What are your favourite encounters with wildlife? Deirdre Mullins recalls some of her favourites, including Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, home to half of the world's gorilla population.
Gorilla Trekking – Uganda
There are roughly 700 mountain gorillas remaining in the world and half of them live in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in the southwest of Uganda. They are the largest living primates and their human-like appearance and behaviour capture the imagination.
Mountain gorillas move daily, so the trek to find them can take anywhere from 15 minutes to five hours. I searched in a group of six tourists and two machete-carrying guides. We trekked for about three hours through jungle valleys and dense vegetation before we found a family of gorillas. A mammoth 200kg silverback was feeding on a tree, making growling noises. To his right another silverback and five babies came peeping out from the foliage with their big brown eyes and thick, black glossy fur. They threw a few glances at us but, unfazed, they continued to graze and climb the branches.
From just a couple of metres away we watched silently, hearing little except the click of cameras and the crunching sound of the gorillas eating. Our strictly allotted one hour with the gorillas was over in what seemed like minutes. There is roughly one gorilla to every 10 million people on the planet and it's a privilege to spend 60 minutes in their company.
For more information, visit: www.bwindiforestnationalpark.com.
Orangutan Trek – Sumatra, Indonesia
Bukit Lawang is one of the best places in the world to spot the reclusive primate, the Orangutan. Since the 1970s a conservation programme has been operating with the hope of maintaining a healthy population of this endangered species. It is estimated that about 5,000 of them are living in Sumatra's jungles.
Visitors are welcome to witness the park rangers feed the orangutans on a platform twice per day (8:00am and 3:00pm). From about 15 metres away you have the privilege of seeing young and old orangutans graze on bananas and interact with one another.
What makes Bukit Lawang a more attractive proposition than its counterpart, Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary in Borneo, is that the former offers treks in the jungle which range from a half-day to three-day excursions. A welcome break from the walking comes by the way of the traditional Indonesian dish Nasi Goreng, and a swim in a jungle waterfall.
I had a local guide, Sinar, who knew the orangutans by name and communicated with them through growling and grunting sounds. One female got aggressive and there was a standoff between us and the orangutan. Thankfully Sinar 'talked' her down and explained to us that she was just protecting her young.
Considering that orangutans have 97% of their DNA in common with humans, it's easy to understand their magnetism. However, getting close to them is an experience tinged with sadness, as it's mankind's demand for palm oil that is threatening these beautiful creatures' habitat and very existence.
For more information, visit: www.bukitlawang.com.
Turtle Watching – Borneo
Between July and October, thousands of turtles come to nest on the shores of the aptly named Turtle Island, which lies 40km off the east coast of Malaysian Borneo.
While spending the day on the island's picture-postcard beach, I was lucky to see baby turtles hatch from their nests and make their perilous journey across the sand into the open sea.
There are 60 permits issued per day and all of the tourists who get them must stay overnight in chalets close by the hatchery. After sundown we were instructed to wait together with torch in hand for the much anticipated 'turtle time' call from the rangers.
After four hours waiting we got the call and made our way to the moonlit beach. The sand was marked with turtle tracks, revealing the route of the laying turtles. Once we found mother turtle the guide gave us instructions not to shine our torches on her and not to stand in front of her.
About 20 of us huddled behind her and watched as she laid 116 eggs - a good night's work by any standards. Female turtles go into a nesting trance while laying and fluid comes out their eyes. It makes them look like they are crying, adding to the intensity of the experience.
The second part of the night provided an equally amazing experience. Our guide brought us to the hatchery, and he transferred about a 100 hatchlings from their nest into a basket before taking them to shore and releasing them to the sea.
Like any powerful encounter with nature, this experience was humbling. It also raised the issue of the environmental damage that we humans have inflicted on this world, and such a majestic creature as the turtle.
For more information, visit: www.turtleislandborneo.com.
Safari - Serengeti National Park, Tanzania
The Serengeti is the greatest game park in Africa and spans 15,000sq km of rolling savannah that shelters an astounding array of animals. There are an estimated 2,800 lions roaming alongside 250 cheetahs and 9,000 spotted hyenas. There is a continual movement of 1.3 million wildebeest, 200,000 zebra, 300,000 Thomson's gazelle, and thousands of eland and topi, who all follow an age-old instinct to seek new pastures. There are also plenty of giraffes, elephants, warthogs, antelopes and monkeys. So you won't leave disappointed.
But it's not just the wildlife that will blow you away; the sheer expanse of the short-grass plains, broken only by acacia trees and random rocky outcrops, is a stunning sight.
When I signed up to go on a four-day safari in the Serengeti I didn't expect to be sleeping in an unprotected camp in the middle of the park's plain. But apparently that was the budget accommodation. After spending the day watching groups of lionesses hunt, it was disconcerting to say the least to hear lions and hyenas roam just metres from my modest two-person tent. At one point I could hear only the panting of what I understood to be a lion. Needless to say no sleep was had that night.
For more information, visit: www.serengeti.org.
Shark Bay – Australia
There are very few places in the world where you can see wild dolphins so easily as in Shark Bay. It is an enormous body of clean water which is protected by its status as a Marine Park and World Heritage site. Tourists flock to the area to have a close encounter with the friendly bottle-nosed dolphins that cavort in its waters. The dolphins can be found almost every day on the beach of Monkey Mia. They bathe in shallow water and are curious to check out the onlookers on dry land. It's not unusual to see a group of dolphins aquaplane on the beach to catch fish.
I had a magical encounter while taking a morning stroll on the beach at Monkey Mia. Just metres away an inquisitive dolphin swam alongside me, keeping a watchful eye as I walked along.
Apart from the dolphins, Shark Bay's waters heave with rays, turtles, sea snakes and the world's biggest population of dugongs (11,000). From June through October humpback whales pay a visit. Or if you want to just kick back, Shark Bay is home to some of the most stunning beaches in Australia.
For more information, visit: whc.unesco.org/en/list/578.
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