Death stare from a polar bear
Digital travel editor Craig Platt comes face to face with the world's largest land predator on foot. The reporter travelled as a guest of the Canadian Tourism Commission.
A herd of elephants making their way across the savannah. A leopard stalking through the grass. A pack of hyenas munching on a kill. On safari, every game drive is a trip into the unexpected, a chance to encounter nature at its most raw. No wonder that for many travellers, a trip to Africa is firmly at the top of their wish list.
What many people don't realise, however, is that while Africa is the world's best-known safari destination, it is far from being the only one. From the Canadian sub-arctic to Costa Rica's jungles, a whole range of countries has developed wildlife experiences based on the African model.
"Ecuador is a standout example," says Sue Badyari, CEO of World Expeditions. "It has been hugely successful at using the wildlife-rich Galapagos Islands and its inland Amazon rainforests to attract wildlife enthusiasts."
From Botswana to Borneo, today's safaris are firmly focused on animal conservation. It wasn't always that way, however. When Europeans started going on safari in the 19th century, they were shooting the wildlife with guns rather than with cameras. The slaughter was appalling. When US President Theodore Roosevelt and his son went on safari in 1909, they shot more than 500 animals, including 17 lions and 20 rhino.
Animal numbers were devastated to such an extent that governments across Africa eventually created parks and reserves to try to boost animal populations. South Africa's Kruger National Park was established as a game reserve in 1898; Rwanda's Virunga National Park dates to 1925.
Animal conservation remains an issue in many countries today. From Borneo to Papua New Guinea to Mexico, the habitats of many animals are under threat from deforestation. "Tourism has a vital role to play, because it can provide an alternative, longer-term income source, thereby encouraging the preservation of natural environments and animal habitat," says Badyari. In many countries, preserving the natural environment also supports the indigenous communities that rely on the same habitats.
Just as most Kenyan safaris now include a visit to a Maasai village, many safaris around the world offer encounters with local communities as well wildlife viewing. In Alaska, for instance, Lindblad Expeditions includes meetings with members of the local Tlikit people. "The cultural component is a big draw for a lot of people, along with the forests, the glaciers and the wildlife," says Lindblad expedition leader Larry Prussin.
Lindblad Expeditions is just one of the companies taking safaris in a new direction – onto the ocean. Expedition ships are bringing the safari experience to remote destinations including Antarctica, substituting the twice-daily game drive with Zodiac cruises. Often, however, you don't have to leave.
"Any time we spot some wildlife, we will make an announcement," Prussin says. "Our guests are part of the process. They will often let us know when they have spotted a bear, or some humpback whales."
If you are ready for some safari action of your own, try one of these
THE BIG FIVE
LEOPARD, ASIAN ELEPHANTS, SLOTH BEAR, WATER BUFFALO, BLUE WHALES
Yala National Park, Sri Lanka. Photo: Shutterstock
THE SAFARI Sri Lanka packs a lot of wildlife into its small area, with a network of national parks and reserves protecting a range of species. The beautiful Yala National Park is best known for its leopard population, but there are plenty of other animals to spot including – during June and July – the shaggy-coated sloth bear. Also on your itinerary should be Udawale National Park and Minneriya National Park, both of which are home to large elephant herds. Sightings aren't limited to the land, either, with whale and dolphin-spotting cruises on offer. Between December and March, the waters off the southern city of Mirissa are a great place to encounter the blue whale, the largest animal in existence.
THE CAMP Don't let the name fool you. Chena Huts may sound like a rustic option, but these "huts" are actually luxurious private retreats equipped with plunge pools. The camp has an idyllic location located just outside Yala National Park overlooking the beach. See ugaescapes.com
DON'T MISS During September and October, head to Minneriya National Park for the annual gathering of more than 300 elephants, which come together during the dry season in search of water.
ESSENTIALS Sri Lanka in Style offers a nine-day wildlife package starting from $US2345 per person twin share. See srilankainstyle.com
THE BIG FIVE
BROWN BEARS, BLACK BEARS, SEA LIONS, SEA OTTERS, WHALES
Brown bear spotting in Alaska with Lindblad Expeditions.
THE SAFARI With its dramatic glaciers, its mist-draped fjords and its old-growth forests, south-east Alaska is a haven for wildlife. Look up, and you may see bald eagles swooping overhead; focus on the water, and you can expect to see playful seals, sea lions and river otters, and perhaps some humpback whales or even orcas. You may spot brown or black bears fossicking among the rocks on the shore, or perhaps spy one as you hike through the verdant rainforest.
