BIG CATS & other close encounters
Let’s face it, when you’re time poor, going on safari in Africa isn’t easy to fit in. That’s okay, as there’s an alternative in Australia’s capital.
WORDS: Michelle Hespe
Meet the local residents
A cheetah has course hair — its coat is like that of a cow or pig. That’s the first thing that crossed my mind after being led towards a cheetah, quietly kneeling, and giving her muscular haunches a stroke. She was having a good gnaw on a big meaty bone, so she wasn’t particularly interested in me, but my instincts were telling me to get ready to run if she turned my way. Even though I had no chance of getting away from an animal that can reach up to 120 kilometres an hour.
My ‘Meet a cheetah’ experience at The National Zoo & Aquarium in Canberra was just the beginning of something quite extraordinary. And if guests want to take close encounters with wildlife to another level, then they can also stay at the zoo’s luxuriously appointed Jamala Lodge, and literally sleep beside the animals.
At the lodge, after hours, the true magic unfolds. Heated floors in the Jungle Bungalows ensure that the resident Sumatran tiger, a pride of lions (nicknamed the Brat Pack) cheetahs, brown bears and a Malayan sun bear can take naps beside guests’ beds. Some stay all night for a slumber party. And it’s only a glass wall that separates man from beast. So take a bath, have a glass of wine in the beautifully decorated lounges, or snuggle up for a good night’s sleep beside some of the world’s biggest man-eaters.
But if having a lion roaring throughout the night by your bedside isn’t your thing, then perhaps a Giraffe Tree house is. The giraffes amble along their path that lies below the tree houses’ balconies so that guests can feed them a carrot or two and have them lean in for some afternoon company over a cup of tea. They’re certainly not shy.
For more spacious lodgings (including a family home-styled apartment) there’s Ushaka Lodge. It’s the original house where the owners of the zoo (Richard and Maureen Tindale) lived with their children as they were developing the privately owned surrounding zoo and aquarium. One enormous wall of the lodge’s living area looks in on the aquarium where a leopard shark, tawny nurse shark and a friendly gigantic groper mingle with other marine life. And the apartment has a door to a shark-feeding platform.
"Maureen, the kids and myself were animal lovers from an early age and all six kids have had a major impact on the development of the zoo and Jamala," says Tindale. "Three of them and a son-in-law are still the driving forces behind it. The original aim was to make a contribution to the alarming reduction of big cats in the wild," he says. "That has grown. My daughter Shelley Russell oversees the health and welfare of all the animals, and has been responsible for fundraising and awareness programs for a great number of endangered species."
All of the animals at the National Zoo & Aquarium in Canberra have stories of how they came to be in captivity. "I came across our white lions Jake and Mischka in an African zoo," says Richard. "Their enclosure was small and the zoo couldn’t afford to keep them. I spent a bit of time with them - they were 10 months old and drop-dead gorgeous, but as we had just agreed to take on six other white lions, the last thing we needed was a fourth lion enclosure. However, it was impossible for my wife Maureen and I to leave them there, so a few months later they were on a flight to Australia. Jake and Mischka have pretty flash surroundings compared to what they had in Africa – four dens with in-slab heating, a heavily vegetated enclosure with a moat, and they love being close to their neighbouring pride of lions, aka the Brat Pack."
Free to roam
The animals at the Tindales’ zoo could not be let loose in the wild, many having been rescued from other organisations where they were being mistreated (often for the entertainment of crowds like their beloved sun bear) or were living in cramped quarters. Others like Jake and Mischka are thought to be extinct in the wild and have been bred in captivity for generations.
However close your eyes at night while staying at Jamala, and there’s no sense of captivity. In fact, lying back in the luxurious suites with four-poster bed curtains draped around you, and with the roar of lions echoing across the land, it really does feels as though you could be somewhere in the middle of Africa.