A zoo experience with a $1,000 price tag is getting rave reviews


How much are you willing to pay for a ticket to the local zoo? Say $25, maybe $35? A one-day pass to the San Diego Zoo, the most expensive — and largely considered the best zoo in the U.S. — charges $58 (before discounts).

So how does Canberra, Australia’s National Zoo & Aquarium get visitors through the door with a four-figure fee?

A room with a view at Jamala Wildlife Lodge.

Courtesy of Jamala Wildlife Lodge

For starters, the cost of admission comes with an invitation to stay the night.

Sleeping alongside lions, cheetahs and sun bears

Travelers willing to part with nearly U.S. $1,500 for a one-night stay usually expect a high degree of certainty with their bookings. But those reserving a Jungle Bungalow at Canberra’s Jamala Wildlife Lodge — located within the zoo — won’t get that.

The chance to sleep alongside lions, cheetahs, tigers or Malayan sun bears is worth the gamble. Guests in the property’s five premium rooms can rank their top three animals upon booking, but aren’t told which ones they’ll be snoozing nearby until their arrival.

Sun bears are found in the forests of Southeast Asia.

Courtesy of Jamala Wildlife Lodge

Luckily, humans are diverse creatures. Many guests at Jamala are big cat fans (apparently tiger tattoos are more common than you’d think), though plenty of others are highly enamoured with the world’s tallest living terrestrial animals too.

That’s why guests are willing to shell out $1,070 for one of six Giraffe Treehouses, which include the chance to feed the animals from the treehouse veranda.

From aquarium to luxury boutique hotel

Designing an African safari experience in the middle of a zoo in Australia’s capital city didn’t feature in the original plans of Richard and Maureen Tindale, the owners of Canberra’s 47-acre privately-owned zoo.

In 1998, when the pair took over what was then a run-down aquarium, their focus was primarily on achieving the world’s best practices in animal husbandry and welfare.

Guests staying in a Giraffe Treehouse can feed the animals from their rooms.

Courtesy of Jamala Wildlife Lodge

Over the years, they worked with other Australian zoos to establish breeding programs, support conservation groups like Free the Bears and the Cheetah Conservation Fund, and take in animals like Malayan sun bears, which narrowly avoid being made into the cruel delicacy that is bear paw soup.

In time, they realized funding their ambitions on turnstile takings alone wasn’t going to be enough, so in 2014 the pair turned a shared passion for Africa into a way to make their conservation efforts financially sustainable.

The couple moved out of their house and turned it into Ushaka Lodge, which now hosts seven of the 18 luxurious sleeping options at Jamala Wildlife Lodge.

An African experience in Australia

The formula worked. Today, Jamala runs at 85% to 90% occupancy and gets rave reviews, with many guests returning more than once.

African fabrics, materials and sculptures decorate Jamala Wildlife Lodge.

Courtesy of Jamala Wildlife Lodge

It’s hard to know if that’s due to the focus on high-end dining (the evening African dinner party included in every stay which spans five courses), Maureen’s designer touches — authentic African fabrics, materials and sculptures decorate the property — or the animal encounters themselves.

But by pre-dinner drinks, many guests are spouting platitudes about the experience despite being only five hours into the 22-hour program.

How long to stay: 1 night or forever

So deep is the passion for the experience that for some visitors, 22 hours isn’t enough. While most do the one-night program, a number stay for two or three nights.

“The record was a woman who stayed five nights,” says Amanda Mead, Jamala’s lodge manager. “She was like family by the end.”

While many visitors come to Jamala for an anniversary, milestone birthday or bucket list experience, it’s likely few will repeat Mead’s own actions. Four years ago, she and her husband arrived for one night to celebrate their anniversary. Four weeks later, she quit her job of 16 years and began working as the lodge manager.

Meerkats are steps away from your room.

Courtesy of Jamala Wildlife Lodge

Mead was largely driven by the passion for animals that exudes from guests, staff members and her bosses, who are very hands-on in the operations of both the zoo and the lodge.

For her, the feeling of being part of something unique never gets old.

“People who have been to Africa often tell us this experience is just like being there,” she says. “That’s the best compliment of all.”

The price includes:
Accommodations for two people, food, beverages and exclusive tours. Room choices and specific experiences are not guaranteed, as Jamala’s animals are enticed, but never forced to participate (backup plans abound which satisfy most guests).

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