There’s few more thrilling travel experiences than getting up close and personal with animals in their natural environment. Here, taken from the pages of Make The Most Of Your Time On Earth, are ten ideas for nature lovers around the world. Whether it’s wolves in Wyoming or jellyfish in Palau, there’s all kinds of experiences to try. Let us know your own favourite animal spots below.
Bathing with snow monkeys, Japan
Should you choose to imagine a monkey, it’s likely to be surrounded in your mind’s eye by tropical vines or thick jungle, trading screams with the parrots or chowing down a banana. Snowy peaks would not usually be on the agenda, but Japan is home to a particular breed of macaque that positively revels in the stuff.
These clever monkeys share a number of common bonds with human beings – they’re one of the only two animals known to wash their food before eating it, and no other primates live further north. Also, like their occasionally more intelligent two-legged cousins, many macaques counter the winter cold by hunting down a source of warmth; in Japan, you’re never far from a hot spring, and one of the country’s most magical winter sights is the view of a horde of apes silhouetted in the mist of an outdoor pool.
The winter coincides with the mating season, and it’s hard to say what’s more amusing – monkeys engaging in poolside trysts, or the Japanese pretending not to notice. Tourists head to places such as Jigokudani in Yamanouchi to catch glimpses of the bathing apes, especially the loveable baby macaques. Bear in mind that though their eyes may appear dispassionate, it’s unwise to look directly into them for too long, lest it be taken as a sign of aggression.
You can see snow monkeys throughout Japan, but your best chances are in Jigokudani, or “Hell’s Valley”.
Wolf-watching in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Waking at ink-black 4am to groggily don layers of long underwear is an inauspicious start to a day. But as a crack of light on the horizon grows and an eerie chorus of hair-raising howls rises from the gloom ahead, your discomfort is soon forgotten. The morning’s wolf-watch is already a success. When it was founded in 1872, Yellowstone was celebrated as a wonderland of gushing geysers, where elk and bison roamed freely. But while visitors flocked to the world’s first national park to glory in the steady steam of Old Faithful, indigenous animals believed to be a danger to man were trapped and killed at virtually every opportunity. Grey wolves were particularly feared, and the last pack was exterminated in 1926.
The population has been in decline in recent years and, at the time of writing, less than a hundred wolves now roam here. Despite this, a single pack in Yellowstone can live within less than fifty square miles, and the park is still the most reliable place in the wild for watching wolves. Even if you’re not fortunate enough to see a wolf, you’ll get to interact with the omnipresent wolf-watching parties clustered along the park’s highways, exchanging stories of favourite wolves and dramatic hunts between peeks through a line of spotting scopes.
For more information on wolf-watching in Yellowstone, visit www.yellowstoneassociation.org.
Walking with giants at Serra da Canastra, Brazil
Among South America’s menagerie of the weird and wonderful, few creatures come stranger than the giant anteater. And nowhere do you have a better chance of seeing this animal than among the high, rolling grasslands of Serra da Canastra National Park.
Here, perched on a plateau in Minas Gerais Province, the beleaguered animals are safe from the hunters, traffic and loggers that have reduced their numbers across the continent and so more inclined to wander about in broad daylight. Just find an elevated spot and scan the slopes; sooner or later you’ll spot that distinctive profile working a distant hillside. Every termite mound is scarred with their excavations.
It’s not only anteaters that make Canastra special. This park marks the birthplace of the mighty Sào Francisco river, which gurgles up from a fern-choked hollow on the plateau to cross the grasslands and cascade off the escarpment into the forests below. Hike the river’s upper reaches and you may meet a rare maned wolf – a fox on stilts, decked out with a horse’s mane and tail – stalking elegantly through the long grass.
Serra da Canastra National Park (www.canastra.com.br) lies 8km from the town of Sao Roque de Minas and about five hours’ drive from Belo Horizonte – the nearest airport. Access is best during the dry season (April–Oct).
