One of the great joys of heading off around the world is seeing those that you share it with. And whether it’s penguins in New Zealand, polar bears in Canada or the safari stalwarts in Africa, it’s possible to take in plenty of jaw-dropping animal encounters on a round-the-world trip. Here are just ten options for wildlife wonders...
Kangaroos and koalas
Australia’s weird, unique wildlife is one of the country’s main draw cards for international visitors – even if Australians do get baffled by the expectation that you’ll see kangaroos hopping around the streets of Sydney and Melbourne. There are numerous good places to see them in the wild (and plenty of bad ones too if you happen to be driving through an avalanche of the hopping menaces at dawn or dusk). The Grampians in Victoria is teeming with them – particularly the tourist hub of Halls Gap – while just about any rural golf course will be overrun.
For koalas, try Port Macquarie on the New South Wales coast or Magnetic Island in Queensland. Alternatively, the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary in Brisbane allows you to hold a koala and hand-feed a kangaroo.
In a similar vein to the myth of Australia’s urban kangaroos, polar bears don’t roam the streets of Toronto and Vancouver, swiping babies out of prams. You tend to have to head north in Canada to spot them, and numerous operators offer specialised polar bear-spotting adventures. They don’t tend to be cheap, alas, but watching the great white bears prowl across desolate tundra is a thoroughly mesmerising experience.
Penguins and albatrosses
The Otago Peninsula and neighbouring harbour on New Zealand’s South Island is one of the world’s most underrated wildlife habitats. Take a day cruise out from Dunedin, and you’ll see all manner of birdlife sat on the cliffs or chasing after fishing trawlers. The albatrosses are the most impressive, with two metre-plus wingspans, and one of the world’s only nesting colonies can be found at the end of the peninsula. Nearby is Penguin Place, which is trying to protect the rare yellow-eyed penguin. It’s possible to watch from specially created hides and tunnels as the penguins come back to their nests, trying to dodge sea lions on the beach, following a day at sea.
It’s possible to spot elephants in many of Africa’s famous game reserves – such as the Serengeti in Tanzania, Masai Mara in Kenya and Kruger National Park in South Africa. But it’s one thing to see them and another thing entirely to ride them. It’s possible to go on elephant-back safaris near the Pilanesberg Game Reserve in South Africa or near Victoria Falls on either side of the Zambia/ Zimbabwe border.
The Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal is famed worldwide for its efforts to build up the remaining numbers of white rhino. There are now hundreds of them roaming the hilly expanses of the reserve and there’s arguably nowhere better to spot them. It’s not just rhinos available here, however – Hluhluwe has the big five – and that means lions, leopards, buffalo and elephants as well.
Hluhluwe is approximately three hours away from Durban by car, but you’re arguably better off staying nearby and making a night of it.
The giant panda is the one creature that gets everyone adamant about wildlife protection – even if there’s a strong argument to suggest that extinction is the price you pay for being fussy eaters/ maters. As we all know, there are very few pandas left in the wild; they’re also surprisingly aggressive, so wandering around China trying to find one is probably not the best tactic. A wiser gambit is to volunteer to help out at one of the panda sanctuaries in the Sichuan province of South-West China. These experiences are best lined up before leaving the UK, but allow you to get privileged encounters with the not-so-gentle giants.
Similar programmes are available on Borneo, but the attraction there is orang-utans rather than pandas. Numbers of wild orang-utans (which means ‘person of the jungle’ in Malay, incidentally) are similarly low, and a number of schemes attempting to protect their habitat are underway. Some you can join, some you can look in on for the day and some are designed as photography courses to for those who fancy themselves as a budding David Attenborough.
Of course, if it’s primates you’re after, then the daddies are the silverbacks that inhabit the cloud forests of Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Of the three, Uganda is both safer and better set-up option for gorilla-spotting tourism. Be warned, however, it’s not really ideal for those who like their creature comforts to come with their creatures – finding the gorillas generally involves a lot of hot, sweaty trekking through not exactly easy-going terrain.
India is the best spot for watching tigers, although habitats are consistently under threat there and poaching isn’t managed as well as it really should be. The central state of Madhya Pradesh is arguably the best place for tracking down the stripy beasts. It may be somewhat off the usual tourist trail, but an estimated 10% of the world’s tigers are estimated to live here and there are numerous parks and reserves that have been created with tiger protection in mind. In the Satpura National Park, it’s possible to go tiger-spotting on a walking safari, as opposed to the 4x4 vehicle options elsewhere.
Just about everything
Of course, while it may have the purists shrieking, not every wildlife encounter has to be conducted in the wild. Sometimes, you just can’t beat a good zoo. And if you want a really good one, then Singapore’s ticks all the right boxes. There’s a wide variety of animals on display, the creatures have plenty of space, and wherever possible they’re separated from visitors by moats rather than bars so that the setting is naturalistic. Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia, is excellent too – especially the harbour views and the ranger-guided tours.