Thursday, August 6, 2015

Wildlife vacations: it's tough to pick a top 5 - what are yours?

There are numerous reasons for travel.
A silverback gorilla climbs down from
a tree in Kahuzi Biega.

Sometimes, travel takes you to a new job. Other times, we travel just to get away for a while from our jobs, or our routines, to get out of a rut.

Then there are the dream vacations, travel to be pampered in luxury, to de-stress while others look after your every need.

Sometimes we travel to explore - a new place, a new activity, or even to explore ourselves.

I've travelled for all these reasons and more. One of my favourite reasons, my main focus to travel, is see and experience wildlife in its natural settings.

I've been very lucky, I've enjoyed some incredible wildlife experiences around the world. And some, right here in my backyard, in B.C., Alberta, and other parts of Canada.

So in trying to come up with a "top five" out of all my experiences, I was really hard-pressed to keep it to that number. But, here goes, in no particular order (if you think limiting myself to five was hard, try to pick the best of the best!)

  • Looking for the "Big Five" on Africa's Serengeti plains. In Serengeti National Park, you may be lucky enough to see a leopard in a tree or listen to the roaring of lions in the bush at night while sleeping in your camp tent. In the Ngorongoro Crater, you'll probably get much closer to some of the wildlife - maybe too close if a rhino charges your jeep or if a lion saunters past and bumps it while you're popped up through the sunroof taking photos. They're only half a day's drive apart, so you'll want to see both when visiting Tanzania. Oh, the other members of the "big five" can also be seen there: Cape buffalo and elephants.
  • Gorilla viewing in Central Africa. Hiking through the Congo rainforest, tracking gorillas, avoiding columns of soldier ants, fighting off hordes of disease-carrying Tsetse flies and mosquitoes, keeping your eyes peeled for poisonous snakes, to say nothing of the leopards and other creatures that would like to eat you, stomp you or just plain obliterate you, - if this is your idea of fun, then  you'll be right at home in Kahuzi Biega National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  But it'll all be worth it when you get your first glimpse of the silverback patriarch, or see a mother gorilla nursing a baby in the middle of the jungle. (If you've been to the Serengeti, and you're all "Africa'ed-Out," you can enjoy a similar and also incredible wild primate experience viewing orangutans in Borneo.)

It's definitely gator country in the Okefenokee.
  • Paddling with alligators in the Okefenokee. Otherwise known as "the swamp," the Okefenokee National Wildlife Reserve in Georgia, U.S.A. offers a wilderness opportunity unlike most others. The reserve is mostly water, so you can only access the heart of it by canoe or kayak. Although you can do it on your own, you're probably safer to hire a licensed outfitter to make sure you don't get lost between the camping platforms placed along the water trails. You do get really close to gators; it's also a great place for birders.
A Grand Cayman parrot, perched in a tree on the Mastic Trail.
  • Snorkeling with wild dolphins in Hawaii. I'm not talking about going to see tame dolphins like some of the resorts offer; this experience involves going out onto the ocean several miles offshore, with a reputable tour operator, locating a resident wild pod and then jumping in the ocean and going for a snorkel. You never approach them - they come to you. And when you can hear them echo locating underwater then one comes up to you and looks you over, it's an incredible feeling.
  • Gazing at wild parrots in Latin America. I've had the opportunity to experience on several occasions, but my two favourite trips took me to the Heath River Wildlife Centre on the Peru-Bolivia border and on the Mastic Trail on Grand Cayman Island. At Heath River, you sit in a floating blind on the river to watch scores of parrots and macaws congregating on a jungle clay lick. In the Caymans, they're tougher to see, as there is no lick - you have to hike through the jungle and hope you get lucky. In either case, you'll hear them long before you see them.

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