Water drips off the fan-shaped Chusan palm leaves onto the covered veranda of our colourful wooden hut. It’s not the blue-sky evening we were anticipating, here in the Gir National Park, but still: rainy season is not without its own charms.
All around our damp enclosure, metres away from the king of the jungle (and his three ladies), birds squawk, flamingos honk, macaws scream. And the rain pours heavier; it’s now almost a monsoon. But we sit it out, on the veranda, appreciating how still the surroundings feel, how bucolic. Only the siren of an ambulance beyond the boundary reminds us that, actually, we’re in central London.
The Gir Lion Lodge is one of those experiences that’s so unusual it stays with you on a deeper level than a more traditional night away. Hidden within the convincing and expansive Land of the Lions exhibit, which opened last year in ZSL London Zoo, it allows a nightly changing group of visitors to bed down in one of nine simple lodges inspired by those in the lions’ native Gir Forest.“It’s actually the Zoo’s first immersive experience,” says Kerri, one of a handful of very knowledgeable guides, as we stand, welcome glass of prosecco in hand, in the fastidious recreation of an Indian village, complete with bunting, train station and even a mock barber shop.
We stroll past tuk tuks, vintage-style bikes, exotic fruit stalls, garish posters, murals and painted slogans. The idea is, by means of crafts stalls and railway tracks, we’re transported to Gir to get closer than ever before to the residing Asiatic lions, of which the zoo has four of the 500 that still exist in the world.
And it’s not just a gimmicky 3D exhibit: ZSL is actually working with the Wildlife Institute of India and Gujarat Forest Department to safeguard the Asiatic lions, by training veterinary teams and working with forest rangers to establish effective patrolling systems.It’s still raining. We set off up the creaky overhead walkways – a little like the set of an Indiana Jones movie – via the station’s guard hut, observing a huddle of mongoose snuggling up against the wet. We reach a crumbling temple clearing, home to cheeky (and in India revered) langur monkeys, and the 180-degree viewing area over the lion enclosure.
“Surely this is the start of a disaster movie,” whispers my partner, pulling a face. He’s right: after all, the zoo is closed, and we are its only human inhabitants. Something inevitably will go wrong?But this fleeting sense of doom is quelled by an unbridled sense of tranquility; in fact, all the cares in our outside lives soon go out the window, aided and abetted by the good-natured flow of anecdotes and fascinating facts from our guides.
As we wander round the empty zoo, dusk falling, we learn that Bhanu, the male lion, likes to sleep on a heated rock. We learn that otters enjoying holding hands. We learn that pygmy hippos, nocturnal to the core, windmill their poo around to mark their spot. And that porcupines pee on each other before mating. The next morning, we’re told that Komodo dragons are sometimes incestuous, and that tigers do a polite sneeze, known as chuffing, when you meet them. (Not, alas, witnessed by us).It’s also a relief to learn that, due to modern conservation beliefs, many of the original enclosures are no longer deemed fit to keep the animals they were built for: so, the Grade 1-listed deco Penguin Pool, the Rhino House and Bear Mountain are all now either standing empty (in the case of the pool) or used for smaller animals who relish the space. Rhinos and bears are now in the much larger Whipsnade.
On our two evening tours – the latter pitch-black by torchlight – we also get to feed a few of the lovable beasties. Chunks of sweet potato, parsnip and carrots are flung by eager adult hands into the den of two lively mother-and-daughter warthogs, who each pursue the veg they enjoy best (tip: it’s all about the sweet potato).
But it’s the two aardvarks who inspire the most fascination as we liberally chuck boxes of live insects into their manor. “It’s not their main meal,” says the guide, sweetly, “it’s more like having cheese and biscuits after dinner.” We collectively cringe, however, as the younger male aardvark is feeling rather horny – although his female mate is having none of it. Well, it’s after 10pm and she probably wants to relax with First Dates.
In between the crepuscular walks, we gobble our own supper in the banqueting suite above the canteen. Dinner is candlelit and sociable: games are played, so be prepared to join in, and the food is a buffet: tender chicken provençal, its skin crispy, with accompanying al dente vegetables. We pile our plates with vegetarian options too – chargrilled squash, broccoli and chickpeas. Chocolate brownies and cheese come after.It’s about 10:30pm when we return to our lodges, with their murals, simple white linen and smart en-suite bathrooms. There’s no telly or wifi of course: that would kill the vibes. So we hit the sack early, and at some point in the night, I lie awake, waiting for the throaty matinal roar of Bhanu or the honk of the flamingos. I also wonder what the guard is thinking: after all, he stands at the entrance to our compound all night, every night.
Sadly the big cats don’t wake us up in the morning, but that’s not to say there isn’t a dawn chorus: a forest-like song of birds emanates from about 4am, with the moans and groans of other unidentified animals from 5:30am. (Or maybe it’s just our immediate neighbours.)
After a cooked breakfast – and relatively early eviction from our cabins at 8am – we take a final tour of the zoo to see who’s awake before the general public are let in at 10am. Oh look, there’s Bhanu lounging on a wooden roof overlooking the river (although his ladies are still in absentia), while over at penguin beach it’s already riotous, with a diverse 75-strong loved-up community that, says the guide, includes a healthy mix of gay and straight couples. Cute.The highlight? A climactic trip to the subterranean kitchens to have a nosy at exactly how much food – of the £1 million food bill per year – is required to feed each mammal or primate. Their daily doses are chalked up clearly on blackboards to enable the many volunteers to get the portion sizing exactly right.
Muntjacs, for example, must be fed 400g leafy greens (but no lettuce), while dwarf mongoose prefer a heady mix of mice, whitebait, raw quail egg and locusts. We gasp as we’re shown the super-sized bucket required to feed each gorilla compared to the smaller ones for, say, a squirrel monkey. There’s even an outsize toothbrush (three feet long) to clean the hippos’ molars. Insta-gold!
It’s time to leave. The big question is: with the cost from £438 per couple, is it value for money? I would argue yes: not only because it puts money back into ZSL and worldwide conservation, but also because there’s nowhere more unique – and therefore memorable – to stay in London. It’s a true once-in-a-lifetime thang.
The only thing I’d have liked? A little longer to lounge on the veranda, mug in hand, watching the raindrops glisten on the leaves of those Chusan palms.