20 stunning close encounters with animals

Rough Guides Editors

written by
Rough Guides Editors

updated 07.06.2024

If you like getting up close and personal with the animal kingdom on your travels, these trip ideas should appeal. From alligators to zebras - via reindeer, cheetahs, baboons and gorillas - we've herded together a veritable wildlife park to inspire you.

See wildlife in Gabon

The jungles in Gabon have the highest diversity of tree and bird species anywhere in Africa (over 670 bird species have been recorded). It’s also a place where the wildlife of the equatorial rainforests tumbles out onto its Atlantic beaches: you’re just as likely to see hippos playing in the surf as you are elephants and buffalo roaming along the beach or humpback whales cavorting offshore. Only three national parks – Loango, Lope and Ivindo – are currently geared up for tourism and realistically accessible, but others are bound to follow.

An innovative pilot project known as Operation Loango has helped to establish ecotourism in the Loango National Park, a diverse ecosystem of forest, savannah, rivers, lagoons and beaches. The success of the project has led to the foundation of the travel company Africa’s Eden, which leads guided tours into the forest to see lowland gorillas, as well as operating humpback whale-watching trips from July to October. Trips into the forest are based from several lodges, such as Tassi Savannah Camp, a small tented camp by the beach, from where you can see green, olive ridley and leatherback turtles. The choice, then, is yours: hippos, lowland gorillas, elephants, turtles or the best birdlife in Africa.

For prices and itineraries of Africa’s Eden’s trips see www.africas-eden.com.

Join the Sami Reindeer Migration, Norway


© V. Belov/Shutterstock

Norwegian tour operator Turgleder offers a unique opportunity to join Scandinavia’s indigenous people as they follow the annual migration of reindeer from their inland winter habitat in the far north of Norway to their costal grazing land. This is emphatically not a made-for-tourism experience: the Sami use one or two snowmobiles to carry their equipment but other than that this is how they’ve been herding reindeer for centuries. So expect to eat and sleep like them in their lavvus (Sami tipis), cook over an open fire and go ice-fishing. You join up with a Sami family and spend four days travelling with the reindeer, feeding and caring for the herd and protecting them from predators (wolves and lynx) as they move across the desolate landscape. Not only will you witness the spectacular migration of hundreds of animals, but you’ll also be given a genuine – and privileged – insight into the life of the itinerant people of Scandinavia.

For prices and booking see www.turgleder.com.

Go on a dog-sledding safari in Svalbard, Norway


© Tyler Olson/Shutterstock

In Arctic conditions it’s difficult to get quickly from A to B without some form of assisted transport. Yet the noise and air pollution caused by snowmobiles hardly does the fragile environment much of a favour. Dog-sledding is the only viable green alternative, and Svalbard Villmarkssenter runs overnight tours as well as five-day dog-sledding trips from Longyearbyen southward through Spitsbergen’s glaciers and fjords. Svalbard Villmarkssenter also provides the option of a combined polar skiing and snow-kiting trip. En route, you’ll have a good chance of spotting polar foxes, seals and polar bears as well as the northern lights. This low-impact tour is in sharp contrast to the increasing number of motorized trips out of Longyearbyen, from where as many as seventy snowmobiles depart every day. Opt for the dog-sledding alternative and you’ll help to protect the Arctic wilderness and see more of the local fauna.

For itineraries, prices and advice on what to bring see www.svalbardvillmarkssenter.no.

Ready to explore Norway? Start preparing by finding out how to get there.

Come face to face with a mountain gorilla, Rwanda

No matter how many wildlife documentaries you’ve seen, nothing can prepare you for the moment you first see a mountain gorilla in the wild. Weighing some 200kg and not far off 2m tall (when standing upright), with deep-set eyes, a mass of coarse fur and bulging muscles, it is a fearsome sight. Yet once you’ve reeled from the terror of being so close to this huge wild animal, you become mesmerized by it.

Finding a mountain gorilla in the wild takes patience and skill. There are only about 680 left in the world in just two dense forest regions of Central Africa – in the Virunga Volcanoes region (which straddles Uganda, Rwanda and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo) and the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in southwest Uganda.

