Fave Five Wildlife Encounters

TravelAge West editors share their favorite travel experiences in the animal kingdom
Associate Editor Skye Mayring (center) enjoys life from the top of a camel. // (c) 2010 Skye Mayring
Associate Editor Skye Mayring (center) enjoys life from the top of a camel. // (c) 2010 Skye Mayring

In Pictures

Viewing elephants from the Ivory Lodge // (c) 2010
Viewing elephants from the Ivory Lodge // (c) 2010 Janeen Christoff

Alaska Railroad serves up scenic views and wildlife spotting // (c) 2009 Monica Poling
Alaska Railroad serves up scenic views and wildlife spotting // (c) 2009 Monica Poling

Guests at the Mattanu Private Game Reserve can assist in game capture. // (c) Kenneth Shapiro
Guests at the Mattanu Private Game Reserve can assist in game capture. // (c) Kenneth Shapiro

Swimming with the sharks in Palau // (c) 2008 Monica Poling
Swimming with the sharks in Palau // (c) 2008 Monica Poling

Saddling Up
By Skye Mayring, Associate Editor

I had just one off-the-itinerary request during my recent Classic Egypt & the Nile tour with Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection: to ride a camel in the desert. Apparently, it was not too tall of an order because, on day one of the tour, our guide suggested that we hop on one of these towering, humped beasts for a jaunt around the Pyramids of Giza. He did, however, offer a caveat that many of the camel jockeys in this area prey on unwary tourists. According to our guide, some jockeys will tell visitors that a camel ride will only cost $1 but later explain that the small fee is for merely sitting on a camel and that the ride itself costs extra. An actual ride might end up costing $100 if the terms are not properly negotiated first.

And, as our guide noted, “It’s a lot easier to get on a camel than to get off one.”

A couple members of our group and I were fortunate enough to find ourselves a fair arrangement, a 10-minute camel ride for about $5. The agreeable jockey led us to three camels that were resting on the sand with their legs folded neatly beneath their bellies. As I boarded my camel, I realized that it was not an opportune day to have worn a skirt, and the jockey wouldn’t let me ride sidesaddle for safety reasons. ( I soon understood why.)

When the camel stood up, his back legs flung up first, forcing my weight forward, and it seemed like I was going to hit my head against the camel’s neck. Then, the animal’s knobby front legs swung upward, rather unevenly, which had me swaying from side to side. I definitely thought that I was going to end up with a mouth full of sand, and it looked like I was 10 feet above the ground when the camel took its first steps. But, the camel soon steadied, providing both a pace for a pleasant ride and an uncompromising view of the Great Pyramid of Giza, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Elephant Encounter
By Janeen Christoff, Managing Editor

Reading this issue’s cover story, “Animal Planet” (July 19, 2010), I realized how animals have been prevalent in many of my travels. My first memory of an animal having an impact on my vacation was when I was about 10 years old at Girl Scout camp and a wild boar snuck into our tent to seek out my strawberry lip balm. Since then, almost every trip I’ve been on has included some sort of interaction with wildlife, both good and bad. So, when I was asked to pick my favorite wildlife encounter, it was hard to make a selection.

I have gone swimming with dolphins, petted a cheetah, posed for photos with a lama and ridden a camel. I’ve interacted with stingray, mingled with a boa constrictor and held a baby crocodile in my hand. But, when it came right down to it, one of my most memorable animal encounters is probably my least-adventurous, and it took place right outside my window.

A couple of months ago, on a recent trip to South Africa, I had the pleasure of staying at the Ivory Lodge on the Lion Sands Private Game Reserve, which is part of the Sabi Sands Game Reserve next to Kruger National Park. Rooms at the Ivory Lodge offer guests spectacular views of a small river dividing the property from Kruger National Park. From floor-to-ceiling windows and a secluded deck, visitors have their own private viewing station. At pretty much any moment, a bush buck can be found grazing on the grass surrounding the deck or a monkey can be spotted hanging from a tree branch. So, it’s relatively certain that you will somehow interact with an animal during your stay. I was just praying it wasn’t a spider — and I can happily report that it was not.

Just after my bags arrived at my door, I wandered out onto the deck with my camera to take some photos. With my zoom function, I spotted a gray ear in the trees on the other side of the river, and then I noticed that the trees and bushes far off to the right had begun to move and sway. Moments later, a family of about 11 elephants strode down to the water and began to frolic and play on a small strip of beach. After several minutes, another family of elephants appeared slightly downstream and they trumpeted to one another in greeting. Later, after everyone had taken a long drink from the river, the babies rolled in the dirt and the older elephants brushed them off with their trunks. The whole scene played out in less than 30 minutes and, before I knew it, they were disappearing back into the bush — not before I had taken at least 100 photos, however.

