Of all the travel experiences, coming face to face with an animal in its own environment is among the most uplifting. Here are the best spots to see nature at its finest.
An audience with one of the rarest primates on the planet only ever lasts for an hour but no-one returns unmoved from a meeting with the magnificent mountain gorilla. There are fewer than 900 left in the world, now carefully protected from poachers and hunters by rangers and conservation groups. Half of the gorillas live in the evocatively named Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and neighbouring Mgahinga National Park in Uganda. In Bwindi, four gorilla groups have regular human contact and each day fewer than 80 people, who pay just over $800 for a trekking permit, are allowed to meet them in groups of no more than eight. Direct contact with the animals is forbidden but groups do get to observe gorillas going about their business just metres away. The only way to reach these creatures is to hike up mountainsides through dense jungle, accompanied by guides and porters who lead the way to Uganda’s wonderland.
The western Indian state of Gujarat brims with once-in-a-lifetime experiences but none beats the exhilaration of discovering a pride of wild Asiatic lions. At Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary, the last 500 or so of these beasts live in a dusty landscape of teak forests and savanna alongside leopards, hyenas and antelope. Dawn and dusk jeep safaris scour the 1400-square-kilometre reserve for signs of the big cats. Finding a lion in such a vast landscape is made easier with the help of Siddi trackers, an ethnic group descended from Southeast African Bantu slaves brought to India centuries ago by the Portuguese. They monitor the parklands constantly so they know where lions lurk. With luck, they can lead visitors to a family of golden cats lazing among the acacias – all viewed safely from jeeps, naturally. Though officially endangered, lion numbers have increased by a quarter since 2010 so the odds of spotting India’s rarest big cat are improving all the time.
Jaguars are perhaps the most elusive of the Panthera genus; tracking them requires days of Buddha-like patience. The consolation is the prime jaguar habitat of the Pantanal, the largest tropical wetland area in the world and a gorgeous mirrored paradise of birds, giant lilies, caimans and capybaras. Cruising here on dinghies, the action unfolds like a Disney animated feature – cue clouds of snow-white herons, stage left. Dry season offers the most reliable encounters as cats come to the banks of the Cuiabá River to bask and feed. Sightings from the water are not uncommon; one major tour company claims to be averaging two a day during the June-to-October dry season. And even if the cats don’t come out to play, as with so much experiential travel, it’s the journey that really counts.
It’s estimated that the number of wild orangutans has plummeted in the past decade by 30 to 50 per cent. The two species – Bornean and Sumatran – now exist on only two islands: Borneo, where they are thought to number about 50,000, and Sumatra, which has 7000. The easiest way to see these people of the forest is to visit Borneo’s touristy rehabilitation centres where the primates are on show, like at a zoo. But it’s far better to visit them in the wild, not least to provide a tourism buffer against rampant logging and cropping of their native habitat. Sabah in Malaysian Borneo offers some of the surest sightings at the Danum Valley Conservation Area. This isolated pocket of virgin lowland rainforest abounds with endemic species, including clouded leopards, gibbons and their colourful cousins, the orangutans. In neighbouring Indonesia, Gunung Palung National Park has an orangutan research centre so rendezvous are almost certain. There are 2500 individuals in the 90,000-hectare reserve, making this one of the healthiest orangutan societies we have left.
Long before monkeys and apes roamed the forests, there were lemurs. They were – and still are – found only on Madagascar, the vast island Eden that broke away from mainland Africa 160 million years ago. Almost every plant and animal here is unique to the island so despite the trials of travelling through this underdeveloped country, the experience is fascinating. The world’s fourth-largest island harbours 101 known lemur species, including the tiny but fabulously titled Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur, monkey lemurs, sloth lemurs and hairy-eared dwarf lemurs. But it’s the king of the species, the indri lemur, which has a call that leaves an indelible impression. Standing in the damp and insect-ridden rainforests of Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, listening to the indri “sing” across the canopy to each other is intoxicating, surreal and incredibly loud. Indri stay high in the treetops but if you stand beneath one that’s singing you can feel the vibrations in your body.
Bobbing in the Indian Ocean preparing to swim with whale sharks at Ningaloo Reef is a bit like waiting for a bus. Except you’re wearing a mask and flippers and the slow-moving leviathan that invariably appears will take you on the journey of your newly blissed-out life. Marvel at the Marimekko-like patterning on the flanks of these sublime creatures and get close enough to count the remoras hitching a free ride on the biggest fish of all (they grow to 12 metres and longer). An estimated 170 whale sharks congregate at the 260-kilometre fringing reef each March to July, alongside humpbacks, dugongs and giant manta rays. The great surprise of swimming with a whale shark is how remarkably serene the encounter is. It’s just curious humans and a shark – as big as a whale but as docile as a lamb – hanging out off the Western Australian coast.
The Canadian Arctic is home to somewhere between 13,000 and 17,500 polar bears – more than half the world’s total – so there’s no better place to witness the largest land carnivore in action. The easy option is to fly to Churchill, Canada, book a room in the Tundra Lodge – a mobile hotel parked on the shores of Hudson Bay each autumn – and wait for the bears to come to you (operators guarantee bear sightings or a free return stay next season). The more intrepid, romantic option is to spend a fortnight aboard an expedition ship as it makes its way through the ice-choked waterways of the Northwest Passage. On the ocean it’s not possible to get as close to polar bears as it is at Churchill but the visceral fascination of seeing bears in the wild – perhaps devouring a seal on the ice or swimming in the frigid water – doesn’t diminish with distance. ￼