One of the best places to see the gorillas is in the Parc National des Volcans in the far northwest of Rwanda, which is home to half of the entire population of mountain gorillas. Rwanda Ecotours runs trips to see seven groups of gorillas that are habituated to humans. Tours range from a one-day trek to a six-day hike that includes a visit to the Dian Fossey Research Station where you can hear about the programme’s Mountain Gorilla Conservation work.

For itineraries, reservations and more about gorilla conservation see www.rwandaecotours.com.

Track cheetahs on foot, Namibia

Few people ever see a cheetah in the wild. As well as being one of the shyest of the big cats, it’s also one of the most endangered: perhaps only ten thousand remain, around a quarter of those in the barren expanses of Namibia. If you’re keen to see one then the Africat Foundation, the world’s most successful cheetah and leopard rescue-and-release programme, offers the best cheetah-spotting odds anywhere outside a zoo.

Based on the 223-square-kilometre Okonjima guest farm near Otjiwarongo, where guests stay in luxurious thatched chalets, Africat funds a programme to rescue cheetahs captured by farmers, thus saving them from the gun. It then cares for the animals with a view to their possible reintroduction to the wild (around 85 percent are ultimately released). The hundred or so cheetah on site live in enclosures ranging in size depending upon the state of their rehabilitation. Thanks to the radio collars used to monitor them, the cheetahs are far easier to find than would normally be the case. In some places, the guides will take you to around ten metres from a pair of cheetahs to watch them devour a kill, or you’ll follow them on foot as they track impala through the bush.

For details of rates, activities and the lodge see www.okonjima.com.

Become a game ranger at Kwa Madwala, South Africa

Few jobs have as romantic an image as being a game ranger. At Kwa Madwala Game Reserve, near to Kruger National Park, you can find out if you’ve got what it takes to track lions and hyenas on foot, tag and release birds of prey, or count antelope populations from a microlight. Over the last few years the owners of the estate have been turning a former trophy-hunting lodge back to the pristine wilderness it once was. One of the ways they fund this enterprise is by inviting guests to assist the rangers in their work. If you’ve got a few weeks or more to spare, then you can stay at a former farmhouse looking out over a small lake with resident hippos and crocodiles, and try out most aspects of a ranger’s work – from darting lions and rhinos to sleeping out in the bush under the stars.

Info on project opportunities, prices and how to apply at www.kwamadwala.net.

Kruger Park, Limpopo, South Africa © Rich T Photo/Shutterstock

© Rich T Photo/Shutterstock

Track red foxes in Vålådalen Nature Reserve, Sweden

From the Vålådalen mountain station at the foot of Ottfjället Mountain in western Jämtland, two Swedish biologists, Annica and Torkel Ideström, run shoeing tours through the hilly, pristine forests of the Vålådalen nature reserve. Covering 6–10km a day and camping out at night, you’ll investigate tracks of red fox, moose, reindeer, otter and mountain hare and learn about survival techniques in the wild. If you’re lucky you may spot the tracks of lynx and wolverine, or hear the distant barking of an Arctic fox high above the tree line in the Syl Massif. And if you live a charmed existence, you might witness the Northern Lights. The four-day round trip ends back at the mountain station where you can have a well-earned beer and sauna followed by a hearty dinner, with Arctic char, elk and reindeer on the menu.

For more info (in Swedish only) see www.mountainexperience.se.

Chacma baboon Kruger National Park, South Africa © Shutterstock

© PACO COMO/Shutterstock

Walk with the Chacma baboons, South Africa

Most of us would imagine that going for a stroll among baboons would be about as sane as going for a swim with crocodiles – their vicious teeth and ear-piercing shrieks hardly make them ideal rambling companions. Yet the team of guides at the charity Baboon Matters propose exactly this, and they’re not mad; they believe that if people develop a better understanding of the much-maligned baboons that live in the hills around Cape Town, then they will be less likely to consider them as pests.