While the experience may seem tame in comparison petting a cheetah or swimming with dolphins, the fact that the elephants were completely in their own element, not knowing I was there, made the moment most special.

Moose Spotting
By Monica Poling, Online Editor

 “Moose,” I screamed, forgetting for a minute that my sister and I were chatting by cell phone.

Although she was not too pleased to hear me yelling in her ear, the rest of the passengers in my Alaska Railroad car were thrilled.

The main rule on the 4½-hour trip between Seward and Anchorage was to shout out any wildlife sightings so the rest of the passengers could also experience Alaska at its finest. Mine was the first moose sighting of the day and as all the passengers quickly dove for our side of the train, I’m pretty sure I told my sister I’d have to call her back, before I hung up.

If you prefer your adventure travel from behind the safety of a glass window, Alaska Railroad provides a number of amazing travel options. Although my car consisted largely of passengers transporting from the cruise port in Seward back to Anchorage, Alaska Railroad offers a wide range of scenic Alaska adventures, which all provide stunning scenic mountain vistas and frequent wildlife sightings.

Antelope Tracking
By Kenneth Shapiro, Editor-in-Chief

I had so many great wildlife experiences on my trip to South Africa in 2008, but one in particular stands out because it was truly unique.

It took place on the Mattanu Private Game Reserve, which is located approximately 35 miles northwest of Kimberley, South Africa. The reserve is made up of nearly 5,000 acres and within its fenced borders, a wide range of animals run free, including giraffe, wild boar, jackal and many different species of antelope. But the reserve has been especially successful in raising and releasing endangered roan and sable antelope thanks to the work of its owner, Dr. J.C. Kriek, a renowned wildlife veterinarian who specializes in game capture, breeding and transport.

Stories of Dr. Kriek’s adventures are one of the highlights of a stay at Mattanu, but it doesn’t stop there: Guests at the reserve can actually assist Dr. Kriek on a game capture.

During my visit, I found myself at dawn in the back of a pickup truck with a group of South African men, bouncing over dirt tracks that could hardly be called a road and scanning the bushes for the long, curved horns of a sable antelope. The goal was to capture four sables, give them each a thorough medical examination, transport them to a neighboring reserve and release them for breeding.

Dr. Kriek hovered overhead in a helicopter piloted by his son, Johann. His job was to spot the antelope and shoot it with a tranquilizer. Then, our group in the pickup would move in, secure the antelope and hoist it into the truck. Once it was in the back of the pickup, we would climb in and search for the next sable.

Most visitors to South Africa feel fortunate to see wildlife up close, but the opportunity to actually assist in the capture and care of a wild antelope — weighing several hundred pounds and equipped with long, sharp horns — really gets the adrenaline pumping. It was crucial for us to get to each downed sable as fast as possible after it gets tranquilized, and of course the antelope race off as soon as they are hit by the dart, so the morning essentially became an off-road race crashing through the brush. At one point, with two sables already loaded into the pickup, the truck crashed through a ditch, nearly thrusting me forward and skewering me on a sable’s horns.

It was a frightening moment but, when I look back on that morning, I’m grateful for the opportunity I had to get a glimpse into the Dr. Kriek’s world.

Swimming With Sharks
By Monica Poling, Online Editor

Arguably one of the best places in the world for snorkeling and diving, the small island nation of Palau also gave me my first, true, close-up experience with sharks. After a morning of kayaking through the Rock Islands, our excursion boat stopped for lunch at Turtle Cove, a remote but popular beach, especially with excursion boats stopping for a midday break.

One docked excursion boat was dropping fish snacks into the water to attract brightly colored reef fish closer to their boat. The fish were so close that even the non-swimmers could stand in shallow, two-foot-high waters and watch the fish swimming below the water.

Swimming away from the fray, I was snorkeling in water measuring no higher than five feet, where I soon saw the food chain in action. In Palau, wherever brightly colored fish swim, the reef shark follow. I first noticed a five-foot reef shark swimming below me, intently focused on a school of fish nearby. Shortly thereafter, he was joined by three or four friends. Although no one seemed particularly concerned that the reef shark would mistake our tourist fingers and toes for a lunchtime snack, I still found myself slowly swimming closer to the safety of our boat.

Although I later learned that Palauans consider hailing a cab in New York more adventurous than swimming with reef sharks, this trip, for me, will remain one of my all-time favorite travel experiences.

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