Lions and cheetahs roar and hippos bellow while Michele Crawshaw and her son try to sleep just metres away.
It's the dead of night and outside, several notorious killers are roaming. The door is locked and my young son is sleeping soundly in his bed just a few feet away, but the still night air carries the low rumble that develops into a terrifying roar. I close my eyes and try to sleep, only to be jerked awake moments later by another deafening bellow.
This is Werribee Open Range Zoo, where for the past several years they have been holding slumber safari nights - the chance to sleep among some of Africa's biggest and most majestic animals: lions, cheetahs, rhinos, hippos and giraffes.
Experiencing after dark the sights and sounds of this 225ha African reserve just 30 minutes out of Melbourne is extraordinary. No hotel anywhere can compete with this: luxury camping in safari-style tent lodges overlooking a savannah where wild animals roam.
The safari starts a few hours before the zoo closes for the night: a quick settling-in at your tent lodge (think glamping) and relaxing on your private balcony overlooking the Werribee River, then it's time for drinks and dinner - an elaborate buffet in the safari dining hut.
The two guides who host us for the evening tell us a bit about the animals we'll see - having spent years together they've come to know their ways and personalities, and talk about them like family pets.
When it's dark and the zoo is empty but for us and the animals, we set out. It's a bit unsettling to be walking unfamiliar paths in the dark with just a torch, and it feels a bit peeping Tom-ish spying on big, wild creatures as they settle in for the night. It is remarkable, though, to be there in the chilly night just metres from a family of hippos wading in the water, watching an African serval cat stalk her enclosure, and most of all gazing at the pride of lions who have started their nightly ritual of a low rumble that hours later wakes us as it turns into a long, deep terrifying roar.
A few children are in our group, including my 9-year-old son Harry, and they are mostly silent as we visit each animal, asking questions in hushed tones, probably fearful of arousing the attention of an overprotective 1300kg hippo mother or a hungry lion. They're excited to be out after dark, and to be in a zoo after hours, watching animals they've only ever seen by day with hordes of other visitors.
After the tour it's back to the safari dining hut where the guides build a roaring campfire, the kids toast marshmallows and we eat freshly baked scones with jam and cream, everyone buzzing from the night walk. Once the campfire has gone out it's back to our lodges - there are eight private luxury tent-style units with large comfortable beds draped in mosquito nets, and each has an en suite and balcony. Harry and I fall asleep, me woken a short time later as the rumble from the lions down on the savannah develops into a deep roar that lasts into the night. It's amazing, and a little unsettling.
Come morning, the guides ring the bell at the dining hut for breakfast - another impressive buffet affair, no chance of starving here - before we head out to the zoo again for a close encounter with a 2000kg rhino, patting it through the fence railings while one of its handlers distracts it with food. Honestly, it's about as close as I want to get to an animal that big.
Each slumber safari features a "wild encounter" with a different animal and it's an amazing experience being so close to them.
The safari also gives you two days' entry so you can wander around the zoo and ride on a safari tour bus, which will take you out on to the savannah to see giraffes, zebra, camels, antelope, waterbucks, hippos and others in their natural habitat from just a few metres away.
The zoo is also home to three western lowland gorillas - a silverback male and his two sons - who live in a $3.6 million exhibit, as well as a bunch of Australian native animals, including kangaroos, bandicoots and koalas. You'll need that two-day pass just to see it all.
Werribee is a little Out of Africa escape: the thrill of being close to such amazing wild animals on a savannah but with all the creature comforts. No regular hotel stay can ever compete - sure, you might get a fuller night's sleep elsewhere, but this is the only place we know of where you can go to sleep to the roar of lions and wake up to a magnificent sunrise with a kangaroo having breakfast just a few feet away.
Animal crackers for the warm fuzzies
For animal lovers, Melbourne is a treat. Forget that the city is best known for art and culture, wine and food ... it also boasts three of the best zoos and animal sanctuaries you could hope to see. All three are different: Werribee is an African adventure, Melbourne Zoo has more than 300 species of animals from around the world, and Healesville is home to Australian natives and a wildlife rescue centre.
Conservation is a major focus at Healesville Sanctuary, which is home to hundreds of native Australian animals, including dingos, koalas, kangaroos, wombats, platypus, Tasmanian devils, reptiles and large birds (don't miss the free daily show, Spirits of the Sky, where birds of prey and large parrots perform tricks with keepers at the flight arena - it's spectacular). As with Melbourne Zoo and Werribee, you can get up close to some of the other animals, feeding and patting them. We did this with the kangaroos and fell in love with a young red kangaroo, Kiki, who placed her hand on ours as we fed her. Cute factor: very high.
The sanctuary - set on 30ha of beautifully landscaped bushland - also runs a wildlife health centre on site, treating rescued animals. During our visit we watched an operation on a turtle and cuddled some baby wombats that had just been rescued from their injured mother. As part of its conservation focus, the sanctuary also runs breeding programmes for endangered animals.
Set aside the day to visit Melbourne Zoo: any less and you won't get to take in the full experience. The 153-year-old zoo is Australia's oldest and is home to more than 300 species of animals. It's a beautiful setting and we spent five hours there, including a close-up encounter with the giraffes (being so close to them and watching their blue tongues curl around the leaves we fed them was a highlight for my 9-year-old son), the meerkats (we entered their enclosure and had them run all over us while keepers fed them which was huge fun) and the kangaroos (we patted them as they ate, and got a close-up of the young joey still in his mother's pouch).
They also have an overnight stay, Roar 'n' Snore, where you can explore the zoo after dark with a guide before camping out in the old restored elephant house. In the morning, after breakfast, you can meet the keepers and go "behind the scenes" at the zoo.
Getting there: Qantas flies to Melbourne three times daily.
Details: Werribee Open Range Zoo's Slumber Safari is A$300 ($305) for adults and A$160 for children. Bookings are essential. During the June/July school holidays, Werribee is offering Wild Nights, a three-hour night tour of the zoo. A$35 for adults, A$7 for children.
The writer travelled to Melbourne with Zoos Victoria.