Ultimate Wildlife Journeys
Sometimes it’s not just the destination that’s important but how you travel when you get there. Mike Unwin offers his shortlist of the ultimate wildlife journeys by air, land and sea.
Best by car:
Kruger National Park, South Africa
You’re still buzzing with that chance leopard sighting – just an amber glance and a parting curl of white tail-tip as the cat slunk away – when you round a corner to find the immovable bulk of a bull elephant blocking the road. You jam on the brakes, spitting gravel. The great pachyderm wheels round with an irritated flap of tabletop-sized ears but, seeing nothing threatening in your puny hire car, soon resumes his leisurely demolition of the stricken acacia. You’re going nowhere until he moves so you settle down to watch. Tusks and trunk set to work, splitting, tearing and heaving until, with a splintering groan and a crack like a rifle shot, the tree topples into the thorn scrub and the elephant wanders after it. You slip back into gear and edge slowly past.
Of all Africa’s great reserves, the Kruger is indisputably the best for the self-drive visitor. Good roads and affordable camps mean that you can simply set out in a family car and enjoy on your own terms one of the continent’s most impressive wildlife spectacles. Rewards include the fabled Big Five, with Africa’s largest population of rhinos and second largest of lions, plus healthy numbers of wild dog and cheetah, large herds of zebra and giraffe, and a rich diversity of antelope. Rivers harbour hippos and crocodiles, while kori bustards and ground hornbills are among 500-plus species of bird.
The key to these riches is the Kruger’s diversity of habitats, which range from craggy granite hills to acacia savanna and dense mopane woodland. Size helps too: measuring some 350km from north to south, this park is larger than Israel and easily big enough to absorb its numerous visitors, with enough remote back roads and bush camps to keep any wilderness lover happy.
If you’re anxious about how to handle a stroppy jumbo, however, and would rather entrust the driving to the experts, then jump on board an open jeep safari from one of the rest camps. Or, with budget no object, do it in style at one of many exclusive lodges in and around the park. With an expert guide and a go-anywhere vehicle, thrilling close encounters are guaranteed.
Duration: A north to south trip – as above – could take three days but is better spread over at least ten. With less time, concentrate on one section of the park, taking shorter drives, and aim to spend a minimum of three nights.
When to go: All-weather roads and perennial water sources makes the Kruger a year-round destination. The late dry season (August–October) sees the largest game concentrations. The summer rainy season (November–March) is best for birdlife and breeding mammals.
South Africa National Parks, Tel: +27 12 428 9111; www.sanparks.org
Kruger Park.com, Tel: +27 21 468 7255; www.krugerpark.com
Travel Exclusively African, Tel: 0845 644 5242; www.holidaystosouthafrica.co.uk
Best on foot:
Luangwa Valley, Zambia
The single paw print has all the authority of gangland graffiti, its unclawed toes and palm-sized pad spells ‘lion’. Your guide straightens up and casts around for the big cat’s trail, soon finding its continuation along an old elephant track. A resonant grunting of hippos from beyond the trees suggests that the river is close. This lion was a large male, explains your guide. He passed this way just an hour or so ago, heading to the water. The pride won’t be far away.
You press on. This morning’s walk has already brought one revelation after another: the caterpillar-track imprint of a puff adder’s sluggish progress; a giant eagle owl peering down from the huge thatch of an abandoned hamerkop nest; the cloven-hoofed drumbeat of unseen impala leaping away through the thickets. But now, with the prospect of lions close by – perhaps even watching you – the experience takes on a whole new frisson.
Walking safaris are about more than ticking off sightings. They offer a full sensory immersion in the bush and a chance to learn the fine forensic art of tracking. Nowhere are they more thrilling than in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park, accessed via Mfuwe Airport, where the open woodland and sweeping meander loops offer perfect walking terrain and the guides are the best in the business.
Walking safaris of various lengths operate from all camps in the national park. Most routes follow a stretch of the Luangwa River, with the journeys ranging from morning strolls from your lodge to more serious hikes, covering distances of 40-50km over several days. Either way, the experience of taking a game drive after exploring the wilds on foot feels like watching wildlife on TV.
Duration: Walking safaris range from three–four hour morning walks to five-day hikes, where you overnight in temporary camps.
When to go: The late dry season (August to October) is best for wildlife-viewing and concentrations of large mammals. Some lodges run boat-assisted walking safaris during the late rainy season (Feb–April), when much of the valley floods, animals are breeding and birdlife is prolific.
Best by kayak:
A blanket of morning mist reduces visibility, screening the islands and bays, and it’s the hissing exhalation of spouts that first betray the presence of orcas passing behind your kayaks. Securing paddles, you look round to see their tall dorsal fins slicing through the mirror-calm surface. The pod passes within 20 metres, black and white livery flashing above the surface. Today, though, there’s no hanging around: they’re heading out in search of salmon.
