Australia’s most eccentric luxury lodge promises an African-styled safari adventure complete with your very own wild animal

If you’ve ever lived with a cat, you will know they don’t give two hoots (or a meow) about you (except at dinner time). They don’t care when you are happy to see them. They don’t care that you are watching their every hilarious, cute-when-they’re-hungry and downright rude move. They will not come closer when you call them. In fact, they will go out of their way not to look at you. It can feel as if you are not there at all.

Amplify that feeling by, ooh, say five times and you will come close to knowing what it feels like to share your living quarters with a cheetah.

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My first glimpse of Innes: he couldn’t care less. Photo credit Elisabeth Knowles

I am at Jamala Wildlife Lodge in Canberra, Australia’s newest luxury lodge and overnight zoo experience. I’ve just been shown my room – a beautiful open-plan studio with a four-poster bed, dark wooden African furniture and carved art, a big comfy lounge, a television set suspended from the ceiling and a bathroom with a huge, pebble-shaped freestanding bath. Oh, and wall-to-floor windows. Outside the window is a cat. A very big cat. A male cheetah, in fact, whose name is Innes.

My cheetah does not care when I sit down on the sofa to watch him as if he were on the TV that I don’t bother turning on. He doesn’t care that he scares the bejesus out of me the first time he comes quite close to the window. He doesn’t even look at me. Instead, this is what “my” cheetah does as I sit watching him from the couch: he paces the perimeter of his large enclosure nonstop, clockwise, following the same path each time and stopping every now and then to – there’s no polite way to say this, sorry – spray out his territory on posts and steel columns. Whenever a zoo-staffer on a golf cart passes on the other side of the fence, Innes, one of the fastest land animals in the world, trots along the fence line like he’s half-heartedly chasing a postman.

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Big cats: better than television. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

Even if you’re not a cat person, how could you not fall in love with a cat like that? Still, Innes doesn’t care a jot about me. In fact, the only noise he makes during my stay is an infrequent and noncommittal meh. Honestly: meh. He wouldn’t even care if I stripped off and took a bath as he lounges around in his bed of hay on the other side of the bathroom window. But I would care, and there are others who would care, too – members of the public, who can look through cutouts in the fence to watch Innes just as I am watching him now; zoo visitors who can look in on Innes’s enclosure, which is now my enclosure too. If I don’t roll down the blinds they can watch me get changed, brush my teeth, even use the toilet. If I don’t roll down the blinds at night, zookeepers could see me sleeping in the early morning as they come to feed Innes and muck out his bed. Not that zookeepers would care of course; I bet they’ve seen it all. It’s all very post-modern, this kind of holiday: this is what it feels like to be an animal in the zoo.

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I don’t want to leave my room when dinner time rolls around. I wonder what Innes will do while I am away. Happily, there are other animals to distract me. Over pre-dinner drinks, bulky-shouldered hyenas are fed raw chickens in front of Jamala’s guests and normally shy snow leopards wander up close to a nearby fence. But the pièce de résistance comes over dinner, when two huge white lions appear just metres away in a cave adjoining the dining room. Of course, because they are cats, they promptly turn their backs on us and go to sleep. The hyenas, however, must be able to smell our food because while we are feasting on a spicy and delicious African spread, they too enter a cave overlooking the dining room to sniff and grunt before disappearing from sight again.

There are 18 rooms at Jamala Wilderness Lodge, with most sharing a floor-to-ceiling window with an animal enclosure, so it makes for interesting dinner conversation. Even those who fear communal dining couldn’t resist asking: which animal did you get? There are rooms that share with a Malaysian sun bear or a tiger, lemurs, brown bears and a huge shark tank. There are “giraffe bungalows” that allow you to feed carrots to giraffes off your balcony over pre-dinner drinks. But perhaps the most jealousy-inducing room of all backs onto a lion enclosure, complete with mum and cubs and all the sounds of the jungle.

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More animal encounters in the Australian Capital Territory

Meet a cheetah: Even if you don’t stay at Jamala Wildlife Lodge, you can meet Innes or one of his cheetah mates at Canberra’s National Zoo and Aquarium. During their Meet-a-Cheetah activity, zookeepers will tell you all about the big cats while you are in their enclosure, giving them a pat. Cost: $160 per person (Mon-Fri) and $185 per person on weekends and public holidays. See nationalzoo.com.au

Feeding time at the zoo: The National Zoo and Aquarium also offers the Zooventure Tour, where you join zookeepers on their feeding rounds. You will be able to feed a tiger meat (through bars!) and let a bear lick honey off your hands. See nationalzoo.com.au

Watch the wildlife: The Sanctuary at Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve is a large wetlands ecosystem and nature walk with a wheelchair-accessible pathway with a series of lookouts, where you can spot native reptiles, frogs and birds. The area is also known for its abundance of koalas and kangaroos – even platypuses are spotted here. Ranger-guided walks are held each weekend. See tidbinbilla.act.gov.au

Twilight tours: Bettong Buddies hosts guided tours through Mulligans Flat Sanctuary. The five-kilometre walks start at twilight and teach you all about endangered woodlands while you indulge in a bit of nocturnal-animal spotting for quolls, curlews and bettongs (rabbit-sized kangaroos). Note: tours are now being conducted by electric buggy too, for who can’t or don’t want to walk for five kays. See bettongs.org

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You can also get up close to emus and wallabies at the National Zoo. The emus are particularly friendly and don’t mind a pat.

How to get to Canberra

Canberra is a three-hour drive from Sydney, or seven hours from Melbourne, along the Hume Highway. Qantas, Virgin Australia and Regional Express fly into Canberra from Melbourne and Sydney. You can also take a NSW Countrylink train from Melbourne or Sydney.

Where to stay

Jamala Wilderness Lodge is located at The National Zoo and Aquarium, Canberra. Overnight, two-night and three-night itineraries are available. Packages include guided zoo tours, which let you get close to reptiles and emus, and admire wilder animals from a distance, such as African painted dogs and hippos. Meals include African influenced dinner parties, breakfast and afternoon tea. See jamalawildlifelodge.com.au

For more information on what to do and see in Canberra, see visitcanberra.com.au

NOTE: This story originally appeared in the Escape travel section of the Daily Telegraph. See it here