8 up-close wildlife encounters that will leave your jaw on the floor

6 April 2016

8 up-close wildlife encounters that will leave your jaw on the floor

Getting up-close to amazing creatures is a pretty exciting adventure. They're wild. They're beautiful. It's a privilege to be near them in their natural home.

But what are those trips like? What do you do when you're there? Will you be in a vehicle or on foot? Are the animals well-protected from the impacts of tourism?

Our Top 100 Trips  features an incredible array of wildlife encounters, so we thought we'd explore 8 of our favourites in depth. It should be noted that while all these trips take you to places where these encounters are likely, they all involve wild animals and sightings can't be guaranteed.

The trip: Kruger, Coast & Cape

This tour journeys around the game parks, beaches, cities and beautiful landscapes of South Africa – and it also ducks into Mozambique and Swaziland.

The encounter: Spot endangered rhinos on a walking safari

The Kingdom of Swaziland is very committed to protecting its wildlife. They have reintroduced lost species to their parks, have ongoing breeding programs and emergency veterinary care. And their rhinos are very well protected. After a massive poaching slaughter of the rhino population in the late '80s and early '90s, the government swung into action with sturdy anti-poaching legislation, tough penalties and a committed 24/7 anti-poaching monitoring team. It has been a great success – Swaziland has only lost three rhinos to poaching in the last 22 years.

Hlane Royal National Park is one of the big game parks in Swaziland, a vast tract of ancient hardwoods and grasslands. The park is home to abundant wildlife – zebra, wildebeest, impala, elephant, monkey, giraffe, warthog, kudu – and black and white rhinos. A special feature of Hlane is that walking safaris are allowed, which offer a wonderful opportunity to get right in amongst the African landscape. As you walk out from camp, you might find an inquisitive ostrich or two wandering with you. Your walking safari guide will point out features of the flora and fauna and look out for signs of nearby rhino.

Now, rhinos are pretty massive creatures – white rhinos can be up to 2400kg – so 'up close' isn't necessarily a good thing. You need to keep a suitable distance from something enormous with a spiky horn. But your guide will instruct you on appropriate behaviour and will be experienced at dealing with the rhinos should they approach your group. Standing in the wilderness and seeing these great creatures – and knowing that they are being well protected in this beautiful natural environment – is a thrilling and heartwarming experience.


The trip: Galapagos Adventure – Northern Islands

The wild Galapagos Islands are located 1000 kilometres off the coast of South America and they are a haven for wildlife. This Galapagos tour cruises amongst the quiet northern islands, where the unique creatures live much as they did when Charles Darwin visited over 180 years ago.

The encounter: Snorkel with sea lions, sting rays and turtles

Isla Santa Fe is a small island with no human inhabitants in the centre of the Galapagos archipelago. The wild creatures have the run of the place and it's a paradise of frigate birds, Galapagos hawks, land iguanas, lava lizards and marine turtles. It's also home to large colonies of sea lions.

Your comfortable motor yacht, with a maximum of 16 people on board, will pull into Santa Fe's beautiful cove. The calm and clear jade waters are perfect for swimming and snorkelling – and chances are you'll be right in amongst the sea lions. As with all wildlife, you shouldn't approach them, but these friendly and inquisitive creatures pretty commonly swim right up to you to investigate what you're doing. Some days you'll be swimming amongst dozens of sea lions and it can be a pretty exciting experience.

Another good reason to choose this cruise in particular is the visit to the remote Isla Genovesa. Here, at Darwin Beach you can pull on a snorkel and hop in with the Diamond string rays, moray eels and beautiful sea turtles. These islands are a snorkelling paradise and wildlife encounters don't come much closer than this.

The trip: Delta, Dunes & Falls

Travelling from Victoria Falls to Cape Town, through Namibia and Botswana there are absolute bucket loads of extraordinary wildlife and wilderness experiences on this trip.