Orcas are not the only wildlife attraction in the fertile waters of Johnstone Strait: humpback whales also pass the summer here, sometimes breaching close to thrilled kayakers. And paddling through the sheltered channels and around the shoreline you may encounter dolphins, sea lions and otters, and perhaps even glimpse a black bear leading her cubs from the forest down to the beach. At night, around your island campfire, you hear the blows of orcas from the dark water beyond.
Duration: From single days to six-day camping trips.
When to go: Summer, from mid-July to mid-September, is the peak season for orcas and humpback whales.
Spirit of the West Adventures, Tel: +1 250 285 2121; www.kayakingtours.com
North Island Kayak, Tel: +1 250 928 3114; www.kayakbc.ca
Best on horseback:
Nyika National Park, Malawi
Up on the plateau the wildlife seems unfazed by your horses. Statuesque roan antelope stand their ground, raising striped muzzles to stop and stare, while zebra barely look up from their grazing. You canter across a gulley of tree ferns and up the open hillside to the ridge top beyond. Far below you, a carpet of savanna rolls out from the foot of the plateau towards the blue haze of Lake Malawi. Binoculars reveal distant elephants moving through a patch of miombo woodland like beetles through broccoli. Nyika is hardly your typical safari destination, with its crisp mountain air and chilly nights. But the views are fabulous and the wildlife includes rare birds and orchids, abundant antelope and a good population of leopard and spotted hyena, the latter often seen by day. There’s no better way to explore this panoramic terrain than on horseback. Experienced riders can enjoy 10-day guided trails, with a mobile camp set up along the route each night.
Duration: Rides vary from a few hours for beginners to a week or more or experienced riders. Longer horseback safaris use a mobile camping set-up.
When to go: All year round: winter nights are cold (June–August); floral display best in early summer (October–November).
Tour operators: Wilderness Safaris, Tel: +27 11 807 1800; www.wilderness-safaris.com
Best by cruise ship:
There’s no denying it: the Drake Passage was as rough as you’d been warned back in Ushuaia: wandering albatrosses cruised past over heaving seas as you clung to the rail, scanning for any sign of land. But your cruise ship is large, stable and comfortable, and by the time you awake to your first view of the Antarctic Peninsula – a backdrop of snowy peaks, ice-floes and glaciers – your sea legs have sprouted.
It is Antarctica’s sheer scale that blows away the first-timer – and, for that matter, the old hand: slabs of floating ice the size of cathedrals; huge glaciers curving back to a hinterland of harshness; penguins gathering by the hundreds of thousands; whale spouts on all corners of the horizon. The wildlife is impressive and prolific. As well as the penguins and cetaceans, there are seals everywhere – Weddell seals hauled out on ice floes; leopard seals patrolling the shorelines – while skuas, giant petrels and other scavenging seabirds patrol the breeding colonies. And the whole dramatic tableau comes bathed in a magical polar light, a palette of blues, whites and golds.
For a closer look, you leave your cruise ship at anchor and join a small group of companions in an inflatable zodiac. This is your chance to eyeball the sea mammals at close range and watch the penguins porpoising off your bows. Daily landings allow visitors both to explore the offshore islands and touch down on the peninsula itself. Scrambling up the shingle beaches brings a more intimate acquaintance with the penguins: gentoo, chinstrap and adélie. You may also feel an inkling of that thrill experienced by the first explorers who ventured this way in the 19th century, pioneers whose legendary tales of horror and heroism document humankind’s attempt to pit their wits and resources against the most hostile landscape on Earth.
Duration: A typical Antarctic Peninsula cruise lasts 10 days. Longer itineraries may take in sub-Antarctic Islands such as South Georgia.
When to go: Cruises take place during the Antarctic summer, from November to March, when there is access through the pack ice. November is courtship time for seals and penguins; February is best for whales.
One Ocean Expeditions, Tel: +1 351 962 721 836; www.oneoceanexpeditions.com
Best by jungle trek:
Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica
It’s a sloth, yes, but is it two-toed or three-toed? You crane up through the creepers for a better view but the motionless lump of fur slung below the branch is hardly revealing legs, let alone toes. Leaf-cutter ants trundle up and down buttress roots, ferrying their cornflake-sized trophies to the nest, and a morpho butterfly flops past in a flash of electric blue. As you angle for a better view, a shrieking commotion high in the canopy reveals that a party of white-faced capuchins has spotted you. Still the sloth doesn’t move.
Costa Rica’s most impressive lowland rainforest lies in Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula. Overnight guided trails offer an excellent cross-section of the wildlife that makes this Central America country one of the most biodiverse on Earth. Birds and primates forage in the canopy, reptiles and insects cross the trail, and crocodiles and caymans lounge beside tidal waterways. Larger mammals, such as tapir and jaguar, are elusive but your guide will point out their tracks. Meanwhile, expect the unexpected: perhaps a group of white-lipped peccaries snuffling across the trail, an eyelash viper on a heliconia or even a rare harpy eagle soaring over the canopy.
Nights on trail are spent camping or at one of the ranger stations. From the latter you can explore the sandy beaches of the Pacific, home to four breeding species of turtle. This is real jungle with abundant insects and thigh-deep river crossings so a decent level of fitness is required.
