When you stroll into a suite that boasts a timber canopy bed, ink-black stone bath, marble walls and matching robes hanging on the wall, you don’t expect to also come face-to-face with tigers.
Except at Jamala Wildlife Lodge.
As rare white lions let out cheeky roars in close proximity and two Colobus monkeys fly across their enclosure that adjoins the main entrance, it’s like we’re deep in the jungles of Africa.
In fact, we’re only an eight-minute drive from Australia’s capital city Canberra, at an envy-inducing African zoo experience that can only be beaten by travelling to the land of the Sahara.
We leave our bags with the friendly staff at uShaka Lodge – formerly the residence of owners Richard and Maureen Tindale – where a marvellous high-ceiling loft is chock-full of original artefacts, and farmed buffalo horn lamps sit cheek by jowl with a gigantic shark-filled aquarium.
Let the 22-hour African zoo adventure begin.
A tale of two tigers
Earthy toned Chesterfield lounges, cane planters overflowing with lush greenery and jungle animal statues fill the lounge where we gather to graze on the smorgasbord of delightful bite-sized sweets – the perfect fuel for an afternoon zoo tour.
But first, a cuddle with a cheetah cub.
About 20 guests flock to meet hand-reared Solo, a one-year-old cheetah who was the only cub born in his litter, and his best friend Zama, a border collie cross Belgian Malinois. We are among the lucky few who get to pat Solo (“softly, not like a dog”) as he posed for photos.
One hour in, and our day has already been made.
Following a tour of the zoo, we are escorted to our luxury suites to meet our roommates for the night. At the uShaka Lodge you have the Lemur Room, Wild Encounter Room and Reef Room.
Jamala also boasts Giraffe Treehouses, with resident giraffe Hummer in your backyard, and Jungle Bungalows, with a sun bear, lion or tiger as your neighbour.
Seven-year-old tiger brothers Ravi and Baru greet us as soon as we open the door to our jungle oasis. It is a surreal moment. A floor-to-ceiling glass wall is all that separates us from the boys sunbaking in the open. The proximity allows us to truly appreciate their incredible size.
Whether relaxing in a bubble bath two metres away from the big cats or watching them play fight, while feeling their growls vibrate through the floor, there is absolutely no time for the complimentary Foxtel.
After hours of savouring the majestic presence of our roommates, we are off to dinner in the rainforest cave with two rare white lions (Jake and Mishka) and two hyenas. That’s right – dinner with lions.
As a fairy floss pink sunset lingers above the zoo’s tree canopy, we relax on the deck with a flute of Möet in one hand and a delicious oyster in the other.
That is, until Jake and Mishka make a breathtaking, show-stopping entrance.
Just a few metal bars separate us from the rare white lions, who were flown to Australia from Cape Town, South Africa, on a private jet 10 years ago.
Ryan, the Tindales’ son, handfeeds them pieces of raw meat through the fence. Ah, did we mention it is with his bare fingers? “I’ve been doing this for 20 years and haven’t lost a finger yet,” he quips as we look on in awe.
Mishka and Jake may lead a First World lifestyle, but the endangered animals are among the only 200 white lions left in the world, reminding us that conservation and education are at the forefront of Jamala.
This dedication is visible in every one of the 140 full-time staff members in attendance, from reception and tours to the three-course fine dining meals.
The dining room offers an abundance of soft-shell crab and avocado mousse, wagyu beef sosatie, Jamala tea-cured salmon with dill cream, Beluga caviar, prosciutto-wrapped chicken ballotine and pebble cake.
The lions put in the occasional appearance just metres away from our meal, their activity made all the more entertaining as we see the hyenas eyeing them from a neighbouring den.
The trip back to our Jungle Bungalow is almost as magical as dinner. There’s something enchanting, and slightly unsanctioned, about driving through an empty, pitch-black zoo with roaring lions and growling tigers reminding us of where we are.
Relaxing in a white robe and slippers as Ravi and Baru prowl their super-sized enclosure while the sun rises could convert anyone into a morning person. Sadly, we can’t laze about all day – we have animals to meet.
Following a hearty breakfast with lions and sleep-drunk hyenas for company, we embark on our second zoo tour. This time, we feed antelope, gawk at giraffes and pat a rhino – think very tough, rubbery old shoes.
For some guests, the tour marks the official conclusion to the 22-hour adventure; for others, an incredible morning of optional animal encounters (feeding a sun bear, white lion, red panda or giraffe) lies ahead.
Sitting on a log as a family of 12 curious meerkats jump all over us, chirruping and scrambling for fly pupae the zookeepers throw on our towel-covered knees, is an amazing experience.
Although we have to keep our hands under the towel in case the mischievous animals decide to nip them (because they like the reaction), we could pat the father meerkat “at our own risk”.
The nimble little critters are laugh-until-your-face-hurts amusing – even when they start bickering on our knees, barking and pushing their siblings out of the way for more food. Can’t we all relate?
In chunky gumboots (to protect toes from cheeky bites) we leave the meerkat enclosure, watching every step, and head to our awaiting chauffeured buggy to feed Ravi and Baru.
Using just a pair of metal tongs, we feed the boys chunks of horse meat over the tall fence.
As we hold the steak above our heads they jump up and show their tummies as they rest their paws against the fence, giving us the precious opportunity to pat the insides of their paws with our bare hands.
Nothing quite compares to a breathtaking zoo-venture at Jamala.