Updated on June 6th, 2023
With 30 years of travel behind me, I have been privileged to have the opportunity to get up close & personal with many animals in the wild. In the process I have been attacked by lions, bitten by meerkats, mesmerised by turtles, spat at by marine iguanas, run over by penguins, manhandled by baboons & hypnotised by mountain gorillas! Here I share the stories of my top wildlife experiences across the world & hope it inspires you to discover some of the earths most beautiful creatures for yourself.”
Africa (Namibia, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Botswana, Kenya), Borneo, Australia, New Zealand, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Galápagos Islands, Peru & Hawaii
In honour of World Wildlife Day on 3rd March, I thought it would be a great time to reflect on some of the amazing wildlife experiences I have had through my 30 years of travel. Here, I wanted to honour them & hope to inspire you to get up close & personal with earth’s beautiful creatures in their natural habitats.
Along the way I have been attacked by lions in the Serengeti, walked with cheetahs & bitten by meerkats in Namibia, trekked to see gorillas in Rwanda, crashed into by penguins in the Galápagos Islands & fed flesh-eating piranhas in the Amazon Rainforest. Therefore, I believe myself to be somewhat of an expert in wildlife experiences of the traditional & slightly too close for comfort style! If you are looking for the perfect way to see wildlife, then look no further.
1. Galápagos Islands
The Galápagos Islands are legendary in their status as a wildlife lovers paradise. Therefore, no list of the best wildlife experiences in the world would be complete without them.
The Galápagos are uniquely biodiverse, with one of the most well protected ecosystems on the planet. Human contact is kept to a minimum & as they are not threatened by you, the species you encounter here will either ignore you or come a little closer to investigate.”
I was fortunate to visit the islands on an 8-day boat tour in 2019 & it blew my mind. How many people can say they have been run over by a penguin? Snorkelled with so many turtles they lost count? Swum with the only sea-going lizards in the world…& been spat at by them? For all the details on this & how I developed a fetish for crabs, check out my blog post all about the experience.
If you are planning a visit, the array of options can be eye-watering, not least for your budget. Before you make any decisions, please check out my post on How to Choose a Tour of the Galápagos Islands.
My first proper trip away from home was an ambitious 3-month overland tour through Central & Eastern Africa in 1992. We camped our way through Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Malawi, Botswana, Zambia & Zimbabwe. I didn’t have a decent camera to capture the experience, but I have some amazing memories!
I was able to visit the Masai Mara, Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater & Okavango Delta, among every other national park en route. By the time I returned home, I had been attacked by lions in the Serengeti, manhandled by chimpanzees at a sanctuary in Burundi, taken a helicopter over Victoria Falls & white-water rafted on the Zambezi. It was an epic 3 months. It sparked my wanderlust & passion for seeking out the best wildlife experiences the world has to offer. And then there was…
As part of the trip, I also went to Rwanda to hike into the Virunga Mountains in search of the largest living primate, the mountain gorillas. At last count, there were only around 1000 mountain gorillas in the wild. Over 600 of them reside in the mountains which span Rwanda, Uganda & the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Their population is slowly increasing, thanks to concerted efforts between the governments, communities and NGOs.
For me, finding the mountain gorillas involved a walk for 2 hours through a thick bamboo forest before being faced with an enormous silverback in a clearing.
I remember making eye contact & feeling totally overwhelmed by the humanity which seemed to hold my gaze. He was nonchalant & unimpressed.”
As we moved into the clearing, we saw a younger male relaxing on a raised platform of vegetation. He seemed to enjoy the attention & but as he stretched to bask in the glory, his stage collapsed leaving him slightly stunned & embarrassed looking. It was a magical moment & one that I have remembered vividly for 30 years since. If you would like the opportunity to do something similar, then check out G Adventures for plenty of options.
In 2017 I headed to Namibia to spend 2 weeks volunteering at Na’ankuse Wildlife Sanctuary. Here, they provide a safe haven for injured, orphaned & conflict animals. Whenever possible they aim to release them back into the wild, but if there is a reason they would not survive, they need to be protected. This is where the team of volunteers comes in.
At Na’ankuse, I walked with cheetahs. And when I say walk, I actually mean no protection, just a stroll into the bush with a cheetah prowling at your side. But maybe you’re more into the baboons using your head as a fun springboard, or fighting over who’s going to sit on your shoulders? Have you ever thrown a huge chunk of meat to a very angry lion? Or protected the vulnerable inmates from an impending bushfire & got bitten by a meerkat for your efforts? It was certainly an experience I was privileged to have & cherished every moment.
Orangutans are the world’s largest tree-dwelling animal & the only species of great ape found outside Africa. Unfortunately, a deadly combination of hunting & habitat destruction is threatening their future & there may be only 15,000 left in the world today.
Borneo is one of the few places you can see orangutans in the wild. The Kinabatangan River is the perfect place to head for this. As their habitat shrinks these captivating creatures are forced towards the banks of the river for their survival. As well as orangutans, keep your eyes peeled for pygmy elephants & the bizarre-looking proboscis monkey, among many other species which make this river their home.
Borneo also lays claim to the unspoilt primary rainforest of Danum Valley. The vegetation here is so thick, that you could be feet away from the wildlife & not even know it. I splashed out to stay in one of only 2 lodges that accommodate tourists.
Our best sightings of all came just outside the door of our hotel. A female orangutan with her baby was making a nest for the night. Then we spotted an adorable tarzier, clinging onto a tree just by reception.”
