I have had many wildlife experiences but the walking safari I took in Gonarezhou National Park is the one that remains most deeply etched in my memory for a close encounter with a leopard that I never even saw.
My guide suddenly stopped and slipped his rifle off his shoulder. He pointed to the path along which we had been tracking elephants. There in the soft earth was the spoor of a leopard with a blade of dry grass gently rising up from where the big cat had trodden perhaps no more the 10-15 seconds previously. We never saw the leopard but sensed he could see us from no more than a few metres away.
It is experiences like that that make wildlife encounters so memorable. On my travels around the globe I have had many close encounters with animals; some were exhilarating and one or two were terrifying. All of them however, were memorable. I have highlighted some of these wildlife experiences below.
Watching Brown Bears in Europe
There are several places in Europe where there are populations of the Eurasian brown bear. In my view the best chance of seeing these creatures is in the Wild Taiga of Finland. You stay overnight in a comfortable hide in this wilderness close to the Russian border. In the morning the bears arrive and it is possible to see and photograph a full-grown adult or a mother and cubs from as little as 5m away. There is a good chance of seeing other predators too such as wolverines, arctic wolves and, if you are exceptionally lucky, lynx. Worldwide Wildlife offer several trips to Finland
European Bison in Poland
In the Primeval Bialowieza Forest in Poland track and see the rare European bison in its natural habitat. These animals are being reintroduced and with a guide this trip gives an opportunity to get up close with these animals and have the fantastic experience of tracking them as well. If it is winter there is also the chance to track, and if your lucky, spot wolves too. This trip can be arranged by Responsible Travel.
Walking with wolves
Close to where the last wild wolf was killed in Cumbria, UK there is a chance to walk with wolves. Predator Experience offer guests the chance to walk with the wolf hybrid pack on the high Lakeland Fells and learn of wolf behaviour, their pack hierarchy and a little of the history of wolves in Britain and Europe. Walking foot by paw with these long misunderstood animals is both educational and memorable.
Wildlife in Borneo
Borneo is well known for the orang-utan as well as sweeping golden beaches. The trip from Rickshaw Travel incorporates both beach and wildlife experiences. Top of the list is encounters with orang-utans followed by the chance to see other wildlife on a visit to the Tabin National Park where top encounters will likely be Asian elephants. Observing these intelligent animals in their natural environment really is the highlight of this trip particularly as so much of their habitat is being destroyed and the species is is threatened. This wildlife trip is suitable for children over 8 years.
Kayaking with killers
One of my most memorable wildlife experiences was kayaking with killer whales (aka orcas). In Johnstone Sound between mainland British Columbia and Vancouver Island I took a multi-day kayaking trip among the archipelago. We had dolphins fishing opposite our campsite and several times encountered orcas. These swam as close as 15m from our kayaks hunting salmon as they did so. During this trip we also encountered a mountain lion in our camp and a black bear feeding on the foreshore. Sea Kayak Adventures have several itineraries available.
Gorillas in Rwanda/Uganda
If you are energetic (several hours trekking type of energetic) and want a unique and powerful wildlife experience try a gorilla safari. Permits to see the gorillas in either Rwanda or Uganda are limited by law for conservation reasons. This means they need to be booked well in advance. You spend the day trekking to where the gorilla families are and spend an hour observing them. There is nothing quite like the encounter with the mountain gorilla families of Uganda and Rwanda which makes the effort and money spent well worth it. Much of the revenue generated goes back into the conservation efforts and supporting local communities. Responsible Travel has several tours that can be booked through there website.
Polar bears in Svalbard
Svalbard is an archipelago between Norway and the North Pole and is one of the best places to get up close to Arctic wildlife including polar bears, seals, beluga and walrus. Leading polar cruise ship operator, One Ocean Expeditions (OOE), is known for the large number of wildlife sightings on its voyages around Svalbard, as well as their ability to get up close to the wildlife. They focus on the western and northern coasts of Spitsbergen, the largest island of the archipelago, which boast the highest concentration of wildlife. Itineraries include hikes, zodiac cruises, visits to wildlife colonies and the opportunity to sea kayak.
Leopards in Sri Lanka
Yala is the largest national park in Sri Lanka and is also has the highest density of leopards of anywhere. For those of us who have yet to see more than just evidence of a leopard close by Yala offers the best chance of seeing these elusive creatures. The leopards are not the only wildlife to see as there are plenty of elephants , sloth bears and of course a high concentration of the leopards natural prey, spotted deer. Audley Travel can tailor make a holiday in Sri Lanka that includes a visit to Yala National Park.
Whale Sharks on the Ningaloo Reef
Dive or snorkel with the biggest fish in the sea on the Ningaloo Reef off the coast of Western Australia. At Exmouth the reef comes close to the shore and is one of the best places to see the whale sharks as they regularly return to the reef each year. Swimming with these 12m long creatures with a gaping 1.5m mouth is an awesome experience. Fortunately they only feed on microscopic plankton and krill so despite being sharks they are harmless to humans. As a bonus you are also likely to encounter dugongs, turtles, rays and dolphins. Sal Salis can organise whale shark snorkelling tours in Exmouth.
One of the greatest movement of animals on the planet is the wildebeest migration in the Serengeti and Masai Mara.For most people this is a bucket list experience and probably the most sought after place to see it is when the millions of animals cross the Mara River from Tanzania into Kenya. Thousands of animals try to cross all at once and predators such as crocodiles, lions and leopards gather to prey on the mass of animals. Responsible Travel have several tours that include or focus on the Great Wildebeest Migration.
As with all wildlife experiences, be prepared to be disappointed and always be open to new experiences. Being focussed on the particular experience you set out for means you fail to take in everything else the is around. I have made that mistake but that is another story…
These are just a few of the wildlife experiences you can have. There are many more and you probably have your favourites. DO share them in the comments below and perhaps we can have a follow up post of animal experiences recommended by you.