Up close with pandas in Chengdu, China
There’s only one thing cuter than a giant panda: its cuddly, bumbling baby, the closest animal equivalent to a real live teddy. But these loveable black-and-white bears are one of the most reproductively challenged species on the planet, with exceptionally low birth rates. It’s thought that there are fewer than two thousand of them left worldwide. The Giant Panda Breeding Research Base, just outside Chengdu in Sichuan, was established to preserve this cherished emblem of China, and has become a magnet for panda fans worldwide. It’s extremely rare to see a cub in zoos, and it’s virtually impossible to see any pandas at all in the wild – but come to the research base and you’ll see plenty.
There are no bars or railings here; instead, each enclosure is separated from the public pathways by a deep trench – come at feeding time and you can gaze unobstructed as mummy panda languidly chews her way through several heaps of bamboo shoots and leaves, slumped nonchalantly on the floor and occasionally throwing a bemused glance at her adoring admirers.
But there’s no doubt who steals the show. Panda cubs come charging out of the compounds with surprising energy, romping over the grass and scrambling up the trees, invariably tumbling to the ground again and again as they make hilariously slapstick attempts to reach the top.
The Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Research Base (www.panda.org.cn) is located 10km outside Chengdu in Sichuan province.
Tracing the turtle arribada at Orissa, India
We’d known they were on their way since breakfast time, when news that the arribada had formed a couple of kilometres out to sea had crackled through our shortwave radio from the spotter ship. First reports suggested that numbers were good. After a week of scanning the eastern horizon, the stage was set for one of the world’s great annual wildlife spectacles.
The first olive ridleys reached us around sunset. After their epic swim across half of the planet’s oceans, the pregnant females arrive exhausted and silent, allowing the surf to wash them as far up the incline as possible before starting their struggle with the undertow and soft sand. Within half an hour, the beach is entirely covered: a huge undulating sweep of hump-backed shells, glistening under a full moon. An estimated 240,000 marine turtles crawled on to Gahirmatha beach that night, watched by barely thirty or so people from the Greenpeace Turtle Witness Camp, which campaigns to protect the nesting site.
By the time they’d laid their batch of eggs, many were too drained to move, submitting with watery-eyed indifference to the attentions of us onlookers. Then, as if in response to some pre-arranged signal, the whole arribada suddenly started lumbering seaward again, leaving behind them an empty beach crisscrossed with myriad prints.
The arribada usually takes place around February or March. You will need your own transport to reach Gahirmatha beach – Chandbali is a good base for day-trips and you can obtain a permit here. Check with the OTDC tourist office in Bhubaneswar or Puri, to see if the turtles are expected before you set off.
Make like Kipling on the elephant show, India
In the heart of India, the vast landlocked state of Madhya Pradesh boasts some of the world’s best tiger reserves. You have a better chance of seeing these animals here than anywhere else in India; moreover, you get to do so in a landscape that is simply stunning. Several of these parks claim – erroneously – to have provided the inspiration for Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, and although the author never actually visited the areas in question, the scenery – meandering streams, creeper-clad deciduous forests and grassy maidans (meadows) – is undeniably Kiplingesque.
Madhya Pradesh’s finest reserve is the 940-square-kilometre Kanha National Park, home to hordes of monkeys, gaur (the world’s largest wild cattle), numerous species of deer, including the “12-horned” barasingha, sloth bears, wild boar, pythons, porcupines and leopards, but the tigers are by far the park’s biggest draw. Safaris kick off in Jeeps – locally referred to as “gypsies” – and drivers and naturalists scan the ground for pugmarks and listen for warning cries from other animals. When a sitting or sleeping tiger is spotted, an “elephant show” is declared: visitors exit their vehicles and clamber onto elephants, who, urged on by their mahouts, crash chaotically through the jungle in hot pursuit.
Kanha National Park is open from November until the start of the monsoon season. The nearest city is Jabalpur, a 5hr drive away, which has an airport and train station. See www.mptourism.com.
Stalking the creatures of the night, Singapore
Darkness engulfs the sky, blanketing trees, the path and those out walking. From the mysterious shadows, sounds of people – breathing, treading on twigs, murmuring in the distance – filter through. Then suddenly an intimidating roar penetrates the din. Welcome to Singapore Zoo’s night safari, the world’s first nocturnal zoo.
