The National Zoo and Aquarium is located on Lady Denman Drive, which is a scenic 10-minute drive from Canberra's CBD. It is also the home to the Jamala Wildlife Lodge, which is a 5-star hotel located on the property, where you can dine with lions on the other side of the glass and sleep in the hotel, with giraffes outside your room. This once-in-a-lifetime experience is a highlight in itself, for thousands of visitors who come to visit it from all around the world.
I personally visited this zoo many years ago, before Jamala Wildlife Lodge was built and expansions to the zoo had been made. It needed a little TLC and some much-needed funding, which thankfully came their way with the new hotel. Now, years later, my daughter and I went to visit it again to see how it had evolved and upgraded since Jamala Wildlife Lodge had opened up, over 2 years ago. Our verdict? If I could have counted every time we said "Wow!", it would have been close to a hundred. It exceeded our expectations - and more!
Follow the trails and see a wide range of animals - big and small
To enter the zoo it costs $45 for an adult and $25 for a child (aged 4-15), which isn't cheap, however if you look at the prices of Taronga Zoo in Sydney ($46/ $26) and Australia Zoo on the Sunshine Coast ($59/ $35), then it is comparable to other quality zoo experiences. It is a venue where you can easily spend the whole day exploring and once you get inside, you will see where the money is spent - on the animal enclosures.
The entrance to the zoo is quite small, however, once you walk inside and receive your map, the zoo itself is now at least double the size of what it used to be. The zoo now covers 23 hectares with new enclosures, BBQ areas and a wide range of Australian and international animals. If your kids enjoy reading maps, there are Adventure Trails to follow, however, you can also make your way around the zoo on your own and see where different paths take you. On our visit we just explored on our own and then looked at the map at the end to see what we missed - it was a good excuse to go back and see the animals all over again!
To view the lions, there is a shaded platform that you walk out onto which has tables and chairs if you want to stay for awhile and watch these powerful, fascinating animals. On the left are the white lions and on our visit, there was a male and female cosying up together and enjoying the sun. They were relaxed in each other's company and seemed to enjoy just lazing in the sunshine - watching us, watching them. The male occasionally roared in response to the lions on the other side of the platform.
On the right-hand side of the platform were a pride of lions, both male and female, who were very vocal in their roars - which we could hear afterwards around the zoo, long after we had left the area. If you appreciate the strength, beauty and power of these wild and unpredictable animals, you could easily spend an hour here, just simply watching.
Walk out onto the lion platform and hear their roars
Near Jamala Wildlife Lodge there is an adult giraffe in a large enclosure, which you can see very clearly as you walk along a path that is eye-level with this awkward, beautiful animal. The enclosure is well-designed, so you appear to feel quite close to its unique beauty - and see every bump on its head and every long eyelash up close.
When you walk past the giraffe area, it leads you into the newer part of the zoo, which opened in May 2017. As we walked through this area, further back from the rhinos, we saw three young giraffes in a back enclosure who were getting fed by visitors on a high platform. At 11:30am each weekend (at the time of writing), visitors can feed the giraffes for just $10 and all proceeds go to wildlife conservation. If you would like to feed a giraffe, ensure you have some cash on you - or alternatively you can dash down to the Rhino Café and ask for cash out from your card. Feeding a giraffe and seeing one at eye level was the most memorable part of our visit to the zoo. It will be a memory that will be treasured forever.
The zoo provides clean and natural enclosures for the animals, which is one of the main highlights of visiting this zoo. The sun bears have a river running through their area, there is signage explaining how animals are moved between enclosures regularly, the landscaping is natural and each enclosure is spacious. In some areas, it is so spacious that you can't find the animal, which is a good thing, so ensure you go back and find them later in the day. We had this experience with the elusive snow leopard. His enclosure is a rainforest with plenty of areas for a snow leopard to blend in, just as they would do in the lower altitudes in Asia. After returning a second time however, we found it fast asleep and camouflaged on a pile of uncomfortable rocks. If you have kids with you, they will enjoy being the first person to spot the animal and then read the sign to learn more about each one. It is educational for the kids - and the adults can learn a lot too!
A sleeping snow leopard and natural enclosures for the animals
Near the rhino enclosure there is a new spacious BBQ area with water features and under cover areas for families to spread out and enjoy a picnic lunch. At the time of writing there is a fitted-out shipping container called the Rhino Café, for snacks, ice-creams and lunch items, however there is building work and signage to say that a playground, monkey island and new indoor and outdoor café is on its way. Just before this area is another picnic area called Fern Gully, which has brand new shaded picnic cabanas and dinosaur statues under the trees. Progress is happening at the zoo and it's looking good!
On our visit, my daughter and I stayed for four hours, however we could have easily stayed the whole day. We were there when the doors first opened, which is what I would recommend, as the animals were particularly active in the morning. After visiting years ago when it was much smaller, it was such a joy to return again and find it much larger, beautifully landscaped and a relaxing, natural place for the animals to live in - and or the visitors to walk around. If you are local, why not get an annual pass and then you can return as many times as you like and see the changes unfold.