A day trip to the zoo was the highlight of many of our childhoods. Do you remember first seeing an elephant or a penguin, perhaps at London Zoo in Regents Park? As happy as these memories are, however, they have absolutely nothing on the feeling you get when you first see wild animals on the prowl, bathing, playing, or hunting in their natural habitat. Many people are brought to tears first seeing a wildebeest calf sucking its mother, or a line of elephant crossing a river trunk to tail.
Out in the wilderness, with no bars of glass between you and the animals you are watching, there’s a certain rawness to the feeling. There’s no nagging sadness about creatures being kept in captivity: you – and they – can celebrate the fact that they are enjoying their freedom in mile after mile of rugged landscapes. Although you might be physically a few metres further away for safety, at the same time you feel closer to the wildlife, and to nature. And there’s often no one else around, it’s an experience solely for you.
Here are a few fantastic wildlife encounters – close-ups which will take your breath away.
Saruni Rhino, Kenya
Spotting black rhino in the wild tops many wildlife lovers’ bucket list. Saruni Rhino, on Kenya’s Sera Community Conservancy, opened in 2017 and is the first rhino tracking experience in East Africa. Led by local Samburu guides, these extraordinary walking safaris not only bring you metres away from these incredible beasts, but also help fund their protection.
On an early morning walk past the waterhole you can expect to see elephant, hyena, and impala, and the anticipation builds steadily with the knowledge that any minute now you will see your first wild rhino.
Giraffe Manor, Kenya
You might have heard of The tiger who came to tea, but what about the giraffe who came for breakfast? At Giraffe Manor, something which you’d assume happens only on the pages of a children’s picture book actually occurs in real life.
This exclusive boutique hotel has a herd of habituated giraffes which come and go as they please. When you sit down for a meal, a giraffe might well poke its head through the window in hope of a treat. Out and about, you can take a walk with the herd, getting remarkably close to these graceful, docile creatures.
Bisate Lodge, Rwanda
Parc Nationales des Volcans was the first national park in Africa, and you’d be mad not to stay at Bisate Lodge: this stunning luxury lodge is located in its own amphitheatre of an eroded volcanic cone. But though the lodge is truly fabulous, it is the mountain gorilla in the park which are the real stars of the show.
A small number of gorilla permits are issued each day to allow you to track them through the forest, accompanied by an expert guide. Several of the family groups have been habituated by scientists — a programme pioneered by the renowned primate researcher Diane Fossey — and you’ll be able to sit and watch for an hour. Prepare to be enthralled by the gorillas’ human like behaviour: after all, we do share 98% of our DNA.
Luangwa Safari House, Zambia
Hungry hippos! South Luangwa National Park is home to the world’s largest concentration of hippo. Forget what Disney’s Fantasia might have told you; these are no graceful ballerinas. Each hippo weighs up to 1,800 kg and they can be very aggressive indeed.
Thankfully, guides in the park know how to approach the hippo safely so you can observe them at close quarters without disturbing them or putting yourself in danger. One of the best ways is on a boat safari, sailing gently along the river and then dropping anchor near to the pod.
Wild dogs in Botswana’s Kwara Concession
It is often agreed among those who have been on a safari that without doubt, some of the most exhilarating wildlife experiences have been up close encounters with wild dogs. Watching the intricate family dynamics of these painted canines is a spectacle to behold, as they each have a unique role to play within the pack. Whether you’re sitting on the ground observing a den with a newly emerged litter of pups or hurtling alongside on a game drive as they weave through the bush in pursuit of antelope, you’re sure to recount your tales of these remarkable animals forever.
This year at Kwara Concession, there is a denning pack with 11 new pups; beyond that particular pack, this concession, although vast, is famous for sightings of its thriving wild dog population. Here, in the northern edge of the Okavango Delta you may also see predators such as lion, leopard and cheetah, which are regular visitors in addition to the wild dogs.
Laura Burdett-Munns is Managing Director at Africa Exclusive. Africa Exclusive has been creating the finest tailor-made safaris since 1990, specialising in luxurious accommodation in beautiful remote places.