Thursday, June 30, 2016

63 photos and 8 things to tell you about sleeping overnight in Gir Lion Lodge at London Zoo's Land of the Lions exhibit

/ Simon Bull, web editor
Do you know you can take a safari holiday armed with nothing more than an Oyster card and overnight bag?
Yes, without going outside the M25 or remembering your passport, you really can travel to India for an exotic adventure among majestic wild animals.
The possibility first emerged a year ago when London Zoo announced plans for overnight accommodation in its Land of the Lions exhibit that was being built.
The new big cats enclosure opened earlier this year, followed last month by the Gir Lion Lodge that allows guests to spend a night sleeping a whisker away from the zoo's four lions and in close proximity to a flamboyance of flamingos.
I've been roaring to go on the experience since it was revealed so I was thrilled when my family and I got the chance to say that in the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lions sleep tonight ... like, maybe 100 yards from us. A-wimoweh, a-wimoweh.
Above are 63 photos you can flick through to see what the lion lodge is like and the other sights you can enjoy on a visit.
And below are eight highlights from a unique mini staycation that proved to be every bit as surreal and special as I had hoped.
Land of the Lions
To set the scene a little, the 2,500sqm exhibit is home to the awesome foursome of Asiatic lion Bhanu and lionesses Heidi, Indi and Rubi.
The cats are native to the Gir Forest in western India, and their enclosure is inspired by Sasan Gir, a village in that region where people and lions live as neighbours.
There is lots of authenticity in the landscape, including a temple clearing, well, railway station, guard hut and high street with its mock shops. And there are lots of other little touches, such as rickshaws, sacks of spices and even a sacred cow.
Located deep within is the lodge, a cluster of nine colourful cabins, each named after and decorated around the theme of an animal from the Gir Forest. We stayed in Flamingo Lodge.
Those lions …
Unfortunately, the male lion wasn't anywhere to be seen while we were there, but all three lionesses were on view at least once.
After we checked in around 5pm to have some welcome drinks with our guides and 20-or-so fellow guests, we got our first look around the enclosure – at this time the girls were keeping their distance.
But when we returned later at about 9.30pm they came much closer, with just the width of the glass separating us. Standing in a hushed enclosure as these beautiful creatures prowled past in the near dark was a special moment – probably the highlight of the whole trip.
There's other animals too
The lions are the main focus of the stay but we got to see many other inhabitants during three tours of the zoo, two that took place after-hours in the evening and one the following morning before it opened.
As well as helping out behind the scenes with enrichment and feeding with the pygmy hippos and warthogs, we also got to see some of the nocturnal animals like the aardvarks who don't show their faces much during daytime.
Tea on the veranda
The weather wasn't great when we were there but it was still a warm enough night to be able to enjoy a cuppa on our private balcony when we got back to our cabin at about 10pm.
Sat in this oasis of peace and quiet, with just the breeze and a bit of chatter from those flamingos breaking the silence, it was easy to forget for a while that we were still sat in the heart of London. India or Africa it wasn’t, but it was still blissful.
Our own zoo
It's hard not to feel privileged walking around an almost deserted zoo enjoying sights and sounds usually off-limits to visitors.
The overnight experience finished around 10am and we took advantage of the chance to remain in the zoo for the day – but our feeling of privilege was replaced by a sense of resentment towards the crowds of other people who were now in 'our zoo'!
Luxury might be a bit of a stretch but the accommodation is certainly plenty comfortable enough for the limited time anyone will spend in it. Like a small hotel room, our compact living space included a double bed for my wife and I along with a sofa bed for our daughter. Obviously tea and coffee were available, hence those drinks on the balcony. And there were en-suite bathroom facilities, with toiletries and towels provided.
I may have felt very cosy in bed but it still took a while to drift off to sleep – I kept remembering that not only was I in a zoo but double bizarrely I was technically within a lions' den – I never once felt unsafe but it was still a strange night!
Good eating
We weren't expecting much from the food at the zoo but we were impressed – and we ate very well. Evening dinner was a two-course buffet offering tasty lamb and chicken dishes with a surprisingly nice grilled squash vegetarian option. Breakfast had several choices including a full English to set us up nicely for the day of animal watching ahead.
Other people
The overnight stay is best for sociable people as you spend most of the time hanging out with the other guests. Not a problem for us as we were with a nice group of families.
Zoo staff could not have been better – our four guides, two in the evening in the two in the morning, along with our overnight host, were all helpful and friendly. It was very interesting hearing them speak about the different animals and life in the zoo.
A nice security guard was on patrol at the gate to the lion lodge – as much to stop people escaping into the zoo during the night as anything else. We always felt everything was run very professionally and safely.
Overall verdict
London Zoo firmly remains one of my favourite five places to visit in the capital, and the chance to stay there overnight so close to the lions just adds to the attraction.

No comments: