1. The Great Migration, Kenya / Tanzania, Africa
Animal encounters are a must in Africa, and Kenya is home to the most impressive natural spectacle you’re ever likely to see. Every year, up to a million wildebeest stream into the Masai Mara Game Park from the Serengeti in Tanzania.
The migration of the wildebeest, as they search out greener pastures, is the greatest animal encounter on earth. They’re enormous, top-heavy, bearded beasts. Their behaviour is boisterous and unpredictable, involving much grunting, bucking, unexpected leaps and sudden stampedes.
What’s really amazing is the sheer number of animals as they pour dramatically across the Sand River and into the eastern side of the reserve around Keekorok, before munching their way westwards. They’re accompanied by thousands of zebras who kindly tag along to vary the colour-scheme, and watched hungrily by a host of predators such as lions, leopards and crocodiles, who pick off the weak animals.
With blatant disregard for the requirements of tourism, the wildebeest vary the precise timing of their migration from year to year. However, you can expect to see them arrive in the Masai Mara between July and September. You can organise safaris to the Mara easily enough once you’re in Kenya; just make sure you’re there at the right time to see this animal encounter.
2. Mountain Gorillas, Uganda / Rwanda, Africa
The mountain gorillas of Central Africa are one of man’s closest relatives and one of the most threatened species on the planet. Vital to their survival is the cash generated from allowing tourists to spend a few minutes in the company of one of the very few bands of gorillas that have been habituated to human presence.
It’s inaccessible, expensive and hard physical work, but no one who has ever looked into the eyes of a wild gorilla will forget the experience. Even years later they go all misty-eyed and mumble about the ‘deep, mystical connection’ over this animal encounter. David Attenborough still rates it amongst his most memorable animal encounters and he’s had more than a few.
Uganda is slightly more politically stable than Rwanda and also closer to the well-trod backpacker path, so is probably your best bet. The entire country has four habituated bands of gorillas; three of which are in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park. Six tourists a day may visit each band, so only 24 a day across the country. Needless to say, you can’t just wander in and start looking about; a gorilla permit itself is US$360 and needs to be booked a fair way in advance. Even then, if you turn up on the day with a cold or anything else vaguely infectious-looking, then it’s no gorillas for you today.
It’s not an easy thing to sort out by yourself, which is why so many tour companies offer the trip and arrange your permit for you. The gorilla permit is almost never included in the price though, so be careful about which one you sign up to as prices may be deceptive. However, it’s worth it; this truly is one of the best animal encounters.
3. The Amazon Rainforest, South America
Seeing as how the Amazon Rainforest is easily the richest natural habitat we have, you might be surprised to find this animal encounter down in third. That’s simply because it’s so dense and so vast, that it can be seriously difficult to actually find any of the many and varied beasts and birds once you’re there. Bugs however, will find you fairly quickly.
The best way to get in amongst it and see the jungle close up is by boat and the major spot for sorting this out is Manaus in Brazil. It’s an odd place is Manaus; a thriving metropolis almost completely isolated by the surrounding jungle. It sits near where the two main branches of the Amazon meet. You need at least a few days on a boat to get anywhere near to proper untouched rainforest, but it’s a pretty comfortable life. You sleep in a hammock on the upper deck, so it’s probably best to try to get your trip on the Rio Negro (the northern branch of the Amazon) because its waters are not so kind to mosquitos. The river is at its highest in May and June and lowest in November / December.
To get here, you can either get on an internal flight from Rio or Sao Paulo, or take a boat from Belem. Be warned though, the boat takes around five days. Buses do get to Manaus, but we don’t have any reliable information to give you. If you don’t want to book your tour before your arrival, make sure you use one of the established operators in town, as there are plenty of touts and rip-off merchants about.
No trip to South America would be complete without seeing the Amazon Rainforest and no trip to the Amazon Rainforest would be complete without an animal encounter, so keep your eyes peeled!
4. Orang-Utans, Borneo, Indonesia / Malaysia
The hairy, ginger, plate-faced tree-boy with the leathery hand-feet, the ‘Wild Man of Borneo’ or the ‘orang-utan’ if you will, is native to Borneo and an absolute must on the animal encounters list. In a region already high in threatened species, it’s one of the region’s most threatened species. Excessive logging, palm tree plantations, illegal forest clearance and air pollution are all contributing factors.
Hope of survival for this shy and solitary creature comes in the form of the Sepilok Orang-Utan Rehabilitation Centre, located on the north-eastern coast and about 23km from the town of Sandakan, and is the best place to head for this animal encounter. The centre was established in 1964 to house injured or orphaned orang-utans, where they are then nursed back to health before being released into the wild. Trips can be arranged at Sandakan, and if you want to stay for a few days the accommodation consists of air-conditioned chalets that have verandas looking out onto a lake or jungle view! Feeding times are at 10am and 2.30pm when rangers provide visitors with milk and bananas to give to the apes.
Sightings of the orang-utans vary, but it is extremely rare to leave the centre without seeing any. Attracted by the food they come to the feeding platforms to eat, play games with each other and generally lark around. Visitors often comment on their ‘soulful’ gaze and their ‘intelligent’ eyes. A documentary is shown in the centre after each feeding time for those wishing to learn more about the orang-utans.
If you want to spend a couple of months looking after the vine-dangling orang-utans there are projects that run at Sepilok and elsewhere so you can do your bit for the survival of the species.
5. Whale-Watching, New Zealand
Where to watch whales depends on the time of year and the migration of the whales as much as it does on the country. Obviously you get different species depending on where you are, but they’re all going to be huge great things that cause your jaw to drop to the deck of your suddenly-feels-a-lot-less-sturdy-than-it-did-a-moment-ago boat. New Zealand is our choice for this animal encounter because you’ve got a good chance of seeing sperm whales, which are the ones that apparently have titanic undersea battles with squid the size of a bus. That sounds pretty cool to us. The best town to organise this from in New Zealand is Kaikoura (north-east coast of the South Island).
Other great whale-watching sites across the world are Hermanus in South Africa, California in the USA and the Baja California Peninsula in Mexico. Closer to home, the Isle of Mull, off the west coast of Scotland, is good for minke whales, dolphin, killer whales and porpoises, meaning you can have your animal encounter a little closer to home.