Call of the wild: the world’s best safaris
Gone are the days of simply observing wildlife from a safe distance – today’s safaris bring man and beast into very close contact indeed
SNORKELLING IN ANTARCTICA
Travel’s most extreme adventure guarantees mesmerising wildlife – and instant dinner-party kudos. Antarctic snorkelling involves floating face down in freezing water – it might hit 3°C if you’re lucky – for 45 minutes at a time. Of course, you’ll be protected against the breathtaking cold by a trilaminate drysuit accessorised by layers of merino wool and a neoprene hood and gloves. It’s a lot of clobber, but the thrilling experience is worth it.
Around the Antarctic Peninsula’s bays, mountains and islands, you’ll see tiny translucent fish and krill, long ribbon worms in hues of mustard and pink, and diaphanous jellyfish, all wafting about above surprisingly colourful kelp and weed. There are giant isopods – imagine woodlice bigger than a human hand with lobster claws – and supersized silvery starfish, some as large as dustbin lids.
As any devotee of the great Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet will tell you, there are also gentoo, Adélie and chinstrap penguins – thousands of them. Whether you witness them zipping out of the water as if jet-propelled is another matter, but the expert guides aboard the expedition cruise ship Polar Pioneer will drop you in the perfect location for it to happen. After that, nature will decide.
They’re joined by docile Weddell and crabeater seals, and the more alarming leopard variety – an alpha predator with the jaw of an anaconda on steroids, for which the guides maintain a constant vigil and issue strict safety briefings.
You’ll snorkel around an alfresco Guggenheim of sculpted icebergs, overlooked by towering ice walls and toothpaste-blue glaciers: a suitably theatrical backdrop for staging one of the world’s greatest adventures.
Audley Travel offers a 16-day full-board Polar Pioneer voyage from £9,815pp, including domestic flights, transfers and hotels.
CANOE SAFARI IN ZIMBABWE
The stretch of muscular river at Mana Pools is arguably the closest place on earth to the Garden of Eden. As the distant blue hills dance in the heat haze, marking Zambia’s dramatic Rift Valley Escarpment, the four main pools of the Zambezi floodplain seethe with wildlife. Hippos wallow, elephants gorge on ana-tree pods and buffalo enjoy a communal drink, joined by sunbathing crocodiles and skittish eland. The skies are peppered with birdlife rejoicing in names that are as exotic as their plumage: racket-tailed rollers, purple-banded sunbirds and black-throated wattle-eyes.
To the red-necked, goggle-eyed paddler, this paradisiacal Zimbabwean National Park, with its abundant riverine forest and vast acacia trees, is the climax of a four-day canoe safari from Chirundu that is serene and thrilling in equal measure. For 75km, it provides an intoxicating taste of off-the-beaten-track exploration: stopping to camp and cook on islands such as Kakomarara and Lone Acacia, and falling asleep under a million-tog duvet of stars to a bush serenade.
In the safe hands of experienced guides, the flotilla of canoes give a wide berth to the Zambezi’s generous supply of hippo. The huge, deceptively lethargic creatures can actually move at more than 20mph and are blamed for more human fatalities in Africa than any other large animal. The memory of their cavernous yawning jaws, containing 50cm-long canines, will stay with you long after your return to dry land.
Their presence provides a gentle shot of adrenaline on a superbly photogenic, alternative safari. Floating close to a 50m-high, 7,000kg elephant is a radically different experience to watching from a Jeep – and if you happen to be in the Garden of Eden, then so much the better.
Expert Africa offers a six-night Tigerfish Safari in Zimbabwe, including a three-night Mana Pools canoe trip from £4,725pp, including full-board accommodation, flights and transfers.
GAME DRIVE IN AUSTRALIA
The Savannah Way boasts some seductive vital statistics: 3,700km, two oceans, three states, five World Heritage Sites and 15 national parks. But they tell only part of the story. The crossing from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean is one of the world’s great road trips – a warm-wind-in-your-hair blast with vast panoramas of primary colours, a constant mind-bending canopy of cloudless sky and lots – lots and lots and lots – of uniquely Australian wildlife.
You get the green light in Cairns, rising among tropical hills and coffee plantations before arrowing west through the Queensland savannah, then through the water holes and red earth of the Northern Territory’s Top End, and finally dissecting the surreal rock formations of Western Australia’s Kimberleys. Add in some brilliantly rough’n’ready Outback boozers, eye-wateringly large cattle stations and exhilarating stretches of gloriously deserted dirt road, and you have a genuine adventure.
Then there’s the nature. The deep gorges and lush vegetation of national parks such as Boodjamulla are home to rock ringtail possum, olive python, wallaroo and dingo, while the emerald pools and creeks hold freshwater crocs, rolling catfish and red-bellied, short-necked turtles. There are also feral pigs and more than 140 bird species, including barking owls and fairywren.
But the wildlife is seen not only in the national parks. As light fades, the roadsides jiggle with kangaroos and wallabies. They’re everywhere, drawn by the oncoming lights like iron filings to a magnet – a good reason to arrive at your stop well before nightfall. In the morning, wedge-tailed eagles with 7ft wingspans feast on roadkill breakfast, splattered overnight by road trains – two- or three-trailer transporters.
Want more nature? There are witchetty grubs – a fine bush-tucker ingredient – the barramundi and sooty grunter fish of El Questro estate’s lake, and camels offering rides on Broome’s Cable Beach: while the latter is not exactly wildlife in the raw, it is the very welcome sign that you’ve just taken the chequered flag and crossed Australia.
Dial a Flight offers return flights to Cairns from £729pp. Drive the route when cool and dry (May to September), hiring a 4WD with high ground clearance from Avis. For navigation, accommodation and national park details, visit australia.com
SWIMMING AND STALKING IN CANADA
Prepare for the most intimate interspecies encounter of your life, as you are treated as human bait. Swimming with ethereally beautiful beluga whales in Hudson Bay is not for the vain. You’ll be trussed up in a drysuit, a rope looped around your ankles, and towed backwards by an inflatable Zodiac, while singing your favourite songs into a snorkel. The guides call it ‘vaudeville chumming’, the sonic equivalent of dropping fish overboard to attract shark.
The reward for such indignity is generous. Over the next 10 minutes, perhaps 40 or 50 of the ghostly white whales will swim around you. They’ll blow bubbles, whistle and click (they’re nicknamed sea canaries), as well as stare into your eyes, sometimes within inches of your face. It’s an eclectic gathering, with everything from 5m adults weighing more than 1,600kg to small grey babies, and all, without fail, will sport a permanent smile of Disneyesque cuteness.
This underwater encounter of balletic beauty is staged by Seal River Heritage Lodge, a former research station that has been converted into cosy accommodation 50km north of Churchill in Arctic Canada’s big-sky wilderness. Without a human or building in sight, it’s the perfect spot to see the remarkable gathering of 4,000 whales that arrive each summer to calve, moult and banquet on small oily fish in the warm, shallow water that flows into the chilly bay from surrounding rivers.
The summer also gives you the chance to stalk polar bears on foot after they swim ashore, while early winter delivers half a million migrating caribou – an amazing spectacle that, happily, doesn’t require you to sing a single note in public.
Abercrombie & Kent offers an all-inclusive eight-day Birds, Bears and Beluga Whales itinerary from £6,850pp, including flights and transfers.