Jamala Wildlife Lodge, National Zoo, Canberra: The lion sleeps with you tonight Jamala Wildlife Lodge, National Zoo, Canberra: The lion sleeps with you tonight Andrea Black Jan 18 2015 at 12:15 AM Bathing under the gaze of a lion is disconcerting, to say the least. I am taking a bath when I notice a pair of eyes fixed on me. Less than a metre away, a giant head bangs against the window, huge front paws propped on the sill. Our eyes meet, mine full of fear. It's opening week at Jamala Wildlife Lodge at Canberra's privately run National Zoo and I wonder, how thick is this glass? I look across the jungle bungalow where I am spending the night for an escape route, should this maned beast smash through the glass, all the while reassuring myself with titbits of lion-based information gleaned over the years. Didn't actress Tippi Hedren and daughter Melanie Griffith keep a lion in their California home? And wasn't Christian, the lion that was bought from Harrods and reintroduced to the wild in Africa, quite tame? Childhood memories came back of Mum and Dad driving the Volkswagen Beetle through the bleak and dusty Bullens Lion Park on Sydney's outskirts. Strict instructions were given: windows were to be kept firmly shut and doors locked. I remembered schoolyard tales of the man who dared to walk from his vehicle, only to be savaged by a pride, and the tamer who was turned upon. I have managed to slink out of the tub and one of the regal beasts emits a guttural roar. The other two - there are three at my window now - respond in kind. They're just curious; it's as new to them as it is to me. I'm immersed in their habitat, a spacious African-like savannah on the banks of the Molonglo River in Canberra. "We tried to pick up a little bit of Africa and drop it into Canberra," lodge owner Richard Tindale says. "The feeling and the atmosphere when you walk into the lounge areas and their rooms is that you're in an African game park." Tindale is talking about the uShaka Lodge, the seven-room main building of Jamala Wildlife Lodge. He, wife Maureen and six adult children - three of whom work at the zoo - are passionate about animal conservation, and Africa. The family bought the zoo in 1998 when it was little more than a rundown aquarium and petting zoo. They have just opened 18 luxury bungalows and treehouses decorated in African motif, including animal print accessories, mosaics and artworks. Lions are carved into wooden doors. The Tindales picked up a lot of furniture and pieces from years visiting Africa. They also commissioned a leading South African sculptor to fashion "the Big 5" that adorn the dining room known as the Cave. It is all part of a growing trend in Australia: overnight stays at zoos, from Sydney's Taronga Zoo glamping option to Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo's self-catered accommodation – with Jamala the first to offer hotel-style luxury. Jamala's uShaka Lodge was formerly the owner's residence. Here, the pick is the master suite on a private floor. It has two bedrooms and private access to the shark tank allowing guests to experience hand feeding. Outside, there's an infinity pool, spa and a terrace on which to relax on while the monkeys watch. The Giraffe Treehouses have a petting zoo full of alpacas in the frontyard. The main attraction, Hummer the giraffe, is still a little shy in his newly expanded environment, but keepers expect he will be greeting guests soon for balcony feeds. Those staying in the jungle bungalows can choose to spend the night - like me - with lions, or cheetahs, brown bears or Malaysian sun bears. Heated pads attract the animals to the den-like decks by the windows. At sundown, white lions and hyenas drop in on dinner for the Cave "animal in residence" program. They look on with sleepy indifference from the windowed room attached to their enclosures as guests feast on such South African delights as bobotie - a dish of spiced minced meat topped with a creamy layer of egg custard - and malva pudding. Like any overnight zoo stay, the primary objective is immersion. We are taken on two safari experiences with zookeepers Renee and Natalie. We stroke Bernice the Burmese python, pat dingoes and get slobbered on by Hummer the giraffe – it's good luck for a year we are told. In the morning, on the top paddock of the open-range zoo, we meet African hunting dogs, cheetahs and ring-tailed lemurs, feed carrots to elands and stroke a crash of rhinos. Jamala Wildlife Lodge is named after a beloved king cheetah that died at the age of four from renal failure. "We probably get a bit too close to some of the animals," says Tindale of Jamala's passing. "Jamala was a king cheetah - one of only 30. He used to come and lie on my chest." Tindale's love of big cats lured him away from a couple of lucrative businesses in the mid-1990s. He sold up and travelled the world to see animals in the wild. "I came to the conclusion that, other than