An Overnight Safari at Jamala Wildlife Lodge

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Jan 10, 2016

by DI WEBSTER, Managing Editor

Where in Canberra can you witness Machiavellian mischief, battles over turf, a lot of roaring and unexpected alliances? Jamala Wildlife Lodge, of course. (Where were you thinking?)

There’s a cheetah staring at me. His enormous, high-set brown eyes are rimmed with black that drops in perfectly symmetrical tear lines down his face. He is so close, I can see individual hairs on his sleek frame glistening in the sun. I’ve stopped breathing but it’s not fear; it’s overwhelming awe.

I’ve just checked in to bungalow 5 at Jamala Wildlife Lodge on the outskirts of Canberra in the ACT. My villa is adjacent to the cheetah habitat, with nothing but floor-to-ceiling glass separating me from Jura, one of two big cats that variously occupy the 1500-square-metre enclosure. I’m still clutching my bags, mouthing, “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God” when Jura turns away, languidly scans the landscape and flops onto a bed of hay. Another day, another human.

Jamala Wildlife Lodge is the brainchild of former property developer and big-cat enthusiast Richard Tindale and his wife, Maureen. In 1998 they bought the National Wildlife and Aquarium Park, a tired and financially bereft operation on the banks of the Molonglo River in inner-city Yarralumla. The plan? To start a big-cat breeding program.

“When we travelled in the wild, we realised that very few big cats were going to survive,” says Tindale, who had journeyed to Nepal, India, Siberia, Mongolia, Alaska, Patagonia, South America and Africa to see them in their natural environment. Then, what started as a breeding project for big cats “branched into a mainstream zoo”, now known as the National Zoo & Aquarium.

With no government funding, the Tindales had to find a way to subsidise the zoo and breeding programs. They came up with Jamala, the first lodge of its kind in the world, where guests and wild animals “bond”, either by living in proximity or actually interacting under the supervision of zookeepers.

“There was an attitude 10 or 15 years ago that any contact with animals was unnatural,” says Tindale. The role of modern zoos, he believes, is to make people more aware of what’s happening in the wild. “When you get people to handfeed a lion or tiger, or meet one of the monkeys or a red panda, the impact it has on them, compared with reading a sign, is immense.” To Tindale’s way of thinking, impact equals awareness – and awareness equals donations to animal welfare causes.

I’m still reeling from my cheetah meeting when an alligator turns up at Reception. “This is Al,” offers Ria Callinan, the zookeeper nursing the undersized eight-year-old reptile, adding, somewhat unnecessarily: “Don’t touch his head.” Further inside uShaka Lodge, as guests sip tea near a wall of live sharks, two more zookeepers stroll through, wearing Frank the corn snake and Bernie the python like summer scarves.

“How long is Bernie?” asks a bespectacled little guest.

“Around 1.7 metres.”

“What’s Frank’s skin made of?”

“Keratin, like your hair and nails.”

And the zoo tour hasn’t even started. When it does, zookeepers divide guests into groups and, on this day, as clouds darken overhead, hand out disposable ponchos. We kick off our walk at an island of black-capped capuchins. These mischievous creatures are the slapstick comedians of the primate world so it’s ironic that smiling at them – specifically, showing your teeth – is a sign of aggression. Should you encounter a capuchin, tilt your head and screech. (You’re welcome.)

That fun fact is the first of many in a lively commentary deftly punctuated with conservation messages. “A tiger eats 40 kilos of meat in one sitting,” guide Jess Cartwright tells us while Rahni, a magnificent Sumatran tiger, strolls around her vast enclosure. Cartwright winks at a couple of boisterous little boys. “That’s the equivalent of two children.” They dissolve into giggles.

Cartwright then tells her rapt audience that tigers are endangered because the world’s appetite for palm oil has led to habitat loss. She says we can download an app, POI Palm Oil Barcode Scanner, which scans barcodes for the presence of the substance. In unison we retrieve our phones and tap in the details.

“Hey, kids, do you want to see a unicorn?” We’ve just pulled up at the southern white rhino enclosure in the zoo’s as-yet-unfinished open-range section. “Come on, Kifaru! Come on, Ubuntu! Come on, beautiful…” Cartwright calls out to the three lumbering ungulates like they’re puppies. As two of them sidle up to a fence, we’re encouraged to stroke and scratch their rough, rock-hard hides. “They love it,” she insists.

While the big cats are the main attraction here, over the course of two days we see bears and barking owls, peacocks and red pandas, monkeys and meerkats, and Humbekhali the giraffe. By law in Australia, zoo animals must be second-generation captive-bred. Wild-caught animals – even animals whose parents were wild-caught – are banned.

Exceptions are made only for animal welfare reasons. For instance, Otay, one of the zoo’s two sun bears, was bred in the wild but later captured and, tragically, kept in a cage in Cambodia for two years. Although she was rescued by the organisation Free the Bears, she could never be rehabilitated to the wild.

At the National Zoo & Aquarium the enclosures are considerably larger than those at regular urban zoos but smaller than, say, the open-plains zoo at Dubbo in the Central West of NSW. Making a profit from the accommodation means Tindale doesn’t have to compromise on animal enrichment. “Zoos can be profitable if that’s the way you design them,” he explains. The biggest complaint he gets is that people sometimes can’t see the animals “because we give them areas where they can hide”. He makes no apologies for that. “Animals have first priority around here. Then the staff then the public.”

Visitors to the zoo would never know it. For those lucky enough to stay overnight, uShaka Lodge – the African-themed main house – has stone walls, timber ceilings, rough-hewn cabinets, overstuffed leather sofas, rattan ceiling fans, zebra-print rugs and wooden carvings. It’s a lush theme replicated in the five-star uShaka Lodge suites, Jungle bungalows and Giraffe treehouses (where you can handfeed Humbekhali from your balcony).

The indulgence continues on the terrace of the main house, where we gather at sundown for pre-dinner drinks – Moët & Chandon Champagne and a Ten Minutes by Tractor pinot noir – followed by a delicious three-course meal in the Rainforest Cave. We access the stone-walled restaurant via the zoo’s aquarium and reptile displays – an experience that, without crowds, feels like a real-life Night at the Museum. As with most other experiences at Jamala Wildlife Lodge, the Tindales want to replicate an African safari so we eat at communal tables that get louder than a tree full of chimps as we swap stories (and smartphone photo libraries) detailing our animal encounters.

However we achieve it, Tindale hopes we leave Jamala Wildlife Lodge with a greater appreciation and awareness of the issues affecting animals in the wild. “The bonding that happens is remarkable,” he says. “We try to avoid all the dark and terrible tales but we also try to let people know there are lots of things they can do to help.”

While we’re standing on the terrace as twilight descends, Tindale’s point is driven home in the most unexpected way. As waitstaff hover with trays of drinks, two white lions – Jake and his sister, Mishka – pad into a section of the enclosure that fronts the terrace. Alhough I’m chatting happily to a fellow guest, the moment I see the lions I begin to weep. I’m confused. Embarrassed. Is it their unexpected size? Their breathtaking majesty? Or the fact that these awesome white lions are two of just 300 left on the planet – none of them in the wild. Whatever the explanation, I am brought undone. Where do I sign? 

Rooms at Jamala Wildlife Lodge start from $1000 a night (twin share), which includes accommodation, all meals, drinks (at dinner), zoo entry and tours. Go to jamalawildlifelodge.com.au.

Image: Jason Loucas