For a really wild sleepover, try Gir Lion Lodge at ZSL London Zoo. Emma Brisdion reveals what it's like to spend the night next to a pride of Asiatic lions
‘Welcome to Gir National Park’ reads a sign marking the entrance of Land of the Lions, ZSL London Zoo’s newest exhibit. Stepping through the stone archway feels like arriving in another continent, and with good reason. London’s very own slice of India is modeled after the real Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary in Gujarat.
A tuktuk guards the gate as bright flags ripple in the breeze. A rural Indian village waits around a corner and all walls are decorated in colourful hand-painted murals. At ground level, glass walls allow children of any age to stand in full-view of the lions without the need of a piggyback. The path snakes gently up around the back of the enclosure, where holes in the walls allow little faces a birds-eye peek into the secret spots reserved for afternoon naps. But the ultimate big cat experience begins when the zoo closes to the public; Land of the Lions has room for guests to spend the night.
We meet on the Terrace Restaurant balcony. Soft drinks, colouring sheets and a trivia quiz with the friendly lodge hosts entertain children while parents enjoy a welcome glass of bubbly. A tannoy announces the park’s closure and the public migrates towards the exit, leaving us alone in the park. The strange grunts and rustles of the zoo’s inhabitants seem magnified without the crowds.
The cluster of wooden ‘Gir Lion Lodges’ sits just a few feet from the lion enclosure. Each hut boasts a double bed (or two singles), a sofa bed that can accommodate two children, en suites with sink, toilet and shower, and tea and coffee-making facilities. Private verandahs and a communal lawn give the children space to roam in the short moments between the evening’s events – far more than just an adventurous sleepover, as guests we’ll enjoy exclusive after-hours tours.
The zoo is home to four Asiatic lions. Rubi, Heidi and Indi are sisters, born and hand-reared here, while the male, Bhanu, has come from a zoo in Winnipeg. Grasses and trees sprout up across the hilly, landscaped enclosure and raised platforms of bamboo create shade and provide sunbathing decks.
One of Bhanu’s favourite hangouts is an area designed like a train station – in India, trains passing through the Gir Forest are often delayed by lions snoozing on the tracks. Here we hear about ZSL’s conservation efforts in India. Children learn that only 500 Asiatic lions remain in the wild and listen eagerly to tales of vets working to rehabilitate and protect the endangered population.
We watch the pride for some time. Even the children, bursting with energy moments ago, fall quiet, mesmerised. The lionesses are content, stretched out under a tree. One rises, glances in our direction and pads over to a platform. Effortlessly, she leaps six feet up, showing off her size and power. She might be magnificent, but on her hind legs, she dwarfs us and we’re grateful for the glass.
A buffet dinner follows and as young attention spans begin to wane, tee shirts and pens appear for the children to design commemorative shirts. Some trace outlines of their favourite animals (the lions feature heavily) while others opt for ‘Keep calm and save the rainforest’ slogans.
Once our tribe’s appetites are satisfied, it's feeding time for the animals. The staff make every activity interactive and get all ages (even the adults) involved. We build aardvark ‘enrichment toys’ and faces all around squirm with delight and disgust as the keeper produces a bag of live maggots and crickets. The wriggling creepy crawlies are hidden inside cardboard boxes, encouraging the aardvark to forage for his dinner.
The activities continue until 10pm and require plenty of walking, so while the zoo is pushchair-friendly, the overnight experience is only open to children aged over five. We return to the lodges as dusk falls. While board games are available, by now children are worn out and it’s time for bed. One of the lions wakes us at dawn with a deep, guttural roar. Excitement fills each cabin as bleary eyes open. Flamingos screech, scarlet macaws squawk and, until we climb out of bed and the pigeons add to the birdsong, it is hard to believe we are in central London.
The lions pace silently around the enclosure perimeter. ‘They’re checking their territory as they would in the wild’ the keeper tells us. We visit the zoo’s other big cats, two Sumatran tigers, and meet the tamarind monkeys before the gates open and our private paradise fills with others.
Our behind-the- scenes escapades were a privilege, but the family fun doesn’t have to end yet. The price includes day tickets, so we can still wear our new tee shirts to watch the gorillas and walk through the lemur enclosure before we roar one last farewell to the lions.