THE SHIP The 62-passenger National Geographic Sea Lion offers its passengers activities ranging from hiking to kayaking to paddle boarding. The ship's biggest selling point, however, is its team of experienced naturalists, whose insights into Alaska's flora and fauna are eye-opening. The team includes underwater specialists who shoot remarkable footage of what is happening beneath the waves.
DON'T MISS What is more amazing than watching sea otters frolicking in the water? Having a sea otter stick its head out of the water to watch as you glide past. If you get the opportunity to kayak through this remarkable environment, grab it with both hands.
ESSENTIALS Lindblad Expeditions' eight-day Exploring Alaska's Coastal Wilderness itinerary runs between May and September. Rates start at $US5990 per person twin share. See expeditions.com
THE PANTANAL, BRAZIL
THE BIG FIVE
JAGUAR, CAPYBARA, GIANT OTTERS, ANACONDA, OCELOT
THE SAFARI Although it covers 195,000 square kilometres, few people have ever heard of the Pantanal, which is good, given that it rivals the Amazon as a wildlife destination. From big cats such as jaguar and ocelots to quirky mammals like the tapir – not to mention 650 species of colourful birds including toucans and hyacinth macaws – there is a lot to see. You can explore the Pantanal on walking and horseback safaris, on canoe trips or on nocturnal spotlight adventures.
THE CAMP Set on 53,000 hectares, Caiman Ecological Refuge consists of three separate compact lodges. Guests take part in up to three activities a day, including canoe safaris and nocturnal safaris. During high season, astronomy workshops are also on offer. See caiman.com.br/en
DON'T MISS Sign up to spend a day with the researchers of the Jaguar Project Oncafari. Track these elusive animals during daylight hours, then return at night to see them at their most active.
ESSENTIALS The best months to visit are May through October. The Classic Safari Company offers a three-night package, starting from $1350 per person per night twin share. See classicsafaricompany.com.au
SABAH, MALAYSIAN BORNEO
THE BIG FIVE
ORANGUTAN, PYGMY ELEPHANT, CLOUDED LEOPARD, PROBOSCIS MONKEY, MAROON LANGUR
The luxurious Sukau Rainforest Lodge.
SAFARI Borneo's orangutans are hands-down its biggest attraction, but the island's jungles are also home to an array of endangered endemic species including civets, tarsiers and a huge number of bird species. The essential places to go exploring include the Tabin Wildlife Reserve, Danum Valley Conservation Area, and the magnificent Kinabatangan River. Visitors can choose between canopy walks, river safaris and nocturnal safaris, each of which brings opportunities to encounter different species.
THE CAMP Perched on the banks of the Kinabatangan River, a two-and-a-half-hour boat ride from Sandakan, the solar-powered Sukau Rainforest Lodge is the area's most luxurious accommodation. It offers guests a range of memorable experiences, from talks by the in-house naturalists to candlelit dinners. See sukau.com
DON'T MISS A visit to the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre is a must. Time your visit for one of the twice-daily feeding sessions, when wild orangutans drop by and help themselves to free bananas.
ESSENTIALS National Geographic Expeditions offers an 11-day Borneo Wildlife Adventure that includes the Kinabatangan River, the Tabin Wildlife Reserve and Danum Valley Conservation Area. Rates start from $US7695 twin share. See nationalgeographic.com.au\travel
THE BIG FIVE
PENGUINS, SEALS, ORCAS, MINKE WHALES, ALBATROSS
Gentoo penguins check out the visitors at Cuverville Island. Photo: Craig Platt
THE SAFARI First-time visitors to the Antarctic are often surprised by just how much wildlife can be found on and around the frozen continent. Look in one direction and you will see a seal on an ice floe; gaze over there and you may spy a pod of orcas off the side of the ship. The most popular spottings are of course the penguins, which come in half a dozen different species including adelies, gentoos and chinstraps. Whether you visit a cacophonous colony or watch them porpoising through the water beside your Zodiac, it is hard to resist these adorable birds.
THE SHIP Ponant is known for combining luxury with an adventurous attitude, and its Le Lyrial is no exception. Each of its 122 staterooms is generously proportioned and has a private balcony. When they are not out exploring, passengers can enjoy spa treatments and gourmet meals.
DON'T MISS Deception Island offers some of the Antarctic's best wildlife spotting, from elephant seals and fur seals to the continent's largest colony of chinstrap penguins.