Walk one of three trails – Fishing Cats, Forest Giants and Leopards – or jump on a tram and travel two road loops to catch oblivious nocturnal creatures going about their usual business. You might find the shadowy corners of the trails a little disorientating, especially when you look up to find yourself face-to-face with a giant flying squirrel. Unlike other zoos, there aren’t any big cats lazing around waiting for a keeper to bring them their meal. Here you’ll witness them actually prowling around hunting for their supper – this is about as close to a real safari as you can get within the confines of a zoo.
Many of the walk-through exhibits are likely to get your heart pumping faster: the Forest Giants trail, home to plants of all shapes and sizes, also has flying lemurs, owls and tree shrews, so if you’re at all uneasy about having a creature come within centimetres of you, this is not the exhibit – or the zoo – for you.
For further information on Singapore Zoo’s night safari, check out www.nightsafari.com.sg.
Drifting with jellyfish in Micronesia, Palau
They’re all around you – literally millions of pulsating golden mastigia, like a swarm of squishy tennis balls in zero gravity. As you move your limbs to keep yourself afloat in this warm lake on one of Palau’s Rock Islands, the jellyfish brush softly against your skin, then waft away as endless others take their place. They can barely sting – aeons spent in this saltwater lake without a single predator have weakened their defences – so there’s no need to avoid them, and you couldn’t even if you tried. And though beautiful, these creatures aren’t as fragile as they look; the depths where they spend the night contain high levels of hydrogen sulphide, which is toxic to humans.
Scuba diving is banned for this reason, but a mask and snorkel are all you need to explore the lake’s upper reaches. Along with the mastigia, you’ll also spot tiny gobies and cardinal fish hiding among the mangrove roots while up above, kingfishers perch imperiously on their branches.
See www.visit-palau.com for more details and links to diving operators.
Doing the crocodile rock in Kakadu National park, Australia
“He was right by the base of that paperbark tree when the croc got him,” says Nerida, our guide, as we unpack our picnic lunch on the edge of the West Alligator River. We’re only a few hours drive out of Darwin and already this is her third crocodile tale, each new anecdote regaled with greater enthusiasm than the one before. Her eyes twinkle mischievously as she watches us quickly retreat back up the bank. “The poor guy didn’t even have time to blink,” she continues, with a deadpan delivery honed over countless tours. It’s hard to tell if she has spiced up the story for us or not, but there’s no doubting the reverential tone in her voice. Out here, I begin to understand, the crocodile is still king.
Nearly everyone you meet in Kakadu National Park has got a croc story to tell. And it’s easy to see why: Kakadu is archetypal Outback – Crocodile Dundee was filmed amongst the gum trees here – and it exudes a feeling of raw nature. After a few days spent exploring its woodlands, wetlands and sandstone escarpments, I was beginning to wonder if I would leave Kakadu without seeing a quick glimpse of a jagged tail. But stopping off on our drive back to Darwin for a cruise on the Adelaide River, I got it. The water was brown and still, and as our boat chugged upstream, a rugged outline broke the surface a few metres up ahead, scything through the water towards us. Nerida checks that everyone onboard has their arms tucked firmly inside the boat. I just stare, transfixed, as nearly two hundred million years of immutable natural history glides slowly off into the distance.
www.environment.gov.au/parks/kakadu is a mine of information about the park.
Watching whales in Kaikoura, New Zealand
It’s 7.30am and we’re just a kilometre off the coast of Kaikoura. I can still see the wharf where we embarked, backed by the snowcapped Seaward Kaikoura range, and yet below us is 1000m of ocean. This is exactly the sort of territory that many whale species like to call home. Most places in the world, a whale-watching trip involves hours powering out to sea to the whales’ migration route, but here the whales are virtually on the doorstep.
Sperm whales and dusky dolphins are year-round residents, while blue whales, pilot whales and especially humpback whales all pass through. Regular visitors include southern right whales, so named because whalers found them to be the “right” whales to kill – they floated after being harpooned. Weather permitting, trips run several times a day, and you’re typically out among the leviathans within minutes.
Trips are run by the Maori-owned Whale Watch Kaikoura (www.whalewatch.co.nz); book in advance.