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Finding your Safari

It’s not every day that I get to drive around with Jack Hanna. When I picked him up at the airport Saturday morning, he was wearing his trademarked safari garb and his jungle hat that he’s worn on David Letterman at least 100 times. His animal shows have been playing on TV since I was a kid and I was thrilled to talk to him about my adventures around the world. I had him booked for a nature themed festival and I got about an hour of undiluted Jack Hanna’s time on the way to the event.

Jack makes a living speaking to audiences about his exploits and showcasing interesting animals from all over the globe. As we shared our travels in Africa, I thought about some of the most interesting places I’ve been or plan to visit in the near future. If you love animals and you’re looking for bucket list places to go, my list might be useful as you plan your next adventure

When you think of wild animals, Africa is often the place that most people visualize. The continent is immense and varies from extreme desert to rainforest. Most of the animals normally associated with African safaris are located in the southern half of Africa. The most accessible game parks are located in South Africa, Kenya and Tanzania. Ngorongoro crater, Kruger and Masai Mara are the most visited national parks. Travelers typically rent a jeep with a driver and guide and drive through savannah, forest and near watering holes looking for photo opportunities. The term  “big five” refers to seeing a lion, Buffalo, elephant, leopard and rhino and is usually the goal of most newbie safari takers. If you’d like to kick up your safari a little more, you can book a hot air balloon ride over the Serengeti to get a great overhead view of the animals. For the truly adventurous and well heeled tourists, one can go to central Africa to visit silver back gorillas in Rwanda or look at wildlife on a boat as you’re transported through the Okavango Delta in Botswana.

The best way to see a polar bear in the wild is not at the North Pole, but in Churchhill, Manitoba in Northern Canada. In the late fall the white bears make their way to the Hudson River to hunt seals and can be easily spotted by booking a tundra buggy or staying at a lodge that has been built next to the bear’s route. Getting to Churchhill is not exactly cheap though. There’s only one airline that flies to  Churchhill from Winnipeg so prices can be high. There is a train option but it takes 2 days in either direction. The good news is you can see the Aurora Borealis while you’re visiting and possibly even see an igloo being constructed.

If you’re looking for the ultimate animal adventure then a tiger safari might be just what you need. Tigers are not always easy to spot, but trying to find them while riding on the back of an elephant is pretty exciting. You can do  that in Chitwan National Park in Nepal. Ranthambore National Park in India is also a great place to look for tigers. These giant  cats often hunt in midday and seem to be a little more accustomed to travelers watching them so you have a good chance of seeing them in the wild. Ranthambore was originally the hunting ground of the Jaipur Maharajahs, so it’s filled with interesting buildings and fortresses as well.

It may not seem exotic on such an international list, but swimming with a manatee or sea cow is an amazing experience. Crystal River, Florida is a protected reserve for manatees where you may get up close and personal with these giant creatures who were somehow mistaken  for mermaids by sailors who had spent too much time at sea. These animals can best be seen from November to March when they migrate here for the warm waters. Crystal River has boats to rent and dive shops if you’d like a more guided tour.

Where else in the world can you go piranha fishing ? The Amazon has experiences that can wow even the most jaded traveler. I stayed in a hut on the river not far from Leticia, Colombia.We took a small boat out to look at the pink dolphins at dawn and then later to catch caimans at night. Piranha fishing was the biggest thrill because our hosts cooked our catch. Eating a piranha seems ironic as well as giving you great bragging rights on Facebook. As you boat through the trees, you see snakes writhing through the branches and amazing colorful birds. I asked our guide if we could see an anaconda and one of the natives caught one and brought it to me.

I was in Bukit Luwang, Indonesia when suddenly a “Orang hutan” (which means “man of the forest” in Bahasa language)  swooped down from the trees to grab a bunch of bananas from my guide. Orangutans have a couple of reserves in Indonesia where they are protected and can be visited  in their natural environment. They’re graceful in spite of their size and one can’t help but think Clyde from those old Clint Eastwood movies when the orangutans start making funny faces with their over sized lips. On the eastern side of Indonesia one can stop off in the island of Komodo which is famous for the Komodo dragon, a giant reptile that runs freely around the island. These giant lizards can reach 10 feet in length. You can actually buy a goat, tie it to a stake and feed the dragons like  some kind of tourist animal sacrifice.

Bull shark diving might be the scariest thing I’ve ever done. Knowing that you might be eaten any minute is a sobering experience. However, so far, (knock  on coral) no one has ever met their demise on this guided tour in the main island of Fiji. Divers go down with a group of armed guides and rest on the ocean floor 100 feet below while the guides feed bull sharks barrels of fish guts and chum. The sharks like an easy meal so they tend to focus on the buffet rather than the divers.

This is just a part of my list. It’s not complete by any means but wherever you go you’re bound to find interesting and strange animals to get your own list started.

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