ESSENTIALS Ponant's 11-day Emblematic Antarctica departs from Ushuaia, Argentina, and includes visits to Neko Harbour, Pleneau Island and Deception Island. Rates from $14,670. See ponant.com
NORTHERN TERRITORY, AUSTRALIA
THE BIG FIVE
SALTWATER CROCODILES, WATER BUFFALO, BRUMBIES, DINGOES, JABIRU
Your mobile won't work in the Northern Territory's Bamurru Plains.
THE SAFARI Our koalas and kangaroos may be big draws for tourists, but Australia has plenty of other wildlife experiences to discover. Up in the Top End, exploring the floodplains, forests and savannah will bring you face to face with animals ranging from buffalo to brumbies. Head to the Mary River area adjoining Kakadu National Park for one of the world's largest populations of saltwater crocodiles as well as huge flocks of migrating magpie geese.
THE CAMP With just 10 luxury tents, Bamurru Plains is an off-the-grid experience; your mobile will not work here. However, with 300 square kilometres of territory to explore, you will never feel penned in. You can explore on river cruises, guided walks, open-top game drives and even quad bikes. For a next-level experience, book in a night in The Hide, an eyrie tucked into the tree canopy that offers the ultimate wildlife viewing.
DON'T MISS The best way to explore the floodplain is on the lodge's airboat, which lets you get close-up views not just of crocs but also of the hundreds of bird species that flourish amid the wetlands.
ESSENTIALS Bamurru Plains is a three-hour drive or a 30-minute flight from Darwin. The camp is open between April and October. The Ultimate Wilderness Experience at Bamurru Plains starts at $1140 per person per night twin share. See bamurruplains.com
GALAPAGOS ISLANDS, ECUADOR
THE BIG FIVE
GIANT TORTOISES, GALAPAGOS SEA LIONS, BOOBIES, FRIGATE BIRDS, MARINE IGUANAS
A marine iguana. Photo: Craig Platt
THE SAFARI They don't care. They really don't care. It is one thing to read that in the predator-free environment of the Galapagos, the animals aren't afraid of humans. It is another thing to experience it: to lie in the sand beside a lounging sea lion, or to watch sea birds doing a mating dance directly in front of you, totally ignoring your presence.
THE SHIP Small is the way to go in the Galapagos; you don't want to share your experience with too many other visitors. Sister ships MY Eric and MY Letty have just 10 comfortable cabins each, with a choice of double or twin beds. The ships were the first carbon-neutral vessels in the Galapagos.
DON'T MISS You haven't done the Galapagos until you have jumped in the water. Swimming with graceful turtles and playful sea lions at Espanola Island is one of the highlights of any trip.
ESSENTIALS The Galapagos Islands is a year-round destination. As tourist numbers are limited, you will need to book in advance. World Expeditions offers an eight-day itinerary aboard MY Eric or MY Letty from $6780 per person twin share. See worldexpeditions.com.au
HUDSON BAY, MANITOBA, CANADA
THE BIG FIVE
POLAR BEARS, BELUGA WHALES, WOLVES, BLACK BEARS, MOOSE
Two wild polar bears near Churchill Wild's Seal River Lodge. Photo: Craig Platt
THE SAFARI At first glance, Canada's ruggedly beautiful sub-arctic regions may seem like an inhospitable landscape, but places such as Hudson Bay actually support a range of large mammals. Visitors can expect to spot wolves, caribou and moose, but the big draw here is the opportunity to walk with polar bears. Guides are carefully trained and equipped with a range of deterrents to keep visitors safe.
THE CAMP Churchill Wild operates three remote lodges along Hudson Bay, but if you are particularly keen on polar bears, the eight-room Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge has a particularly abundant bear population.
DON'T MISS There is no contest: nothing beats the thrill of an up-close encounter with a polar bear. Whether they are prowling through the tall grass, relaxing in a kelp bed or feasting on berries, these creatures are astonishing to watch.
ESSENTIALS The best times to go are during summer and autumn. Churchill Wild offers a range of packages, including the eight-day Arctic Discovery itinerary, which lets you walk with polar bears and kayak with beluga whales. From $CA12,295, see churchillwild.com/
RANTHAMBHORE NATIONAL PARK, INDIA
THE BIG FIVE
TIGERS, LEOPARDS, SLOTH BEARS, HYENA, CIVET
Ranthambhore National Park in India.
THE SAFARI Ranthambhore is not your usual national park; in its original incarnation, this was a maharajah's hunting ground. This makes it possibly the only safari destination where, between game drives, you can visit ancient temples and hunting pavilions. The main reason people come here, of course, is because this is the tiger-spotting capital of the world, but there are plenty of other animals to tick off your list, from jackals and spotted deer to the wild peacocks that seem to perch in almost every tree.
