A leopard on Masai Mara

Image: Shutterstock

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 the jungle hat he’s worn on David Letterman at least 100 times. As a party planner, I had him booked for a nature-themed festival. I got about an hour of undiluted Hanna time on the way to the event. Since I’ve been watching his animal shows have been playing on TV since I was a kid, I was thrilled to talk to him about my adventures around the world.

Hanna makes a living speaking to audiences about his exploits and showcasing interesting animals from all over the globe. As we discussed his travels in Africa, and my own, 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 are looking for bucket list places to go, this list might be useful in planning your next adventure:

Africa

When it comes to wild animals, Africa is the place that most people think of first. 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, with Ngorongoro crater, Kruger and Masai Mara as the most visited national parks. Travelers typically rent a jeep with a driver and guide and to travel through savannah, the forest and near watering holes looking for photo opportunities. Spotting the “big five”—lion, buffalo, elephant, leopard and rhino—is the goal of most newbie safari takers. If you’d like to kick things up a little, book a hot air balloon ride over the Serengeti to get a great overhead view of the animals. And the truly adventurous and well-heeled among us may choose to visit central Africa, where they can observe silver back gorillas in Rwanda or look at wildlife on a boat as they’re transported through the Okavango Delta in Botswana.

Manitoba

The best way to see a polar bear in the wild is not at the North Pole, but in Churchill, 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 Churchill is not exactly cheap though. There’s only one airline that flies there from Winnipeg, so prices can be high. There is a train option, but it takes two 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.

India and Nepal

If you’re looking for the ultimate animal adventure, then a tiger safari might be for you. 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 catching them in the wild. Ranthambore was originally the hunting ground of the Jaipur Maharajas, so it’s filled with interesting buildings and fortresses as well.

Florida

It may not seem exotic on such an international list, but swimming with a manatee is an amazing experience. Crystal River, Florida is a protected reserve for manatees. Here, you can get up close and personal with these giant creatures, which were once 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.

Amazon River

Where else in the world can you go piranha fishing? The Amazon is the place for experiences that will 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.

Indonesia

I was in Bukit Lawang, Indonesia when suddenly an “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 of Clyde from those old Clint Eastwood movies when the orangutans start making funny faces with their oversized lips. On the eastern side of Indonesia one can stop off in the island of Komodo, famous for the Komodo dragon. The giant reptiles, which can reach 10 feet in length, run freely around the island. You can actually buy a goat, tie it to a stake and feed the dragons like some kind of tourist animal sacrifice. 

Fiji

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 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.

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