My entrée tasting plate included pulled beef short rib, potato nest and cabbage slaw, lamb sosatie with shakalaka and tomato and capsicum gazpacho.
For the main meal, I chose the seared eye fillet served medium rare on a parsnip puree served with new potato, broccolini and crispy prosciutto with jus. It was perfectly cooked and beautiful to eat. There was also a selection of vegetable and salad sides for the table to share.
For dessert, there was a choice of Green tea and vanilla cheesecake with strawberry ice cream or Chocolate semifreddo, caramel grains centre, mango and white chocolate crumb or a cheese plate. The food was extraordinary and we certainly left feeling very well fed.
While a walk after dinner would have been nice we were assured by staff that walking through the zoo in the dark was not a good idea, in fact they don't allow it, so guests are escorted back to their rooms in a minibus. While our night in the Giraffe Treehouse was quiet and peaceful, for the guests in some of the other rooms, it was quite a different story.
For those, like us, who were going on the morning tour (again this tour is optional), it is an early start, with breakfast commencing at 7am back in the Rainforest Cave. We were able to walk through the zoo to breakfast and enjoyed seeing which animals were up and active. Once again we shared the table with our fellow guests at breakfast and were interested to hear which guests kept awake or woken up by the animals overnight (the roar of the lions seemed to be the main offenders here). In addition to the breakfast buffet, there was an extensive hot breakfast menu to choose from.
The morning safari with one of the zookeepers commences at 8am, before the zoo is open to the public. The walk takes you behind the scenes as the keepers feed and prepare the animals for the day ahead. Our tour took us past the playful Squirrel Monkeys, then on to the Sumatran tigers, a critically endangered species, where we saw them being fed by their keeper. It's shocking to think that these magnificent animals may not exist in the wild by as soon as 2030.
Our tour continued past the lemurs, through the alpaca and deer walk, past Solo the cheetah and then on to the giraffes and the exotic-looking elands. Guests were invited to feed the deer and the elands on the morning tour.
The last stop on our safari was the magnificent White Rhinocerous. One of the highlights of this tour was being able to touch the rhino and feel how soft its skin actually is in places that aren't covered with mud. Our guide on the morning safari was Will and he shared with us information about the animals, their habits and conservation status, and his own stories of being a zookeeper. The morning tour was one of my highlights due to Will and his informative and entertaining talks and his passion for wildlife conservation.
Getting up close to and touching the White Rhinocerous was another highlight
The morning tour takes around 1 hour 45 minutes and then guests are returned to their rooms. You are then free to look around the zoo further or enjoy your room until check out time which is 11am.
During our stay at Jamala Wildlife Lodge, we enjoyed the full 5-star treatment and really felt like we were V.I.Ps. The highlights for me were getting up close to Hummer and hand feeding him, the morning safari and learning about some critically endangered species and the conservation programs of the zoo. Of course, I also loved staying in the luxurious African themed treehouse and was totally impressed with the quality and quantity of the food. The Jamala staff made us feel very welcome and the zookeepers shared their wealth of knowledge, enthusiasm and passion for wildlife conservation.
While some may baulk at the price of an overnight stay initially, it's important to know that as a privately owned zoo, with no government funding, the funds raised from Jamala Wildlife Lodge support the breeding and educational programs of the zoo in addition to cash donations to animal conservation in the wild and animal welfare programs. So apart from a unique and luxurious wildlife experience, your money will also be used for a really good cause.
If you'd like to find out more about staying at Jamala Wildlife Lodge please click here.
To learn about the conservation programs supported by the National Zoo and Aquarium please click here.
Jamala Wildlife Lodge is located within the National Zoo and Aquarium, around 10 minutes drive from Canberra's CBD. For information on how to get there please click here.