Tourists are taken up into the hills and walk for around two hours to the baboons’ territory, where they can observe around thirty individuals from a distance of a few metres. Far from displaying aggression, though, the baboons regard their visitors with curiosity, or more often just carry on as if you weren’t there. One prods around under some stones with a stick, hoping for something to eat. A mother strides on all fours across the ground, her baby riding on her back. Two young males posture and mouth off in front of a bored-looking female. As you spend time among these fascinating creatures, apprehension is soon replaced by hushed wonder as the complexity of their relationships begins to unfold.

Information on tour booking, times and costs are at www.baboonmatters.org.za.

Wake up with meerkats, South Africa

The jeep stops at 5.30am outside dusty Oudsthoorn, a small town in the Western Cape. Everyone in the group gets out and walks a short distance away, tired but excited, binoculars trained on the holes in the bare ground nearby. A few minutes pass. Then, without warning, a furry head pops up like a jack-in-the-box. And another. Suddenly a group of sleepy meerkats are bobbing up and down, sunning themselves, foraging for food and playfighting.

Meerkats are normally shy creatures, and it’s thanks to Grant Mcilrath (known hereabouts as “Meerkat Man”) that this insight into their world is possible: they are used to him, and he knows how to find out which burrows in the 10km-wide conservation area they will have moved to overnight. As the sun rises higher and the urge to giggle at their antics subsides, the meerkats approach to within a few metres, seemingly unfazed. Before your stomach has even rumbled for breakfast, you’ve witnessed up close an animal society that few get the chance to see even from a distance.

For more info on tours and booking seewww.meerkatmagic.com.

Track wild dogs in the Limpopo, South Africa

The Endangered Wildlife Trust is a non-profit organization in the Limpopo region that has worked to ensure wild dogs’ survival for over three decades. One of their successes has been to show farmers that wild dog-tracking is a viable form of ecotourism that can protect the dogs while benefiting local communities. Spending nights at the thatched Little Muck Lodge in Mapungubwe, guests are led by a trained conservationist on 4WD tours that allow them to observe the dogs roaming in their natural habitat – hunting, if you’re lucky – and the fees from this are used to manage fenced reserves that keep the animals away from local farmers’ stock. So far it’s proving an effective strategy: the wild dog population in Limpopo is finally rising after a long decline.

Booking and rates for Little Muck Lodge and wild dog-tracking are at www.seekandtravel.com.

Help save the chimpanzee from extinction, South Africa


© Smallcreative/Shutterstock

Situated just 12km from the South African city of Nelspruit on the Umhloti Nature Reserve, the Jane Goodall Chimpanzee Eden is developing rehabilitation techniques so that as many chimps as possible can be released into the wild. For those too traumatized by their experiences, it provides a place similar to their natural habitat to live out their lives peacefully. You can drop in for an hour-long tour or stay for a week or more, helping to monitor behaviour or record the sounds they make when communicating, although no handling by guests is allowed. Experts reckon our closest relative will be extinct within their natural habitats in as little as a decade. Time (and money) spent watching the likes of Amadeus and Abu helps the sanctuary prevent this from happening.

For more on accommodation rates and tours see www.janegoodall.co.za.

See the rare sitatunga deer, Zambia

The best time and place to spot a sitatunga, Africa’s elusive swamp-dwelling deer, is at dawn and up a tree. Eighteen metres up a mahogany, to be exact, since the Fibwe tree hide in Zambia’s Kasanka Park offers an unbeatable vantage point, from where you might also see the equally endangered roan and sable deer. As the morning mists clear across the papyrus swamps below the hide, sitatunga take to the water to avoid leopards and other predators, though the water also has its dangers: visitors to the hide can occasionally spot the snouts of crocodiles floating loglike amid the reeds.

The park is privately owned by the UK/Zambian charity the Kasanka Trust, which spends its profits from tourist fees on conservation and community projects, from controlled timber production to local vegetable gardens, as well as providing employment as guides on walking safaris and canoe trips.

For more info see www.kasanka.com.