THE CAMP Channel the Mughal vibe at Aman-i-Khas, a collection of 10 tented suites, each of which is packed with luxuries including king-size beds and sunken baths. There are separate dining and spa tents, and the pool is done in the shape of a traditional step-well. After-dinner drinks are served beside the fire pit.
DON'T MISS A cruise on the Chambal River lets you spot some rare species including Gangetic freshwater dolphins, red-crowned roof turtles, otters and river crocodiles.
ESSENTIALS Rates at Aman-i-Khas start from $US1000 per person twin share and include all meals, soft beverages and laundry for adults. Game drives start at INR8505 per person per safari for three-and-a-half hours. See aman.com
THE BIG FIVE
TAPIRS, PECCARIES, OCELOTS, SLOTHS, COATIS
Costa Rica is the spot for sloths. Photo: Shutterstock
THE SAFARI This small Central American nation packs a real punch as a wildlife destination, thanks to its incredible biodiversity and a network of parks and reserves covering a quarter of the country. What's more, Costa Rica is a great place to discover animals you won't find anywhere else, from the tapir, with its elephant-like trunk, to the resplendent quetzal, a magnificently plumed bird. Even Costa Rica's insects are fascinating, with the giant rhinoceros beetle growing up to eight centimetres long. The diversity of the landscape, from the creeks and lagoons of Tortuguero National Park to the Monteverde Cloud Forest, adds to the interest.
THE CAMP If you want to really go off the grid, Pacuare Lodge is the place for you. To reach this electricity-free lodge, set amid 10,000 hectares of rainforest, guests have to raft down the Pacuare River. The verdant surrounds are home to a range of animals including monkeys, sloths and colourful birds. See pacuarelodge.com
DON'T MISS If you are visit Tortuguero between July and September, an evening stroll along the beach offers a wonderful opportunity to watch green turtles come ashore and lay their eggs.
ESSENTIALS Chimu's 11-day Classic Costa Rica tour visits a range of national parks including Tortugguero, Monteverde, Manuel Antonio and Arenal. From $2380 per person twin share. See chimuadventures.com
THE FAMOUS FIVE
Done Africa's big five? Then tick off the best of the rest around the planet.
WHERE: Sri Lanka
Safari goers are spoiled for choice when it comes to Sri Lankan wildlife, but just about everybody names this elegant cat as their favourite sighting. Yala National Park is the place to go.
WHAT: Polar bears
When it comes to top-of-the-food-chain predators, few are as impressive as the polar bear. The opportunity to walk near these mighty animals is absolutely unforgettable.
An encounter with a wild orangutan is always memorable. If you are really lucky, you may catch a glimpse of a mother with her young; orangutans keep their offspring with them for eight years.
Blame it on The Jungle Book, with its vivid depictions of Shere Khan, but tigers have a certain majesty about them. Ranthambhore National Park is one of the few places where you are all but guaranteed a sighting.
From penguins to leopard seals, the Antarctic waters teem with life. However, it is the majestic orcas that make the most lasting impression.
WHEN IT HAS TO BE AFRICA
Ready to try a classic African safari? These camps offer a next-level experience.
BISATE LODGE, RWANDA
Rwanda's mountain gorillas have become one of Africa's essential safari experiences. The opulent Bisate Lodge offers just six private villas and makes a great base for gorilla trekking. wilderness-safaris.com
EARTH LODGE, SOUTH AFRICA
Many safari camps channel a Victorian vibe; Earth Lodge, however, has gone for something completely different. Its eye-catching contemporary design is as much of a drawcard as the magnificent game found in South Africa's Sabi Sands game reserve.
COTTARS 1920S SAFARI CAMP, KENYA
The wildebeest migration is one of Africa's greatest spectacles. Watch it in style at this heritage-laden camp, where the tents are decorated with colonial antiques and old-school elegance abounds. See cottars.com
NGORONGORO CRATER LODGE, TANZANIA
Perched on the crater rim of an extinct volcano, Ngorongoro Crater Lodge is one of the continent's most distinctive properties. After a day spent viewing wildlife on the crater floor, relax in your private villa, which features woven banana bark ceilings, hand-beaded chandeliers, Persian carpets and brocade sofas. See andbeyond.com
CHIEF'S CAMP, BOTSWANA
One of Botswana's most eye-catching camps, Chief's Camp is famous for its oversized accommodations – complete with plunge pool – and its spectacular wildlife viewing. In the wet season, game drives can be undertaken by canoe as well as jeep. See sanctuaryretreats.com