Want to see gorillas in your midst? Lonely Planet Magazine gave Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, located in southwest corner Uganda, its 2010 Best Wildlife Encounter Award. Surrounded by stunning volcanoes, you trek through dense jungle, tracking a family of huge gorillas. Watching these powerful beasts interact in the wild, in the company of experts, is no monkey business.
Still in South Africa, head to the Eastern Cape to the fantastic Daniell Cheetah Breeding Project. Cheetah, lion, and other wild cats are bred to be re-introduced into the wild. Here, it’s possible to get real close and personal with the fastest animal on earth, as I did with Ola, an adult female. Cheetahs purr like cats but don’t have slit eyes. Genetically, cheetahs are a cross between a dog and a cat, but because of their semi-retractable claws, it is classified as a cat. Either way, meeting a beautiful creature like Ola is something you’ll long remember.
Elephants have the uncanny ability to look right through you. If you get close enough to see their eyes, you’ll be staring into their unmistakable animal wisdom, even a sense of humour. My best elephant experience was at the Elephant Nature Park, located outside Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. Rescued Asian elephants are rehabilitated, and it’s possible for visitors to feed and wash them. In South Africa, Addo Elephant National Park in the Eastern Cape is famous for its 500 plus elephant. This photo was taken at Addo as a herd crossed the road right in front of our car.
Diving with hammerhead sharks in the Galapagos Islands is magic for scuba enthusiasts. Of course, the grand daddy of all sharks is the Great White Shark, but you’d have to be crazy to be anywhere near them outside the safety of a cage. I went cage diving with White Shark Africa in Mossel Bay, South Africa. Watching a huge 3.5m Great White rattle my cage was thrilling, and illuminating too. This is no monster, just a misunderstood yet frightening predator, vital for the survival of the oceans.
On Turtle Island, off the coast of Sabah in Malaysian Borneo, I waited until midnight for hatchlings to be released into the warm, South China Sea. Only 1% will eventually survive to adulthood, with females returning to this same island to lay her eggs many decades later. A conservation project ensures that the Hawksbill turtles are given the best possible shot at survival. You can also hit the beach with the Barbados Sea Turtle Project, who do similar important work. Watching a giant turtle lay her eggs at moonlight is pretty special.
Early breeders ensured the survival of this large, awkward bird, otherwise it might have gone the way of other flightless birds like the dodo and moa. In Outshoorn, South Africa, I learned all about ostrich at Highgate Ostrich Farm. Their eggs are delicious, with one egg being equivalent to 24 chicken eggs. They’re fun to ride, but could never replace a horse since they function almost entirely on instinct. Their feathers grow back naturally after being plucked, their meat is super healthy, and they look really, really funny.
Half of Canada’s Grizzly Bears, a quarter of our Black Bears, and the rare Spirit Bear all roam the forests of British Columbia. Most bear watching safaris use elevated platforms to watch the bears do their thing, whether it’s roaming in the forest, or hunting salmon by a river. Of course, you could just as easily encounter a bear on the side of a highway (as many B.C residents often do) but its safer and way more interesting to be with a guide, learning about the bears in their natural habitat.