The Daily Telegraph - Travel
Sleep where the wild things are
At London Zoo, Sherelle Jacobs spends the night in a new Indian-themed lodge with lions, bats and pygmy hippos for company
Three pairs of brown, marbled eyes followed the trajectory of the flying chicken flesh. The bodies that the eyes belonged to bounded upwards into the full glare of the sun which illuminated the outline of their fur; bristles crackling white gold. Next came the lacerating scrapes of canine teeth on splintered bone. Breakfast time for the lions at London Zoo, in other words.
Outside the enclosure, the only notable sound was the dull grunt of the keeper as he chucked the chicken wings with the precision of a bowler in the England cricket squad. There were no hordes of cooing spectators, no clicking of camera phones, and no crush for the best views at the front. This is because it was eight o’clock in the morning and the zoo was closed; but, as overnight guests at London Zoo’s new Gir Lion Lodge, a select group of us had the freedom to roam.
The lodge, which opened this week, is open every night except Tuesdays until December 2016. The accommodation is located in the zoo’s Land of Lions, home to a small Asiatic pride: Bhanu, Heidi, Indi and Rubi. There are just 500 of these cats left in the world. Slightly smaller than their African counterparts, they have thicker manes, and mainly live in the Gir Forest National Park in Gujarat.
This helps explain the lodge’s exuberant Indian theme: the Gujarati music and the fluorescent burst of pink, yellow and orange paper flowers that adorn the entrance gate for the Land of the Lions set the festival-like tone. The space is modelled on an Indian town – complete with Hindu temple ruins that look like something from Indiana Jones, and a market square that glitters with flapping saris and jutti slipper stalls. The attention to detail is scrupulous – think “tint your mane” shampoo bottles in the mock barber shop, and hand-painted lions on the tuk-tuks dotted around.
At the centre of all this are nine sleeping huts, which are painted in colours such as burnt orange, lagoon green and azure blue. They have a Gujarati flavour to them: windows with exotic tapered arches, and frilly roof fascias. My “songbird” hut was small, with a narrow en-suite lavatory and shower, a bed, and a sofa (which converts to sleep up to two children). Decoration was limited to a mural of three blue birds, wings flecked with red and yellow, on one wall.
It was fascinating to behold a zoo closing for the night after we had dumped our luggage at the lodge. The dispersed chatter of the masses and the lilting anthem of the merry-go-round were soon replaced by the sighs of a deflating bouncy castle and the “wock wock wock” of parrots making their evening song. Bats replaced pigeons in the sky.
The Gir Lion Lodge experience includes a sunset tour and another by torchlight after the zoo shuts (with a two-course dinner in between). Guests get to feed animals that are rarely seen in the wild, and to observe them up close in an uncrowded setting without feeling rushed.
When we interacted with one of the zoo’s notoriously shy pygmy hippos, there was plenty of room for our group of six couples to stand right next to his enclosure in enthralled silence. I can’t remember how long I stood there admiring his brown-glazed skin that resembled tempered chocolate, and watching him eat hay with revolted fascination, as a milky spittle formed on both sides of his mouth.
It was a similar story when we visited the aardvarks to feed them their supper of live grasshoppers and maggots. Watching a creature bury