Answer the call of the wild - in Canberra
Twenty years ago, Canberra property developer Richard Tindale purchased an unusual site for a family home: an ailing aquarium attraction near Scrivener Dam, at the western end of Lake Burley Griffin. The Tindales proceeded to create a luxe Bond-villain lair, right down to the vast indoor shark pool.
A few years later, the ‘family’ expanded through the rescue of a group of retired circus animals, including a lion and a brown bear. Therein lay the beginnings of the National Zoo and Aquarium, Canberra – a private venture where animal breeding and preservation programs are undertaken in conjunction with other zoos.
The most brilliant initiative, both for animals and visitors, came in December 2014 with the opening of Jamala Wildlife Lodge (jamalawildlifelodge.com.au). It is five-star accommodation, education and entertainment interwoven with the zoo experience. Room rates start at $925, including zoo tours, food and beverages. The signature is the six luxury Giraffe Treehouses and five Jungle Bungalows that directly adjoin enclosures of lions, tigers, cheetahs, bears and giraffes.
The other accommodation comprises seven luxury suites within the former main residence, uShaka Lodge. This complex houses enormous aquariums, the main reception and lounge areas, and the communal banquet area. The latter, situated in a former shark tank, has a cave-like ambience that’s enhanced in no small way by the hyenas and lions that lazily observe diners through large (and presumably thick) surrounding windows.
The feeling from the very moment of arrival is one of being welcomed to a family home; albeit, one where the majority of family members are four-legged. The staff are young, enthusiastic and clearly passionate and knowledgeable about the animals. It also dawns that the zoo’s owners themselves must be sincerely dedicated to animal preservation as lions, tigers, rhinos and such are no great respecters of VIPs. The National Zoo and Aquarium is already quite the model for openness and Jamala guests enjoy an entirely higher level of interaction with the wildlife, visiting out-of-bounds areas and engaging in the feeding and petting of such animals as meerkats, dingoes, rhinos and lions. The latter is a truly chilling experience, when you momentarily catch a lion’s eyes through the steel bars, at the distant end of your proffered, quivering barbecue tongs.
Speaking of food: the embracing welcome of the Jamala family dispels any reservations about the communal dining arrangements. Considerable dedication is given to the design and quality of the set menus, with typically two choices of main dish – which change each night – and even more obviously, the quality of service.
Much of the seamlessness of the experience is owed to advance preparation and a touch of safari-like discipline, such as the set times for the variety of Wildlife Experience tours, and shuttle services between bungalows and the main lodge (the latter compulsory after dark).
However, the greatest magic of Jamala lies literally outside your bungalow. Each is fitted out with authentic African furnishings and artworks (the Tindales are renowned collectors), with gorgeous mosaics of each bungalow’s neighbouring animal adorning the bathrooms. Bungalows typically feature a four-poster king-sized bed and leather folding sofa-bed, reflecting the typical guest profile of couples fleeing for the weekend, or with one or two children in tow. (Well, was it one – or two?)
Televisions and smart devices remain ignored as (depending on one’s accommodation), a giraffe’s head regularly floats by one’s window, or a sun bear claws open a coconut for dinner and proceeds to arrange pillows for its bed on the verandah, mere centimetres from you. Jamala is truly an unforgettable experience, and perhaps nothing else outside of Africa can get within a lion’s roar of it.