The encounter: Observe the elephants on the Chobe River

Chobe National Park in Botswana has one of the largest concentrations of game in Africa. It is rich with wildlife. Driving through the park in your the safari vehicle, your driver will pull up to give you the chance to watch herds of buffalo, zebras, lions, giraffes, hippos, wildebeest, birds and impala. All this is simply amazing. But Chobe's most famous residents are its elephants. Over 70,000 Kalahari elephants live within this park.

You'll be staying in a comfortable lodge with a swimming pool, which is right near the park entrance – and this maximises your animal encounter time. After a morning game drive, you'll take a midday break and perhaps a dip in the pool, before heading out for a late afternoon boat trip on the Chobe River. This will give you the chance to see the elephants up close, from right on the river, as they soak, play and drink at the river's edge. A baby elephant will stay close to its nurturing mother, while young elephants play in the shallows and the family matriarch keeps watch over the group.  As the sun drops lower in the sky, it casts an orange glow across the stark landscape. This is quintessential Africa. It's breathtaking.

The trip: Gorillas & Game Parks

An out-there African adventure, visiting Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. Safari through grazing herds of animals in Masai Mara National Reserve, go Big 5 spotting in Queen Elizabeth National Park and trek to the gorillas in Parc National des Volcans.

The encounter: Get up close to the mountain gorillas

Trekking into the steamy Rwandan jungle in search of the mountain gorillas is as out-there as wildlife experiences get. Ten gorilla families live in the designated trekking area and permits to visit the families are strictly limited and controlled. On the day of your trek, trackers will have set off early to locate your gorilla family. When you arrive, you'll be briefed on what to expect and how to behave, and then you'll set off into the jungle with your trek guide. The trekking can be strenuous and it could take anywhere between one and five hours for you to reach the gorilla family.

When you do get there, you will be instantly transported to a real-life 'Gorillas in the Mist' moment. It's staggering – this is a real wild gorilla family group, living in the jungle and there is no glass between you and them. You can get fairly close to the gorillas and can quietly watch them going about their day – grooming each other, playing, eating. All the while, the male silverback will be surveying the scene, watching over the group. The gorillas know you are there and can come exceptionally close to you. If a gorilla comes near you, you crouch down and look down, humbling yourself and respecting his dominance. It's an intimate and personal exchange. Spending this time with these magnificent creatures in their own environment is a real privilege.

The trip: Magic of Madagascar

Madagascar is a pretty isolated place, sitting 400 kilometres off the eastern coast of Africa. Amazing wildlife, spectacular landscapes and shipwrecks a-plenty – this trip takes it all in.

The encounter: Watch the hopping sifakas at Berenty Reserve

Madagascar's isolation has led it to have a pretty interesting animal population – over 90% of its wildlife is found nowhere else on earth. The chameleon and fossa are fascinating creatures, but it is the lemur that is perhaps Madagascar's best-known inhabitant. With no monkeys or competitors living in the trees, lemurs have flourished and there are over 103 lemur species on the island.

Travelling to the remote Berenty Reserve is not a casual affair. It's a one-hour flight from the capital, Antananarivo, then a four-hour drive to the reserve. But you'll be rewarded in lemurs. On a night walk in the reserve you might see white-footed sportive lemurs peering out of tree holes, or grey mouse lemurs foraging for food.

Exploring the walking tracks by day with a guide, you'll be looking out for a species of lemur called Verreaux's sifaka. It lives primarily in the trees and can leap up to ten metres between branches. On the ground its mobility options are limited and it has developed a strange kind of dance to get around. It stands on its hind legs and moves with a sideways striding-hopping-jumping motion – and it can move pretty quickly with this bizarre bounce. The sifakas hang out in family groups and watching them move and follow each other across the ground is a remarkable – and funny – experience.

The trip: Discover Sabah

Sabah is a wild territory, where headhunters used to roam, where jagged granite peaks spear through the fog and dense jungles are teeming with wildlife. It's also a major habitat for the beautiful, hairy, orange, fun-loving orangutan.

