Travel review: Sleeping with lions at London Zoo

Asiatic lioness, Indi

Asiatic lioness, Indi - Credit: Archant

Bridget Galton and family were enthralled by an overnight experience at London Zoo’s latest attraction the Gir Lion Lodges

Bridget's daughter at the zoo

Bridget's daughter at the zoo - Credit: Archant

I am used to the animal screeches and heady scent of Regent’s Park at dusk, but this evening was different.

Creeping back to our lodges through the darkened zoo, we experienced the kind of magical moment that lives long in the memory.

Opposite the picket gate to our accommodation, a lioness was staring us out through the transparent wall of her enclosure.

Getting so close to one of these majestic creatures makes your heart skip a little. You can almost touch the powerful muscles beneath her sleek coat, see the twitch of her whiskers, her every breath. Then she pads away into the darkness and is gone.

Gir Lion Lodges at London Zoo

Gir Lion Lodges at London Zoo - Credit: Archant

It was the highpoint of a busy evening that had kept both children and adults enthralled. Lucky enough to have snagged one of the first nights in London Zoo’s Gir Lion Lodges, we had spent the afternoon with the crowds enjoying the animals. But by 5pm we were installed in the sunny Terrace Restaurant with soft drinks for my sons and an ice cold prosecco for me.

Playing an animal-themed quiz, we watched as the last day visitors exited through the gift shop before our group of five families and two couples embarked on the first of our after-hours tours.

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Feeling privileged to be here with just the zookeepers, we headed over to the Africa section to feed the pygmy hippos.

Throughout your consumately planned experience you are in the care of a professional, enthusiastic and knowlegable group of guides who entertain the group with a constant stream of facts and activities.

How far can a kangaroo jump? How long is a blue whale? How does a pygmy hippo use its tail to spray its poo? All this we learned on our jaunt to feed the shiny-skinned hippo’s gaping maw with hay.

The zoo’s latest attraction is the Land of the Lions, styled around India’s Gir National Park where ZSL carries out vital conservation work.

There’s a booth selling Indian food, a high street, rail station, guard hut and overhead walkway,s all themed around this wildlife rich area of Gujurat where Asiatic lions roam. Here live three lionesses and a male lion (still being gradually introduced and so kept in a separate enclosure for now). We learned lots of fascinating lion facts before getting the keys to our wooden lodges. A little bigger than a beach hut, but more luxurious, there are two narrow beds with crisp white duvets, a small sofa bed that sleeps two children, a bathroom with shower and loo, and a terrace where you can sit and listen to the zoo’s evocative night sounds. Browsing the ‘about your room’ folder, in place of the usual hotel details about how to use the trouser press was a paragraph headlined: IN CASE OF ANIMAL ESCAPE (an alarm will sound, stay in your lodges).

For a second there is that frisson of remembrance that you are in a working zoo housing living breathing animals, but rest assured, not only is a security guard posted at the gate all night, our guides could not have been more careful about keeping both us and the animals safe; not allowing children to roam anywhere unaccompanied, staying quiet to avoid disturbing sleeping animals. No alcohol in the lodges.

Our evening meal at candelit tables next to the main restaurant was thoroughly pleasant. There was a bounteous buffet of lamb, chicken and veggie options, as well as cheese, bread and desserts, which the kids kept resupplying their plates from, before we enjoyed a T-shirt painting activity while the adults relaxed over a glass of wine. Children in our group ranged from five to my 11-year-old but they all bonded well, especially on our post dinner tour of the zoo’s nocturnal inhabitants. We visited owls, porcupines and best of all the aardvarks who usually slumber through the zoo’s opening hours.

These pointy-eared long-snouted creatures are incredibly busy by night. In a process called enrichment, the children stuffed old cereal boxes with meal worms and crickets and tossed them into the enclosure where they snuffled about inside for a tasty snack. Too soon we were heading back to our lodges and that encounter with the lioness. It had been such a busy evening that we were happy to have lights out by 10pm, and opted to keep our windows closed – enjoying a deep sleep undisturbed by animal calls.

At 7.30am the guides have you up and off to breakfast for another generous buffet and tours of the zoo before the masses arrive at 10am. There was a chance to see the penguins eat their fishy breakfast, to search for sloths and monkeys in the Rainforest Life exhibition, then a quick tour of Tiger Territory before we said goodbye. Tickets allow you to stay on for the day, or for a truly zoological weekend visit ZSL’s sister site at Whipsnade.

But we returned home, full of the wonder of our unusual night with the lions.