The beautiful creatures at Jamala Wildlife are the epicentre of a conservation organisation where special animal encounters happen every moment.
Our guide drops my partner and I off at our jungle bungalow, tucked away in the lush gardens of the National Zoo & Aquarium. It’s hard to believe we’re only 10 minutes from Canberra‘s city centre. She explains that the Sumatran tigers we are sharing our villa with are not tame and have free rein of their large domain. As a result, she can’t guarantee how close they will come to our lounge room and bathroom. “That’s okay,” I say. “We’ll just be pleased to see them!”
Our first Jamala wildlife encounter
We enter our African-style suite and spend our initial moments gasping at the beautiful bed, the original African artefacts and paintings adorning the walls, and the enormous stone bath. And then we both do a double take as we realise that ‘our’ two giant cats – 18-month-old sisters Melati and Mya – are giving one another a big cuddle on the other side of the bath, a hand’s reach away from us.
We’re both dumbstruck at first, the iPhones so ready for photos held limply in our hands. Then we regain our composure and sit on the floor next to them as they roll about, huge paws batting one another like kittens at play.
It’s worth noting that an 18-month-old Sumatran tiger is not small. The two cats rolling around before us are three times the size of me and weigh in at 90 kilograms. I’m thankful for the 5cm-thick glass between us, although you can’t tell it’s there in our photos. As soon as we post one, Instagram goes mad and the questions flood in:
“Are you sitting next to real tigers?!” “What, are they tame?!” “Is this a trick!?”
Nope, we are at Jamala Wildlife Lodge and in this magical niche of Canberra (“What, are you in Canberra?!” posts another friend. “I thought you were in Africa!”), guests can stay in a range of beautiful rooms and suites that offer up-close-and-personal animal encounters.
Room types at Jamala Wildlife Lodge
In the Jungle Bungalows, you can hang out with larger inhabitants such as sun bears, white lions, cheetahs and tigers. Another type of offering are the Giraffe Treehouses. Here, the adorably gangly creatures wander past your veranda and pop their heads in around breakfast time. Watch your salad.
There’s also the room above the lion enclosure, next to the zoo’s beautiful infinity pool. It has a glass wall looking in on the ever-effervescent and completely cheeky lemurs.
Up-close animal encounters
We tour the zoo and choose another close-up encounter, opting to feed the lions with a long set of tongs. It’s incredible seeing such majestic, powerful yet elegant creatures up close. They take the food from us almost as a gentle dog would. “Don’t be fooled,” says our guide. “If there was no fence that would be a different story!”
Guests can also choose to feed the sun bears blueberries. They plonk themselves on their bottoms to enjoy the nutrient-rich feast. One of the first things you notice is their incredibly long and sharp nails. “Those nails can break off parts off a bowling ball,” says a guide as we walk past another group revelling in the action.
Home and hope for Jamala’s animals
The animals at Jamala Wildlife Lodge came to reside here under varying circumstances. Some were saved from dire lives and conditions, while others were bred in captivity to help their species’ survival.
One of the many projects that tugs the heartstrings is the memorial set up in honour of Winnie the wombat. At 32, Winnie was the oldest resident of the zoo and believed to be the oldest wombat in the world. (They’re only supposed to live until around 10-15 years in the wild and 25 in captivity.) Winnie’s Foundation was established to assist in conservation, with a focus on sarcoptic mange in regional wombat populations.
Visitors also love meeting young Cheetah Solo, who is a rare solo-born cub. Mothers find it hard to produce milk and don’t stick around for long. Thus, Solo was hand-reared on a bottle by keepers Kyle Macdonald and Aline IJsselmuiden. When he was a month old, he was introduced to his canine friend Zama; a border collie cross. Zama’s high energy levels made her the perfect choice for keeping up with the fastest animal in the world. Now, even though Zama is smaller than Solo, Zama is boss. The two are best friends as well as, understandably, a super-cute star attraction.
A truly wild dining experience
Another amazing experience at Jamala Lodge is joining other guests for outstanding canapés (pace yourself!) on an open-air deck, then being seated at long share tables for a truly delectable African-inspired four-course dinner either next to the sharks in the aquarium, or in the Rainforest Cave where white lions – twins Jake and Mishka – come to hang out with you in their part of the cave, which has a heated floor.
If you’re lucky, both the hyenas and the lions will be up and about so you can pose next to them for photos. The lions often sit by the head of the tables acting, as they should, like kings of the jungle, while the hyenas look on from their cave, eyes bright, salivating over the thought of a very large dinner.
Conservation efforts at Jamala Wildlife Lodge
In 1998, owners Richard and Maureen Tindale – both passionate wildlife conservationists – set about building this incredibly well-considered zoo. Their aim was to grant the animals as much freedom and comfort as possible. The enclosure sizes are far larger than those commonly found in urban zoos. Today, most of the Tindales’ immediate family also work at the zoo. They run the tours as well as many of the husbandry and welfare programs that uphold world’s best practices. The opening of Jamala Wildlife Lodge in 2014 was a major step towards supporting the conservation initiatives run by the team. Jamala has been showered with so many awards and accolades that it’s hard to fit them all on one page. Just in the past year, TripAdvisor has bestowed its Certificate of Excellence for 2019, and the AHA ACT chose the lodge as the Best Deluxe Accommodation 2019.
Many people enjoy the intimate experiences offered at Jamala as a couple. However, families are also welcomed once a month on a chosen day and night. Kids are allowed to stay in the lodge, but not in the jungle bungalows with large carnivores, due to safety issues. In fact, Holidays with Kids voted it as a Top 3 Family Resort 2019. “The larger animals see the kids as prey rather than guests,” explained our guide. “But they love coming to see the rest of the zoo and our bigger residents at a good distance.”
Working with the National Zoo & Aquarium
Jamala receives support from N.Z.A.C.T, a volunteer organisation connected to the National Zoo & Aquarium and PACT, (Positive Actions Conservation Team). These three organisations work together to save some of the worlds most endangered species from extinction. The National Zoo & Aquarium has been able to donate to many worthy causes over the past three years such as:
Free the Bears: $40,000
TRAFFIC – $30,000
Cheetah Conservation Fund – $20,000
Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program – $20,000
Painted Dog Conservation – $20,000
Snow Leopard Trust – $10,000
Red Panda Network – $10,000
Wildcats Conservation – $10,000
Save the Devil Appeal – $10,000
RSPCA ACT – $15,000
Madagascar Fauna and Flora Group – $7500
Australian Marine Conservation Society – $5950
Koala Hospital, Port Macquarie – $6000
Mulligans Flat – $5000
Turtle Conservancy – $5000
ACT Wildlife – $5000
You can find out more about experiencing Jamala Wildlife Lodge for yourself by visiting their website.