Our verdict on Jamala Wildlife Lodge

The Thirsty Travellers spent a night at Jamala Wildlife Lodge in Canberra recently, where we had the chance to observe an amazing array of African animals and enjoy delicious wines … sometimes both at the same time!

Jamala is a luxury lodge that allows you to stay overnight at the National Zoo. The room rate includes your accommodation in an African-inspired suite, all food and dinner beverages and exclusive tours.

There are three accommodation options: Ushaka Lodge, Giraffe Tree Houses and Jungle Bungalows. We stayed at the main Ushaka Lodge, which also houses the reception and dining areas and has a secret entrance to the zoo. Our well-appointed room – Wild Encounter Room 1 – looked out on a meerkat enclosure.

It was DJ’s second stay at the Lodge, he wanted to return after having a brilliant time there with his kids last year. They stayed in a meerkat room on the previous occasion and loved it.

I’m a huge meerkat fan, so I was thrilled to get the chance to privately observe them at close range.

Then we headed off to explore the zoo, which is beautiful. Here are just a few of the animal exhibits we saw:

The zoo was created in the late ’90s by a local Canberra family, who wanted to build a facility that housed animals in as comfortable surroundings as possible. As such, most of the enclosure sizes are far larger than found in other urban zoos and the husbandry and welfare are aimed at achieving world’s best practices.

Funds raised by Jamala Wildlife Lodge support the programs that are run by the zoo, such as its breeding programs.

The zoo is also famous for its two best animal friends – Solo the cheetah and Zama the cross Border Collie/Belgian Malinois.

Solo was a rare single-birth cub and his mother found it difficult to produce enough milk for him. So he was hand-raised by his keepers instead, which is where Zama came in.

Zama was specially selected because her collie genes give her the energy and determination to keep up with her friend, while her Malinois genes add to her ability to be an intelligent and loyal sidekick.

More than two years later, they’re still constant companions.

After taking ourselves on a self-guided tour of the zoo, we sat down to a gourmet three-course dinner – including a delicious rack of lamb – alongside a shark tank, sipping Moët & Chandon Brut Impérial Champagne and some fabulous Canberra wines.

The next morning we enjoyed a gourmet breakfast before being taken on a tour of the zoo by one of the staff, where we got to feed a few local inhabitants.

And then it was time to return to the real world.

So, what was our verdict on the experience? We had a great time, but it didn’t quite measure up to DJ’s previous visit, which included a cheetah encounter at afternoon tea, dinner with white lions and a chance to pat a rhino on the morning tour.

While some of the changes could be explained by COVID-19 restrictions, we felt they weren’t adequately explained by staff.

I decided to email Jamala to give some feedback our stay and offer suggestions on simple improvements that could be made, such as:

  • Introducing guests in the Wild Encounter Room 1 to the meerkats in the enclosure, giving them a bit of background on them and their habits, suggesting the best times of day to view them and other tips.
  • If the cheetah isn’t available for afternoon tea, perhaps another animal or reptile could drop by?
  • If guests won’t be dining with the white lions, perhaps let them know about alternative times they can see them. Two other guests arrived early and were lucky enough to see the lions being fed. If we had known that this was possible, we would have happily arrived early too. When we were taken downstairs later to see them, guests were quite raucous from the free-flow alcohol, so we couldn’t hear a word that the keeper was saying, plus the lions were asleep.
  • Include something unique in the morning tour that a normal visitor to the zoo wouldn’t see.

I noted in my letter that I understood that COVID-19 has been incredibly difficult for the hospitality and tourism industry and it must continue to be a tough time for Jamala. But I said that means it’s more important than ever that visitors give positive word-of-mouth recommendations to their friends and families.

Jamala Wildlife Lodge isn’t a budget destination. The cheapest suite costs more than $1000 a night, while a night in a giraffe treehouse room costs more than $1500. Australia is entering a tough economic period and people will be watching their wallets closely.

The manager eventually replied to my email, saying “please understand that while we accept that we don’t always get it right, it can sometimes be a misunderstanding on the guests part as well” … which I think was code for “we got it right and you misunderstood”.

She added: “While most people are understanding of the impact that COVID-19 has had on billions of people worldwide, some of those will still resent it impacting on them.”

I don’t think I need to tell you what that was code for …

But Jamala gets rave reviews on Trip Advisor, so perhaps our experience would have been different on another day.

If staying overnight at Jamala Wildlife Lodge is out of your price range, the National Zoo well worth the $47 (adult) admission price. Check it out next time you’re in Canberra.

Jamala Wildlife Lodge, National Zoo & Aquarium, 999 Lady Denman Drive, Canberra ACT

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