Red Panda Martin Royle

Safari experiences off the beaten track - Safaris

Embarking on a safari is a bucket-list experience for many, but setting your sights beyond one of the classic options can lead you to spectacular destinations and even more exciting wildlife

Words by Jo Davey

Polar bear watching Arctic Canada

Padding silently across Canada’s stark white scenery, thick fur shuddering with every step, the world’s largest land carnivore can be found in Churchill’s tundra year round. But it’s in autumn and winter that polar bears gather in numbers as they wait for the ice to re-form and to hunt. Among the most dangerous – and threatened – animals on the planet, the biggest ever recorded weighed over 1,000kg, although their fluffy cream coats keep them well camouflaged in the Arctic terrain, making them hard to spot from afar. Happily, safaris in Churchill allow you to get up close, with specialised buggies taking you across the tundra into their natural habitat. The curious bears may even approach your vehicle and place their paws up to take a look at its passengers, hot breath hitting the icy glass centimetres from your face.

Located on the edge of Hudson Bay, Churchill is one of the few human settlements from which polar bears can be watched, and its healthy population gives you a great chance of encountering them. Lodges allow you to live among the bears in their home, watching from the warmth as they lope across frozen lakes looking for the latest meal. The adorable, but unluckily edible, seal is one of the other animals you can spot, as well as snowy owls, Arctic fox, gyrfalcon and ptarmigan. As the nature show winds down for the night, another begins in the form of the northern lights, which often flicker across the immense starlit sky.

Despite their numbers, Churchill’s polar bear population faces extinction due to loss of ice and habitat, which makes it all the more poignant and rewarding, as well as exciting, to see them in the wild.

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Travel Details

Natural World Safaris offer multiple polar bear watching experiences from £7,495pp for 6 nights.

Proboscis monkeys and orangutans Malaysian Borneo

On the south-west coast of Malaysian Borneo, just outside the thriving city of Kuching, live two of nature’s most remarkable primate species. The 653ha nature reserve of Semenggoh, sitting where the city turns to jungle, is home to Borneo’s beloved orangutans, now critically endangered after being poached extensively for bush meat and pet trade and driven from their natural habitat through deforestation. Semenggoh sanctuary is where many youngsters left orphaned or rescued from captivity are brought and taught how to survive in the wild and the park now has its own thriving population that breeds in the wild.

Although they have free range of the forest, through which you can trek to see their unique nests, they’ve learned to keep an eye out for feeding time. The reserve’s caretakers provide a daily selection of food for their charges, who swing through the treetops and down to the fruit-laden platform for lunch. These wise-faced apes are easy to spot, their long arms and vibrant ginger hair making them stand out in the lush foliage. If you’re lucky, the orangutan females may be carrying a new baby with them, clutching precariously on to their voluminous russet fur.

Orangutans aren’t the only rare residents in this region. Further south, as jungle becomes sea, lies Bako National Park. This coastal reserve is home to many Bornean creatures, including macaques, the Bornean bearded pig, flying lemur, pangolin, tarsier, slow loris and mouse deer. Its star, however, is unlike any other on earth: the proboscis monkey, arguably one of the oddest looking animals, with extraordinarily gangly arms, a pot-belly to be proud of and a nose that droops like a dangling fruit. Ungainly and ugly, perhaps, but entirely charming, these old-world monkeys spend much of their time lazing in branches eating leaves and fruit, so make sure to look up as you trek through the park’s stunning scenery.

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Travel Details

Borneo Adventure take individual day and overnight tours to Bako National Park and Semenggoh Sanctuary, as well as multi-day packages combining both. Day tours from £18pp, multi-day from £145pp.

Big four of Etosha Namibia

Translated from Namibia’s Ndonga dialect, Etosha means ‘great white place’. It’s not the first colour many think of in Africa’s desert landscapes, but Etosha is rather unique. The park – one of the continent’s largest – is home to the Etosha Pan, a blinding salt flat that covers 23 per cent of the park’s 22,270sq km.

