Wondering where to stay when you next visit London? London Zoo just made your decision a bit easier. Forget glitzy hotels in Covent Garden or banged-up hostels in King’s Cross, you can now book a night at London’s first ever lion safari lodge. Rough Guides editor Greg Dickinson slept over in London Zoo’s brand new Land of the Lions enclosure, and lived to tell the tale.
What’s that? You can sleep with the lions in London?
You heard me right. In May 2016 ZSL London Zoo opened up the Gir Lion Lodge; its nine brightly coloured, wood-panelled cabins are just metres away from a pack of Asiatic lions. Safe to say these big cats offer the city’s most unique “wake up call” with their guttural early morning roars.
Why is it called the Gir Lion Lodge?
This national park is home to the last five hundred Asiatic lions in the wild. They’re slightly smaller than their African cousins, with a shorter mane and a long fold of skin running along their bellies, and in the Land of the Lions enclosure you can get an up-close look at them lounging about. There’s a small pride here: females Heidi, Indi and Rubi, and male Bhanu.
The whole enclosure is set in a wonderfully detailed recreation of an Indian village, decorated with over one thousand props shipped over to London. The attention to detail is quite something: expect a heavily laden crate truck (instructing “Drive Slow for Lions”), leaning rickshaws, a chai stall, and a ticket office overrun by mongooses. One sign reads “Attention Builders: Monkey Bites will Slow Your Work”.
By Greg Dickinson
Sounds like fun, but is it more for kids than adults?
Not at all. There are a mix of family nights and adult-only nights, so couples needn’t worry about their romantic night at the zoo being ruined by a load of feral kids (and feral kids needn’t worry about their night at the zoo being ruined by boring romantic couples).
Do you get to explore other parts of the zoo?
Too right you do. After settling into your lodge one of the zookeepers will take you on an early evening guided tour of the Africa section. Before Instagramming the high-alert meerkats, pungent pygmy hippos and scuttling lemurs, take a moment to reflect on the peace and quiet of the zoo around you. It’s hard to believe that just an hour before it swelled with thousands of visitors.
It’s also a real treat to have the knowledgeable guides all to yourselves, and they offer a rare opportunity to feed the animals. There’s something strangely satisfying about lobbing a fistful of chopped vegetables into the warthog enclosure and watching them loudly snuffle them up. (And repeat.)
© ZSL London Zoo
If you get hungry do you have to fight for food with the lions?
Fortunately not (unless you like raw horse or bunny meat, and have a desire to be mauled). The evening includes a two-course meal on a long, candlelit table with your fellow guests. The setup is informal and pleasingly ungimmicky (no “sounds of the jungle” CD here), with self-service pans of chicken Provençal, roast lamb, and grilled squash and chickpea stew, plus all the trimmings. A feast to prepare you for a torch-lit tour of the zoo that follows…
What exactly happens after dark?
Probably the most memorable part of the whole Gir Lodge experience is the torch-lit safari. While ambling about the zoo, bats darting overhead and monkeys hoe-hoeing from the shadows, you might begin to fool yourself that you are in some tropical land thousands of miles away (that is, until you’re jolted back to reality by the sound of a nearby siren whizzing by).
The night wander brings a chance to visit some of the zoo’s nocturnal beasts; the star of the show being Misha the aardvark. You’ll visit her at feeding time and, for the less squeamish visitors, the keepers will instruct you to take a fistful of grasshoppers and maggots and prepare her dinner in a toilet roll tube stuffed with straw. No chicken Provençal for Misha.
© Dinko G Kyuchukov/Shutterstock
This is starting to sound a bit like Night at the Museum…
It is exactly like Night at the Museum.
What are the lodges like?
There are nine cabins in total, each named after an animal found in Gir National Park (parakeet, songbird, etc). They all have a double or twin beds and a pull-out sofa bed for little ones, plus an en-suite. A bit like a real-life safari lodge, but without the mosquitoes.
How much does it cost?
The whole experience costs £378 for a couple, with additional kids costing £50. The price includes a two-course meal, brekkie, three ‘out-of-hours’ tours of the zoo, and entry to the zoo on both days. Not cheap, but worth remembering it would normally cost £135 for two adults and two kids to spend a couple of days at the zoo, not including your lunch…
At night, leave your window open and enjoy the orchestra of the zoo. During mating season the nearby flamingos squawk friskily through the night, and the resident langur monkeys hoot and holler in the morning. At some point during the night you’ll likely hear the odd distant sound that leaves you wondering if it’s a snoring neighbour or the call of some exotic nocturnal beast, stirring just hundreds of metres from where you lie.
Top image © Arka Mukherjee/Shutterstock