For a much lower budget with a greater chance of seeing one of these hairy ginger giants, head to Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre. There, they take in injured & orphaned orangutans to rehabilitate back into the wild. None of the wildlife experiences I mention here is guaranteed a sighting but feeding times at Sepilok are the closest you get to just that. For all the details on my trip to Borneo, check out my blog post.
6. Costa Rica
Costa Rica is the prime eco-tourism destination in Central America, with a quarter of the country protected & an impressive array of biodiversity. The wildlife in Costa Rica is ever-present with the distinctive growl of the howler & unending cheek of the capuchin monkeys. One of the best places to explore the huge array of wildlife is Manuel Antonio National Park. I would recommend taking a guide as they can spot a microscopic animal from 100m! Throughout a morning here, I saw 3 sloths, tiny tree frogs, ominous spiders, iguanas & a boa constrictor.
And no self-respecting animal lover should miss Tortuguero National Park. The river is a mecca for 4 species of sea turtles who arrive here to nest between June & October. I chose to take a canoe safari & throughout the morning we saw a two-toed sloth, a “Jesus Christ” lizard (so named as it walks on water), baby crocodiles, a couple of species of heron & most special of all, a rare sighting of a spider monkey! “Pura Vida!”
If you are a turtle lover then don’t miss my guide to watching the giant Leatherback Turtles nesting in Grenada.
The Amazon Rainforest produces 20% of the worlds oxygen & is home to over 5 million species of the animals, plants & insects which live on our planet. Peru makes claim to being the most biodiverse, well protected & easily accessible part of this vast, lifegiving forest.”
On my visit in 2017, I didn’t get to witness the legendary jaguar or pumas but I did see a family of capybara, the world’s largest rodent. I tried to tempt a tarantula out of its den, met a tiny frog which turned out to be highly venomous & even fed flesh-eating piranhas (just biscuits though, you’ll be pleased to hear!). I was also treated to crocodiles, caiman, sloths, monkeys & some amazing colourful birdlife. For everything you need to plan your perfect time in the Peruvian Amazon, check out my blog post.
If the mammals mentioned so far don’t interest you & you prefer your wildlife encounters of the feathered variety, then the best place for you is the cloud forest in Ecuador. There are more than 500 species of bird recorded in the area & it has won the worldwide prize 6 years in a row for the most species seen in a 24-hour period.
If you have an eagle eye, then there are trails that you can do yourself, however, I took a tour. My guide had an unbelievable talent to spot all manner of tiny birds but most importantly she had a telescope which proved priceless to see & photograph the evidence of our sightings.
The early start was well worth it for the flycatchers, parrots, hawks & the icing on the cake, a toucan & a very busy woodpecker!”
9. Kaikõura, New Zealand
Another of my first & most memorable wildlife experiences was in New Zealand back in 1995. Kaikõura lies at a point where the tectonic plates collide, creating a unique ecosystem. It is THE place in New Zealand for marine encounters with sperm whales, seals, dusky dolphins & albatross year-round. In addition, if you time your visit right you can add orca, humpback whales, blue whales & Hector dolphins to that list.
When I visited, we went out whale watching. I will never forget the thrill as one of the huge humpbacks blew, breached & finally dived, giving us the awesome view of their tail flick as they went. I have been lucky to see whales in Australia & the Dominican Republic, but nothing will ever come close to that first sighting.
Following the whales, we went in search of dolphins, only to find a huge & exuberant pod. They crossed backwards & forwards under the boat, leaping & twirling around us. It was a truly magical moment. When it was time to leave Kaikoura, we headed out before spotting some movement on the beach below. On closer inspection, there was a colony of seals on the beach. I learned a big lesson that day. My friends went off in search of that amazing shot, with their fantastic cameras.
I sat myself on a rock with my inferior model. For an hour I watched the seals sleeping, playing & fighting. I fell in love. Sometimes the beauty is in relishing rather than “capturing” the moment.”
10. Great Barrier Reef, Australia
Of course, no list of the best wildlife experiences would be complete without a mention of the epic Great Barrier Reef. The reef covers a distance of 2000km off the coast of Queensland. However you choose to explore this beautiful natural marine paradise, you can find dazzling coral, shoals of tropical fish, sea turtles & reef sharks.
I have been lucky enough to visit 3 times, once as a day trip to the outer reef, then twice on liveaboard boats while completing scuba diving qualifications. In the process of learning, I got distracted by turtles, swam with sharks, marvelled at natures vibrant colour palette, was mesmerised by cuttlefish & saw the ocean spring into a very different world on a night dive.
11. Manta Rays, Hawaii
The final addition to my list is the manta ray night dive in Kona on the Big Island. It is said to be one of the most memorable dives in the world & I would struggle to argue. The manta rays here are the second largest on the planet & can grow to a wingspan of over 5 metres.
The manta rays are attracted by plankton, which is summoned by bright lights. Put a snorkel in your mouth, cling onto a light that creates the plankton & you can be lucky enough to be in the path of these magnificent creatures as they feed. To catch the plankton, the manta rays swoop through the water with their mouths open. They filter it out of the ocean as they go.
It is like watching them dance as they circle through the water getting ever closer, catching their fill. It was a truly awesome experience!”
So, there you have my top 11 best wildlife encounters so far. I hope you have enjoyed reliving my memories & it has inspired you to seek out genuine encounters with animals in their natural habitat on your travels. I’ve even inspired myself! Watch this space for the next stage of Antarctica adventures, tigers in India, pandas in China … the list goes on…
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