Travel

Sleeping lions: what it's like to stay overnight at London Zoo

Jo Fletcher-Cross and family spend a truly wild night at London Zoo Monday, 8 April

By Jo Fletcher-Cross

As check-in information goes for a central London stay, it's a little unusual. 'If the escaped animal alarm goes off, stay in your lodge, and wait for the keepers to tell you what to do,' it reads. I can hear a lion roaring not too far away, so I'm paying close attention. "It's very unlikely," Hannah, our host at Gir Lion Lodge, assures us. This isn't any old city centre accommodation; the Lodge is inside London Zoo — those roars are from the four Asiatic lions prowling around their enclosure.

After a very happy afternoon gazing at reptiles, monkeys, fish and birds, we – my husband, seven-year-old daughter and I – are very excited to head over to the newest exhibit, Land of the Lions, at 4pm, just as everyone else was heading for the exit. We walk through the immersive, Indian-themed areas, which include a train station, high street and even a crumbling temple, all meant to recreate the Gujarati habitat of the lions. Tucked right in the middle of this are nine colourful cabins, each themed around an animal found in the Gir forest. Our blue-painted home for the night is Peacock, complete with brightly coloured rendering of said bird on the wall inside.

After a little downtime, we head out again for an after-hours look at the zoo. We watch the lions for a while — dusk and dawn are apparently their most active times, and they're making plenty of noise — before moving on to create a game for the porcupines. This turns out to be an egg box that we fill with nuts and chuck into their enclosure for them to play with until they release the treats inside. They're surprisingly endearing for animals bristling with 30,000-odd pin-sharp quills.

Our stay coincides with the zoo's first ever illuminated trail, a mile-long path of lit-up wild animal sculptures and tunnels, complete with projections. This is a ticketed event, so guests at the Lodge mingle with those who've turned up to follow the trail. At this point, the animals are tucked up in bed. I'm reassured to find they take the welfare of the creatures during this time very seriously, and the zoo's animal behaviourists say they don't seem bothered at all so far. Sipping on mulled wine and hot chocolate, we wander through a mesmerising 'light vortex', find Father Christmas, watch dancing fountains in the modernist Lubetkin Penguin Pool (no longer used for penguins) and marvel at a giant tree made out of wooden sledges, with everything lit by 100,000 pea lights.

By the time we've had a (rather functional) dinner at the Terrace Restaurant we're rather tired, but we're perked up by the thought of the late-night adventure ahead: we're going down into the keeper's kitchen, inside the Casson Pavilion – once home to elephants and rhinos. The pachyderms are now in far more spacious living quarters at Whipsnade Zoo, but it's fascinating to descend into the basement and see the wide and varied menus for all of the animals, together with information about their likes and dislikes: for instance, according to a note on the board, the pygmy hippos enjoy being pampered and are rather lazy. My husband queries why the menu for the bearded pigs includes steamed beetroot and potatoes — surely they're used to raw vegetables in the wild? "They're old ladies," says Hannah. "We like to spoil them."

Next up, we create enrichment treats for the aye-aye lemur: poking live grubs down hollow sticks. In the morning, after a comfortable night's sleep and breakfast in the restaurant, the keeper puts these into the enclosure of this shy, nocturnal creature; he soon comes out and taps the stick to find out where the grubs are, before crunching through to eat them. We also get to bring nuts out to the bearded pigs, feed the penguins their fishy breakfast and get up close to some lemurs with their keeper.

Best of all, for my animal-obsessed daughter at least, is the chance to ask our zoo host all the burning, critter-related questions she's ever had. Hannah deals with them admirably and listens patiently to her recounting her favourite animal facts (of which she has many) — shyly at first, then bubbling over with excitement. Hannah even kindly laughs at her newly made-up 'joke': A pirate should have an aye-aye as a pet – because it can say 'aye-aye captain!', thus cementing her position as my daughter's new hero.

"This is the best morning ever," she says, and I can't disagree. It's not a standard way to spend a night in London, but it has to be up there with the most fun.

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Lodges for two people start from £378 a night, plus £50 for each additional child. Gir Lion Lodge is open from February until December; the Christmas at London Zoo illuminated trail runs until 1 January 2019. zsl.org