Despite such a vast and dramatic landscape, Etosha is often passed over by tourists in favour of big-hitting East African destinations. But the park is home to an astonishing number of flora and fauna. Here you’ll find four of the Big Five, with prolific populations of lion and elephant, the elusive leopard – and it’s one of the best places in the world to spot rhino, including the critically endangered black rhino. Only the buffalo is absent, although you can find them in nearby Waterberg Plateau.

Watering holes are key to Etosha’s safaris, bringing the animals together for easy spotting. Watch ostrich, hyena, jackal, warthog and zebra gather around the mirror-like waters, while giraffe awkwardly splay their long legs to get low enough to drink. The salt pan itself supports very little wildlife, but birdwatchers should be able to see flamingo and the great white pelican.

Elsewhere on the savannah and in the surrounding dolomite hills towards the south and west, you can spot black-faced impala, meerkat, porcupine, aardvark and honey badger. The park also has three other big cats: the common caracal with their tall wispy ears, shy and sleek cheetah and the rarely-seen serval.

For many years, tourism to the national park was limited to the east and south, with only researchers and rangers accessing the vast west. Now, however, Etosha’s newest and unfenced Dolomite Camp has opened in the restricted area, making an ideal base as the luxury camp overlooks a busy waterhole, giving you unfettered and undisturbed access to animals as they go about their day.

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Travel Details

Across Africa has multi-day Etosha National Park tours from £346pp for 2 nights.

Puma tracking Chile

While jaguar steal the limelight in central and northern parts of South America, down in the ice-blue depths of Patagonia, puma rule the parks. Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park is home to the elusive feline, one of the hardest big cats to track down.

On puma safaris, a team of tracking specialists, who know the landscape and animals well, are constantly working behind the scenes with radios to locate and announce sightings.

Known also as cougar and mountain lion, puma are secretive, solitary cats with buff-coloured pelts that prefer mountainous terrain – of which Torres Del Paine has plenty. While seeing wild puma are an undoubted highlight in Patagonia, the park itself is extraordinary. Treks here form a ‘W’ with sprawling Grey Glacier in the west, the Vallée del Francés with its glacier and views over the opaque turquoise of Lago Nordenskjöld in the centre, and to the west, Tres Torres. These are the pillars of Paine – almost 3km-high granite spikes that jut into the pale Patagonian sky.

The ultimate trek here is to hike up to the towers under cover of darkness, watching out all the while for puma that lurk in the forests alongside. At the walk’s end, watch sunrise bloom over the towers, reflected in the lake at their feet.

Although puma are most active at twilight and night hours, the daytime has doesn’t lack for animals. Torres del Paine has llama-like guanaco, fox and deer, including the endangered Chilean huemul. Birders will find ample subjects with hawk, harrier, horned owl and the huge Andean condor. If you’re lucky, you can also spot flamingo and fluffy-feathered rhea. As night falls and the puma hunt gets going, don’t forget to raise your eyes heavenward: Chile has some of the best stargazing on the planet.

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Travel Details

Reef & Rainforests run puma tracking tours from £5,579pp for 7 nights.

Red panda trekking Nepal

Finding one of the world’s shyest animals is no easy feat. Not only are red pandas remarkably elusive, but their habitat makes you work for your encounter. These endangered pandas are found in Nepal’s foothills, in a forested area known as the Eastern Himalayan broadleaf forests. The forests stretch from Nepal to China, but the finicky red panda prefers specific areas of it, namely those with slopes, fir trees and, of course, bamboo.

Although the name implies a connection, red pandas aren’t closely related to the giant panda. The name, believed to have originated from the Nepali word for paw, was actually given to the red panda first. Simply known as pandas, the prefix of red or lesser was added after the giant panda became known in English-speaking countries decades later.