Duration: Treks vary from 3km trails to three-day trips.
When to go: The park is open year-round but parts may close during the wet months of July to November.
Reef and Rainforest, Tel: 01803 866 965; www.reefandrainforest.co.uk
Best by hot air balloon
They call Serengeti’s annual migration the “greatest wildlife show on earth”, with its countless thousands of wildebeest, zebra and gazelles trekking across the seemingly limitless savanna towards the distant promise of rain. And from a hot-air balloon you have a bird’s-eye view. The oval shadow of your craft drifts over the herds, each animal picked out in pinpoint relief by the slanting light of dawn. In your 10-person basket all is silent, except for the clicking of cameras and occasional deep exhalations of the burner. Natural sounds float up from below: the cackle of guinea fowl, the hiccupping of zebra and – as you pass over a patch of forest – the alarm barks of baboons. Cantering giraffe cast absurdly long shadows, while a pride of lions returning from the night’s hunt, heads swinging, barely look up. And with a champagne breakfast laid out at your landing site ahead, there can surely be few better ways to start a day.
Duration: A balloon safari lasts around one hour, taking off at dawn and landing in time for breakfast.
When to go: Balloon safaris take place all year. Peak migration times in northern Serengeti are generally May/June and November/December, with the herds crossing into Masai Mara for July–October.
Best by riverboat:
The Pantanal, Brazil
Your boatman kills the engine and, taking out a paddle, nudges your craft carefully through the clinging mat of water hyacinth. The yacare caiman that held prehistoric poses on the bank lose their nerve as you approach and, one by one, slip into the dark water. A capybara raised its dripping muzzle to stare at your intrusion while a sun bittern takes flight in a flash of moth-like wing markings. From somewhere in the tangled canopy behind comes the booming roar of howler monkeys. It feels for all the world as though you are the first human beings to penetrate this watery wilderness.
Brazil’s Pantanal is the world’s largest wetland and the backdrop to arguably South America’s greatest wildlife experience. Unsurprisingly, the best way in which to explore this vast mosaic of rivers, swamps and forested islands is by boat. Local fishermen use a traditional rough-hewn dugout, hooking piranhas and other delicacies in still pools along the quiet backwaters. You will probably find it easier – and certainly more comfortable – in one of the little motor launches that carry small visitor parties around the maze of waterways.
The bewildering profusion of wildlife on view includes many of the continent’s undisputed A-listers. Giant river otters haunt the larger rivers, cavorting around your bows in noisy, acrobatic fishing parties. Hyacinth macaws – the world’s largest parrot – lurch overhead on cobalt wings, pairs squabbling in ear-splitting shrieks. Brazilian tapirs emerge from the forest to cool their bulk in the shallows, leaving just the long snout and horse-like mane protruding. Even anacondas are not uncommon, sometimes measuring their gleaming length across the raised causeways that bisect the wetlands.
The Pantanal’s greatest prize, however, and the species that in recent years has really put the place on the wildlife map, is the jaguar. Nowhere in South America offers more reliable sightings of the continent’s greatest predator, and with luck – and an experienced boatman – you can spot this supremely camouflaged cat lounging on a shaded riverbank, enjoying the cooling breezes off the water. Keep quiet, and you may get close enough to see right into those implacable amber eyes.
Duration: Individual boat journeys last three to four hours and are conducted from riverside lodges. Spend at least three days in the area, maximising time on the water for the best chance of spotting jaguars and other key wildlife.
When to go: The northern Pantanal is most productive during the late dry season, from June to October, when wildlife gathers at shrinking water sources.
Best by mountain hike:
There’s something undeniably thrilling about watching large birds of prey from above; reaching a height from where, instead of peering up at mere silhouettes, you can look down on their great sunlit wings gliding over empty space. A mountain trail in Spain’s Ordesa National Park leads the hiker up through dense pine forest, across lush meadows and above the boulder line to towering limestone buttresses where raptors rule the roost. Griffon vultures circle the crags, like pterodactyls from Conan Doyle’s novel The Lost World, while rare bearded vultures sail above canyons on hang-glider wings and golden eagles sweep over ridge tops to flush out unwary prey. And it’s not just birds: a rattle of stones may reveal chamois picking their way over precipitous scree slopes, while you may spy wild boar leading stripy young through carpets of alpine flowers or marmots popping up from burrows to whistle shrill alarms. This is bona fide wilderness – and all at the very heart of western Europe.
Duration: Days hikes lead from park villages and viewpoints; a network of mountain refuges allows longer trails of up to a week for self-sufficient hikers wishing to stay longer.
When to go: Winter snows mean that much of the park is off limits to all but skiers from November to March. Peak season for wildlife is early, from May to July, when mammals are breeding and migratory birds are present.
Hike Pyrenees, Tel: 020 8123 5049; www.hikepyrenees.co.uk
The Travelling Naturalist, Tel: 01305 267 994; www.naturalist.co.uk
Iberian Wildlife Tours, Tel: +34 942 735154; www.iberianwildlife.com