Africa, the big cats are going to die out at some stage; there won't be too many left," he says. The Tindale family's original idea was to run a big-cat breeding facility, but when the aquarium and land around it came up for sale, a zoo evolved. They take in rescued animals from circuses and work with other zoos worldwide in an effort to conserve endangered species. As well as Jamala Wildlife Lodge, they offer wild animal encounters and a Zooventure Tour where, among other animal experiences, you can hand-feed a Sumatran tiger. Offering a range of accommodation from camping and self-catered accommodation to all-inclusive decked African-style lodging, zoo stays have upped the comfort stakes. Responding to public demand, at Taronga Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo, the Zoofari Lodge has recently undergone a $2.1 million redevelopment. Each of the 10 lodges features a double bath and a king-sized bed with sweeping views of giraffe, zebra and eland roaming the savannah. In September 2014, the zoo opened the fully equipped self-catered Savannah Cabins and there is also the family camping experience, Billabong Camp, which opened in 2013. The zoo recently won the award for unique accommodation at the NSW Tourism Awards. An overnight stay features a twilight tour at feeding time at the lion, cheetah and black rhino enclosures before heading back for fireside drinks and dinner. Come morning, a pushbike provides the perfect vehicle for viewing the zoo at your own pace. "We differ from other zoos, as we have a wide variety of accommodation options," Taronga Western Plains Zoo's accommodation manager, Penny Costello, says. "I see that people are looking for value and unique experiences in their travels, I think that we tick all the boxes when it comes to the diverse needs of travellers." Sydney's Taronga Zoo Roar and Snore could offer the best city views anywhere. It's a glamping option with purpose-built tents - named after different zoo animals - each with a double and single bed (with room for a second single). All linen is provided; eating areas and bathrooms are communal. After a buffet dinner, you hike through the zoo on a night safari to see the nocturnal animals and hear about the zoo's conservation projects. The morning not only brings sensational Sydney panoramic photo opportunities, but also two behind-the-scenes experiences with various animals. The Roar and Snore program began 10 years ago as a camping experience at the zoo's education centre. "It grew quickly into today's luxury camping experience," Libby Hodgson, Taronga Zoo manager, marketing and tourism, says. "We've been able to give people once-in-a-lifetime experiences that not only increases the visitors' knowledge and passion for wildlife, but also supports Taronga's work. Almost 80 per cent of Roar and Snore guests indicate they are going act more sustainably in future, from choosing sustainable seafood or using recycled paper." Hodgson says there is growing demand for more immersive and experiential activities in zoos. "Coupled with that is an increasing awareness and desire among families to ensure their children connect with nature and get to experience nature and wildlife." Knowing this, Taronga Zoo is expanding. It has just opened a treetop rope course called Wild Ropes encouraging young people to experience both the zoo and nature from a different perspective. Also new for children is the Backyard to Bush exhibit, where they can meet and touch guinea pigs and rabbits. And this year's Taronga's Twilight concerts are going international. Until March 21, the harbourside amphitheatre will host some of Australia's best bands, as well as international guests such as Belle and Sebastian and Rufus Wainwright. Elsewhere, Melbourne Zoo has just opened a $5 million Lion Gorge enclosure, where you can get so close you can feel the beasts' breath. In parts, designers have used glass and in others they have used strong mesh to separate the lions from the humans. Tindale agrees with zoos reinventing themselves to offer more varying and immersive experiences. "We have found that the closer people get, the more impact it has on them. Our Meet a Cheetah program has been so good because you take people who really didn't have much interest and, all of a sudden, they are passionate about it because of that experience," he says. "Here, it's a bit more hands-on; you can get closer to the animals." Not too close come bedtime, though. Back in my bungalow, securely tucked under the sheets in my canopied king-size bed, and assured by the Tindales that the safety glass is the best on the market, I am hoping the lion sleeps tonight. Luckily, the carved Maasai "watchful warrior" next to the bed is keeping me safe. I am happy come morning, though, that the night was filled with more roar than snore - a regular reminder I am in the same range, albeit with my own creature comforts, with the kings of the jungle.