Some people prefer the thrill of leaping out of a plane, gravity at its finest, the ground below, rushing at them like a Category 4 hurricane, the adrenaline palpable. My heart races just thinking about it. But for me, walking alongside a 200lb African Lion, or coming to face-to-face with a Wood Bison is not only a thrill, but a privilege. And when I’m thousands of miles from home, the distance is often forgotten when a lazy pup trots on over for a simple head scratch or nose around for something to eat. With a pocket perpetually full of kibble, and an uncanny ability to attract even the mangiest of creatures, my animal encounters sometimes rival the richness my human encounters. Here are 10 Awesome Animal Encounters from my travels over the years.
1) Muddy Mutts in Cuba
When I first visited Cuba nearly a decade ago, the cobbled stoned streets of Trinidad de Cuba were teeming with stray dogs, most of them under a year old. The Cuban government was at the beginning of a spaying and neutering campaign and Cuban’s were very much against destroying the animals. I’m thrilled to report that when I returned two years ago, most dogs had collars and seemed to be well fed and mange free.
2) Fishing with Cormorants in China
Both the Chinese and Japanese have been using Cormorants to fish for over 1000 years. Traditionally, the fishermen would tie a snare around the base of the Cormorants neck so they couldn’t swallow the fish once they caught them. I didn’t learn this until after my excursion out on Lijiang River when I was doing some research about this unique fishing practice. However, none of the cormorants we fished with had tied-off necks.
3) Monkey Business in Thailand
All the guide books I read about Ao Nang warned me about a curious troop of Macaques that reigned terror on the tourists who got too close. Naturally, my curiosity got the best of me, and as I was snapping photos from what I thought was a safe distance, this little guy decided to have lunch on my shoulder. I spent two hours playing with the mischievous troop, watching as mothers brought their tiny infants over to say hello. Brooding males lumbered around, pulling at the zipper on my pack, while others scampered up at will, stealing bits of banana from my hand.
4) Icelandic Pony Rides
I’ve loved horses for as long as I can remember. I’ve always been in awe of their sensitivity, and while naturalists always tout that dolphins and whales are sentient beings, I think horses deserve a place in that category. I think they’re magnificent creatures. Before I touched down in Iceland, I’d read everything I could on the Icelandic Horse. Dating back to the 9th century, this breed may look pint sized, but it’s one sturdy horse. On a bone-chilling morning in Hafnarfjörður, we raced about volcanic fields, waded through babbling brooks, and tölted our way down the rocky trails.
5) Chillin’ With Cheetahs in Namibia
Every day is a safari in Africa. Whether you’re in an actual safari truck on the look-out for big game, or tip-toeing to the commode in the middle of the night, dodging giant walking sticks and various other over-sized insects! It just so happened that the theme of my African adventure was big cats. A visit to a Cheetah sanctuary was a must-do on my overland safari. In all honesty, it would have been way more fun if I had the cheetahs all to myself, but alas, I think I’d need a few more pennies in my pocket for that caliber of visit!
6) Elephant Trekking in Chiang Mai
Northern Thailand is my favourite part of the country, for a handful of reasons. The the scenery is lush and the jungle infinite, the crowds are few and far between and it’s home to some of the most culturally diverse peoples in that part of the world. It’s also the stomping grounds (no pun intended), for the Asian elephant (and his master). There are a number of elephant sanctuaries in Northern Thailand, including Maesa Elephant Camp, the largest of the working camps. I hired a private guide for the day, and was able to spend about 6 hours at the camp (4 more than most visitors get). The elephants seemed well adjusted, healthy, and allowed to roam off into the jungle if they felt like it. This is definitely a must-do if you’re up in Chiang Mai.
7) Parading with Penguins in South Africa
Getting up close and personal with a colony of Jackass Penguins is a the ultimate animal encounter experience. If only to view the from afar to delight in their hilarity. But, like any aspiring anthropologist, it’s all about participant observation. I did my best to ‘fit in’, but I don’t think they bought it! And just a side note, while Boulders Beach is definitely worth the visit, there is a smaller, less crowded area off to the right of the main parking lot which allows you more uninterrupted time with the penguins, and less time waving away irritating tourists.
8) Kissing Buffalo in Alaska
I know they say that everything’s bigger in Texas, and that may be true about some things, but Alaska takes the title when it comes to fauna. The ravens, the bears, the moose and of course, the Wood Bison. Everything is grand, surreal, over-sized, larger than life. I spent the day at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center near Girdwood, and came face to face with a young bull Wood Bison who became a little infatuated with me. He pressed his gargantuan head up against the fence, urging me to scratch it, it was impossible to resist. We had a few quiet moments before he lumbered off back towards the herd.
9) Hanging with Hens in Canada
Canada’s Sunshine Coast has been a beloved weekend escape for the last ten years. The pace of life is slower, nothing feels better than the salty sea breeze on your face, and coastal residents always go out of their way to make you feel like you’re part of the community, even if you’re only there for a day. Karen Mahoney’s Sunnyside Acres Cottage in Gibsons is home to a flock of gorgeous red hens. And contrary to popular belief, these ladies are anything but a bunch of feather-brains. They answer to their names, enjoy a good cuddle, and if they like you enough, they’ll elect you as their honorary matriarch, that is until Mama Karen comes out to feed them!
10) Walking with Lions in Zambia
Walking with the lions is no doubt, the most exhilarating, captivating and heart-stopping animal encounter I’ve ever had. I look back at my photos and recall the way I felt when I rounded a bend, out on the sun burnt Savannah and walked up to my first lion. Her curious eyes tracking my every move. The sinew in her muscles visibly twitching, her magnificent head cocked, a seemingly playful glint in her eye. No fences, no barriers, no hindrances. Just a very slight me, in all my insignificance, and her, regal, powerful and tempered. I fell in love with her instantly, and my love affair with the African Lion began.
The best part about travel is sharing stories with one another. Do you have a special bond with animals? What is your best or most beloved animal encounter story?