There’s no denying just how cute these creatures are. Their large paws, fluffy ears and playful manner have made them a favourite in zoos around the world. In the wild, however, they’re usually solitary outside of breeding season. Their coats may be easy to spot in captive enclosures – where the majority of research on them has taken place – but out in the forest it helps keep them camouflaged. An excellent climber, the red panda spends much of its time in fir trees where the reddish bark and white lichen hides it from predators (usually leopard) and humans alike.

This makes finding one incredibly tough, which is why foot safaris are run by experts who know the best places to follow in the creatures’ tracks. Opt for a sustainable tour that involves local guides, protects the red panda and puts a spotlight on their habitat loss and conservation. On the way, you’ll stop in local tea houses and spy the forest’s other wildlife: 500 species of birds.

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Travel Details

Wildlife Tour Nepal operate an 8-night red panda trek with local guides from £723pp.

Hippo and crocodile canoeing Zambezi

It’s hard to imagine a more relaxing safari than drifting down river, surrounded by the chatter and chirp of animals and horizons of blue, green and gold. Canoeing the Zambezi, the sinuous border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, is a blissful way to encounter African wildlife, but don’t be fooled: tranquillity doesn’t mean tame. Sharing the rippling waters with you is the world’s deadliest land mammal – and the hulking, hefty hippopotamus is a guaranteed sight on this river safari.

The unusual creatures are more closely related to whale and porpoise than they are to any land animal, which might explain why they like to spend so much of their time in the water. Hippos spend the majority of their lives keeping cool in rivers and mud – they even give birth underwater – but what you see on the surface rarely belies the barrel-like bulk underneath. At an average 1,500kg, these megaherbivores are massive and their mouths are their most prominent feature: their jaw can hinge open to almost 180 degrees, revealing a massive pink maw flanked by huge tusks. These are used only for combat and, combined with their unpredictable and territorial nature, make them incredibly dangerous. Given that you glide right through their habitat, it’s understandable that safaris are steered safely along by armed guides.

Although you’re most likely to find hippos in the water, their curved brows and round twitching ears breaking the surface, you can see them in all their glory during cooler twilight hours when they come on land to graze. They are the Zambezi’s biggest and most abundant draw, but the two national parks making up its banks are filled with wildlife. Here, you can spot elephant, zebra, impala, buffalo, baboon and the ever-intimidating Nile crocodile, as well as prolific birdlife, all from the comfort of your canoe.

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Travel Details

Half-day, full-day and overnight Zambian canoe safaris on the Zambezi with Livingstone’s Adventure from £94pp.

Tiger jeep safari India

Indian wildlife means one thing: tiger. Although the enormous country is a biodiversity hotspot, with ecosystems ranging from the Himalaya through rainforests to the coast, the main star of India’s show is the vibrant Bengal tiger. Only a handful of countries can claim tiger habitat, with India homing the majority.

There are plenty of national park options to choose from but Ranthambore in Rajasthan is one of the best. It has easy tiger spotting, a range of landscapes and some of the best life for photography. On top of this, it has great faunal diversity; as well as the beloved Bengal tiger population, visitors can see leopard, wild boar, hyena, sloth bear, macaque and more. Besides the animals, the 1,334sq km national park also contains the gorgeous Ranthambore Fort that gave the park its name.

The awe-inspiring tiger is the largest living cat species on earth, with the largest males reaching nearly 4m in length and weighing in at 300kg. While seeing a tiger at Ranthambore is almost guaranteed, visitors can also learn about the individual animals and the park’s most famous residents. Guides will help you identify sisters Siddhi and Riddhi, beautiful Mala, notorious T-19 and the Bina twins, who are famous for being raised by their father.

Tourist numbers into Ranthambore are capped, making sure its lakes, forests and bush land remain relatively undisturbed tiger territory. The majority of these Jeep safaris stick to a set route along main paths, but a couple of hotels have been given access to deeper parts of the park, making them some of the best options for accommodation during your stay.

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Travel Details

Aman-i-Khás Hotel safaris take you off the main track into the wilder side of Ranthambore. Luxury tents from £1,221; half-day game drives from £180pp.

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