Visit Tembe Elephant Park, South Africa


© Dane Jorgensen/Shutterstock

Close encounters with elephants are common at Tembe Elephant Park in the north of South Africa’s KwaZulu Natal province. For centuries the ancestors of these elephants roamed freely across the sand forests of Maputuland, the region that straddles the border of South Africa and Mozambique, but their numbers collapsed during the Mozambiquan civil war due to poachers and land mines. In 1989 a fence was erected across the border to protect those elephants that remained on the South African side and now, after twenty years of successful rehabilitation, their numbers are again thriving.

The only camp in the park is Tembe Elephant Lodge, a joint collaboration between a Durban businessman and the local Thongan community, the historic custodians of Maputuland. There are luxurious tented pavilions with large double beds and outdoor showers, while meals are prepared by women from the village and served in a boma (eating area) under a thatched canopy. The safari camp’s facilities are standard for South Africa, but what sets Tembe apart are the thrilling game drives in the experienced hands of local guides.

For more on getting there, excursions, accommodation and rates see www.tembe.co.za.

Watch the zebra migration, Botswana


© The Law of Adventures/Shutterstock

Every year as the floods recede, the saltpans of Botswana become too dry to support life, forcing the wildlife there to return to the Boteti River for water. For millennia this has been one of the largest migrations in Southern Africa, but because of drought the river has not run since 1991; the last pool dried up in 1995.

To combat this, Meno a Kwena (a camp based on the river whose name means “crocodile’s teeth”) has built pumps that fill three water holes in the river bed. Its elevated position means that guests can watch as thousands of animals come to drink from the pools. You sleep at night in tents looking onto the bush. Each morning you can study the tracks in the sand to see what passed by in the night. Depending on the time of year, it could be up to 25,000 zebra, in which case you probably heard them anyway.

For rates and further info see www.menoakwena.com.

Track bears in British Columbia


© Anna Dunlop/Shutterstock

On a Great Bear Nature Tour on the northwest coast of British Columbia, you’ll have an excellent chance of witnessing the grizzly bear's natural feeding frenzy. Tours are based at Great Bear Lodge, a small floating cabin in Smith Inlet, one of the many fjords in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest. The only way in is by a 45min seaplane flight from Port Hardy on Vancouver Island, and as it’s the only place to stay in this region, guests have exclusive access to this protected area.

From late August to October, bears are drawn to the salmon-spawning streams that flow into the Nekite River. Guests are led by a guide along the riverbank to a hide, where you’ll look for bears hunting for the fish that will see them through the long winter hibernation, which can last up to seven months. There can be as many as thirty bears down by the river at any one time, and this is also the best time of the year to see the beguilingly cute cubs.

For bookings see www.greatbeartours.com.

Come face to face with alligators, Florida

Considered one of the most important wetlands in the world, the Everglades is a vast sodden expanse at the southernmost tip of Florida. Dragonfly Expeditions runs three-hour guided tours through its swamps, around the complex tangles of mangroves, sawgrasses and cypress trees that rise up out of the watery quagmire. To stop your feet getting wet, you’ll wear snug neoprene aquasocks and water-shoes, and be given a walking stick to help you stay upright on the slippery undergrowth as you search for river otters, wading birds and of course those ’gators.

You’ll be convinced grasses in the water are snakes as they wrap around your leg, and you’ll probably jump the first time your foot hits a branch underwater. But you’ll soon get used to the sensation, by which time the magnificent wildlife will probably have monopolized your attention – plus there’s a great slap-up lunch of fresh seafood and locally grown salad in a gourmet restaurant overlooking the Barron River to look forward to once you return to dry land.

For prices and more information visit www.dragonflyexpeditions.com.

Meet a moose in Algonquin, Canada


© Oliver S/Shutterstock

Few areas of wilderness as vast as Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park are as accessible from a major city. Just four hours by direct train from Toronto and you’re in 7600 square kilometres of maple hills, deciduous and coniferous forests, rocky ridges, spruce bogs, and thousands of lakes and streams. In the winter, this pristine park is the domain of dog-sledding expeditions, snow-shoeing and cross-country skiing, while in the summer thousands come for hiking, wild camping and canoe trips. Algonquin is one of the best places in the world to hear a wolf howling, or see moose and beavers, especially from the comfort of a canoe (there are an amazing 16,000km of canoe routes in the park).

