Yes, I’m glad the lions didn’t eat me too. No, it wasn’t a tent. Yes, we woke up to lions roaring. And no, the food was amazing.

Thinking of booking an overnight stay at London Zoo? I did, and here’s what happened.

Sipping a dark, smoky coffee on your own mini terrace is pretty cool.

It’s even better immersed in the harsh chatter of exotic birds, indignant monkeys and low-frequency lion grunts. Our lodge for the night was a spick and span summer house with en suite, in a quiet cul-de-sac right in the middle of the “Land of the Lions”.

November wasn’t the best time to book, since it was almost dark by the time the first of our three zoo tours started, and there was a circus of machines setting up Christmas lights and other displays. But it was as close to my December birthday as we could make it, and despite the darkness and clanking, even our tour guides were amazed at how much we saw.

My partner and I arrived mid-afternoon and were relieved of our suitcases at the staff entrance before being waved into the zoo. After a quick peek at the Humboldt penguins we headed straight for the Asiatic lions, who live in an amazing mock-up of Sasan Gir train station in India, complete with stalls, artwork, and incredibly cool painted rock walls.

Just opposite were the lodges, peppered with solar lanterns and animal names (our was the Langur Lodge).

Photography skills: Endangered

There were about 8 other people on our Adults Only night, and after the usual meet and greet and welcome drink, we headed off on our first after-hours tour.

Through the darkness, spitting rain, and a guide’s infra-red torch, we spied the oriental short-clawed otters, still scampering and curling about in a tangle, and the Bactrian camels who cared even less about the weather, sarcastically chewing cud while we threw hay at them through the drizzle.

Turns out they look just as sarcastic in daylight.

The pygmy hippos were vaguely more interested in hay, but only after much clucking from the zookeeper, which had to be done in just the right way due to the female Nicky being a diva. Interestingly, positive training and reinforcement were the order of the day: shoot an animal with a dart and it will probably never forgive you, but give it the right amount of treats, and it can get used to the odd vet visit and even cooperate!

As for the headline lions (headlions?), Heidi, Indi, Rubi and Bhanu, they were sedate on their heated rock, which was cleverly placed by the viewing window.

Photography skills: Extinct

Then all of a sudden, Indi snapped to attention and strode out into the darkness. A group of us followed her to the outside area, and despite the startled shouts from those still stood by the window, we were oblivious to something with red eyes just inches away from us in the bushes. Local animals were known to wander through the enclosures occasionally – one time an unfortunate pigeon – but we never found out what it was.

Then it was time for dinner, a rather posh buffet selection followed by coffee, before another “after dark” tour. This time, we found ourselves behind the scenes in a zookeeper kitchen, laughing about white ibis “bin chickens” and shuffling walnuts into small cereal boxes that the porcupines tore up with evident glee. Thanks to their white punk-rock quills we could see them in the dark even without the infra-red torch. Another thing that emerged from the night that we were all secretly hoping for: the bellowing of lions!

“Don’t worry, we’ll WATCH OVER YOU WHILE YOU SLEEP.”

Early morning next day, and we lay in the dark listening to what sounded like a hefty motorbike revving up, or maybe an old steam train chugging its way up a hill.

Once the sky had warmed to an ember the macaws joined in from the other side of the zoo, and it was time for breakfast.

Double cream in the scrambled eggs. That’s all I need to say about that.

For our final tour before the zoo opened, we rained fresh (if slimy!) fish down over the chattering, surfing gaggle of Humboldt penguins,

under the close watch of an interloper heron and some chancer seagulls before visiting another star attraction: the tigers.

The poor northern white-cheeked gibbons had their work cut out for them in the opposite exhibit, desperately bobbing and leaping about for our attention when there were enormous stripey felines prowling through the grass beneath us. This was before tigress Melati was fatefully introduced to a new intended mate, Asim, but despite the hopeful signs, just a few weeks after our visit, he killed her on their first meeting. And to think, I was annoyed that her previous mate, Jae Jae, kept his back to us in all the photos.

(R.I.P. Melati, and your beautiful kohl eyes.)

You can’t top a tiger, so that’s where the tour left off. Awesomely, our ticket would have given us free entry to Whipsnade Zoo that day as well, but we were happy to stay in search of okapis and other animals it had been too dark to see!

African hunting dog, about as big as an Alsatian!

“If you were a dragon, you’d swagger too” – Ganas the Komodo

The inland taipan (thanks, lightbulb)…

…still more toxic than the mamba, baby!

Zebra stripes are as unique as fingerprints.

Squeeeeee!! (translation: okapi)


Best bits?

Staying overnight in a zoo is amazing on principle, but we saw and heard tons of animals, the guides were just as excited about them as we were, and the lodges were beautiful. I also learnt so much behind the scenes, and got to see the personality of each critter we visited.

Plus I’m still thinking about those scrambled eggs.

Worst bits?

Obviously fist-shaking at the weather, but it was November and no one’s fault but my own.

The only possible niggles, on the scale of a single flea vs. a lion, were that one of the guides seemed to talk more about the grade-listed buildings than the animals (because you go to a zoo for the architecture! Well, you might…), and the usual curse of a non-drinker at an event: everyone else gets posh welcome Prosecco, but here, have some supermarket orange juice. Again, there’s literally nothing else I can think of that was in any way rubbish/bad/disappointing.

Would I do it again?

Well, I’ve already booked a night in Whipsnade Zoo’s Lookout Lodge in September. And this time I won’t wait 8 months to write a review!