The encounter: Visit the orphaned orangutans

Logging, deforestation, poaching and illegal capture all have a serious impact on the orangutans of Borneo. Many are left wounded or homeless and the Bornean orangutan population has decreased by over 50% in the last 60 years. Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary is the largest sanctuary of its kind in the world. Here, illegally captured, orphaned and injured orangutans are cared for and taught how to fend for themselves in the wild.

Baby orangutans live in the nursery where they have 24-hour care. In this specially designed area, they learn how to climb and forage so that they can be released in to the open space of the sanctuary. The sanctuary itself is a 43 square kilometre reserve of wild jungle, where the orangutans roam free. In the sanctuary, an orangutan buddy system is used. By pairing younger individuals with older ones, the young orangutans can follow, imitate and learn, just as they would do with their mother in the wild.

Visiting the sanctuary, you can watch the absolutely adorable babies play in the nursery, then head out to the visitor board walk and viewing gallery. There's a feeding platform and the orangutans from throughout the reserve will head in at feeding time. You'll catch sight of a flash of orange in the jungle, then watch the orangutans swing through the trees towards the platform and scamper down to feed. It's a wonderful experience – and knowing that your visit supports the rehabilitation program makes it an all round feel-good day.


The trip: Serengeti & Silverbacks

A massive African adventure taking in the safari highlights of Kenya and Tanzania as well as taking a trek to see the Rwandan mountain gorillas.

The encounter: Track a big cat on safari

After researching trips, reading trip notes, browsing blogs and watching you-tubes, you might be somewhat prepared for what an African game park adventure has to offer. But you wont be so prepared for how a day out in a game vehicle works. Each game drive depends on the conditions – on what creatures are about and on who your driver and guide are. These are people who are seriously skilled in tracking. They know their environment and they are constantly on the lookout for signs that pass the rest of us by.

They can see animals long before new visitors can and they know what they are looking for. Noises, footprints, animal behaviour, scuff marks, bent grass and ground scratchings can all offer clues as to where a nearby lion, leopard or cheetah might be. It's exhilarating to be there, to learn about what they are looking for and to watch the tracking unfold. Eventually, they will close in on their target. Then they may spot a tail twining down from a fork in a tree. They will circle the tree to find the best viewing point and there you have it. A leopard lazing in the sun in the branches of a tree. With any luck, he'll yawn, stretch and slink down from the tree and you can watch the graceful movements of this beautiful predator in awe.


The trip: Classic Galapagos – Central Eastern Islands

One of the attractions of the Galapagos Islands is that many of the creatures there have no natural predators and are largely without fear. Their willingness to be close to people is what creates some of the most amazing wildlife encounters that you can have.

The encounter: Birdwatch like a hardcore twitcher in the Galapagos

Giant tortoises may be the most famous inhabitants of these islands, but the incredible bird life is perhaps one of the most surprising highlights while you're there. The birds here are fascinating and many of them are not found anywhere else in the world – such as the group of finch species called Darwin's finches. The finches were observed, collected and written about by Charles Darwin, and the slight variations in the birds from island to island planted the seed in his mind for the development of his theory of evolution.

There are two species of frigate bird – the great frigate bird and magnificent frigate bird – both of which have a distinctive red pouch on their chest. They inflate the pouch like a balloon (and it can be the size of a balloon too) and shake it around to attract a mate. Blue-footed boobies are another distinctive critter, featuring bright blue feet. The males lift their feet up and down while strutting in front of the females. The brightness of the blue is an indicator of youth and health – so the bluer the feet the more likely they are to be chosen as mates.

Galapagos mockingbirds, swallow tail gulls, vermillion flycatchers, pelicans, oystercatchers, penguins, flamingos... the bird life is rich and varied. While exploring the islands, you'll visit nesting areas, walk through forests, explore grasslands and follow shorelines on foot and in boats. Your guide will have plenty to tell you about the birdlife – their plumage, calls, feeding, nesting and parenting habits and mating rituals. If you weren't a keen twitcher when you started the trip, you sure will be by the end.