To help you find your way around, Northern Edge runs guided canoe tours, including a three-day “Morning Tea with Moose” adventure where you’ll learn about the park’s ecology and be taken to some of the remote places where moose roam.

For prices and itineraries of all trips at Northern Edge see www.northernedgealgonquin.com

Join an elephant patrol in Indonesia

Wildlife lovers have plenty of reasons to head up to Gunung Leuser, one of Asia’s biggest national parks. Located three hours north of Medan in northern Sumatra, it covers almost 9500 square kilometres, stretching from the shoreline to the top of Indonesia’s tallest mountain (3381m), after which the park is named. Some wildlife is relatively easy to find, such as the rafflesia, the world’s biggest flower, which also has a vile rotting smell – earning it the nickname “corpse flower”. But for many the big draw is the chance to see one of the world’s rarest animals, the orang-utan, whose existence is threatened by the continued felling of its habitat.


© Sergey Uryadnikov/Shutterstock

There are, however, signs of hope that some habitat can be saved – epitomized by Tangkahan, a village of former loggers now making their living from ecotourism. There are only three places to stay and you’re free to explore the jungle by boat, foot or on the back of one of the seven elephants, who are used to patrol the area and deter loggers. Afterwards, you might like to get stuck in and wash your elephant, or rest on the beach, or even drift down the clear waters towards bat-filled caves, lazing in a rubber ring amid the chatter of toucans and leaf monkeys. Whether you’re lucky enough to encounter an orang-utan or not, it’s a world few get the chance to experience.

Tangkahan is five hours by car or daily bus from Medan.

Watch wildlife in bed, Sri Lanka

The Heritance Kandalama – designed by Sri Lanka’s leading architect, Geoffrey Bawa – lies surrounded by thickly forested hills and a shimmering lake, looking as if it is on the verge of being reclaimed by the forces of nature. Built so as not to affect the course of the water that flows underneath it, and with roof-top gardens festooned with creepers that drape seven floors down to the grass below, it blends seamlessly into the rock face into which it is built. Despite having 152 bedrooms, five restaurants and bars, three swimming pools and an organic spa, its stone facade is so covered with greenery that from the other side of the lake you can hardly see it.

There’s plenty of wildlife to see – as well as bird-, butterfly- and dragonfly-watching walks, guests can take part in a nocturnal snake-hike with the resident naturalist. Though if you’d rather see snakes during the day you can check out the hotel’s own animal rehabilitation centre and say hello to convalescing cobras and vipers. Having seen them you’ll probably want to double-check those French doors before retiring to bed.

For further information on accommodation, dining, activities, prices and getting there visit www.heritancehotels.net.

Koala spotting, Brisbane

One of the best places to spot koalas is in the eucalyptus forest surrounding Brisbane, just an hour’s drive from the city. The only catch is that these animals are notoriously shy and very well camouflaged – so if you’re with a guide who knows their hangouts your odds of seeing one will be much improved. One such expert is Dr Ronda Green of Araucaria Ecotours. A trained zoologist, Ronda and her son Darren and have been tracking koalas for years. They’ll soon have you peering through binoculars looking for freshly stripped branches and tell-tale claw marks, while watching your step for dry, cigar-shaped droppings – all clues to koalas being in the vicinity. With luck, you’ll spot the star of the show diligently chomping its way through the forest canopy or dozing way up above (koalas spend up to eighteen hours a day asleep so don’t expect them to pose for photos).

During the rest of the tour you’ll encounter a range of other Aussie icons including wallabies and kookaburras (probably the country’s loudest bird, with a piercing laughing call). As dusk descends there’s another treat in store – the sight and sound of thousands of fruit bats taking flight to forage; the noise is so intense it’s enough to wake a koala.

Araucaria Ecotours (www.learnaboutwildlife.com) runs wildlife day tours of one to three days from Brisbane and Gold Coast resorts.

Top image: Mandrill, Gabon © Cloudia Spinner/Shutterstock

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