On my recent trip to Nusa Lembongan (a small island off the south-east coast of Bali) I went on a snorkelling trip to Manta Point on the southern side of neighbouring island Nusa Penida. As the name might suggest Manta Point is a favourite hangout for Manta Rays. Or most of the time it is at least – our skipper told us (me and a Brazilian couple who I chartered the boat with) that he couldn’t guarantee we’d see any. And he was right. The only rays we saw were of the sun variety. But, our skipper wasn’t about to give up. We chugged around to another cove where the water was so rough that metre-high swells were smashing into the shear limestone cliffs. As soon as we arrived our skipper screamed, ‘Manta!’ and told us to quickly jump into the water. I dived in and immediately found myself smack in the middle between two huge creatures the size of small cars. One of their massive rippling wings brushed past me and I’m not ashamed to say that I almost wet my swimming trunks. I then floated, bobbing about on the surface of the sea while getting beaten around by the swell, while the mantas gracefully swam around us. At one point the larger of the two came straight at me with it’s mouth open – which looked as if it could swallow me whole – then glided directly underneath me.
I do love a good ‘wildlife encounter’ when I’m travelling and my manta encounter was up there with the best I’ve experienced. Over my years of travelling I’ve been lucky enough to get close and personal to a whole menagerie of different critters from tarsiers and turtles to eagles and elephants. Here are my favourite (and most interesting) wildlife encounters:
Rhino, Giraffe, Zebra, Buffalo and a gazillion Flamingos
Lake Nakuru National Park, Kenya
While my host and guide Mutisya was in the ticket office at the entrance to the Lake Nakuru National Park a monkey leapt through the driver’s window of Mutisya’s beaten-up old Toyota and casually sat down in the back seat. He looked at me, snorted then jumped back out. Meanwhile Mutisya returned to the car in a huff. ‘They will not give us a discount because you are a famous travel writer ,’ he barked angrily. So we snuck in instead. Mutisya drove off the main road down a dusty track, then slipped through a side gate. It was even dustier in the park and we were soon covered in dust (it was too hot to close the windows). Within minutes we were driving past a grazing herds of giraffes, buffalo and zebras. ‘Don’t we need to be in some sort of safari car?’ I asked Mutisya. He just shrugged. That’s okay, I thought – lions wouldn’t be able to fit through the car window anyway. We only stayed for less than an a hour (Mutisya was worried that we would get caught), but we managed to also see impalas, elands, gazelles and, the biggest buzz of all, a white rhino hanging out by the lake surrounded by a gazillion bright pink flamingos. And the only reason was saw the rhino was because when we saw a safari car ahead Mutisya hit the accelerator then spun the steering wheel wildly, sending the car lurching and rattling off the track and right through the middle of a family of giraffes.
The island of Bohol is home to the very cute and very kooky tarsier. This little critter fits in your hand and has eyes that are, by scale, 150 times bigger than a humans. They can also jump 40 times their own body length. I had to see one, so I jumped on a scooter from the town of Loboc and rode to a tarsier sanctuary two hours away in the middle of the island. The sanctuary had around 40 of the little fellows and none of them were in cages. You simply followed a narrow track through the jungle until you found one. Well, it was easy to find them because the lovely sanctuary staff put a little flag on the track where there was a tarsier in a tree. The little things looked way too cute to be real animals with their giant sorrowful eyes and wacky webbed hands and feet. It was so hard not to slip one in my bag to take home.
Isla Mujeres, Mexico
I’d been on a dolphin ‘spotting’ trip before, but on Isla Mujeres off the cost of Cancun, Mexico we got to swim with dolphins. And get dragged along by dolphins. And hugged by dolphins. And go flying along on a boogie board as a dolphin pushed the soles of of our feet. We even got kissed by a dolphin – although they were big, wet and somewhat slimy kisses.
Elephant, Deer, Buffalo and a whole troop of Monkeys.
Central Sri Lanka
‘You don’t need to go to a National Park to see animals!’ our guide Blacky told us. ‘I’ll take you somewhere where there is many animals.’ Half an hour later we drove around a bend into the middle of a small and narrow, marshy clearing that was teeming with wildlife. It was absolutely incredible. There was a large herd of wild elephants, numerous troops of noisy monkeys, water buffalo, chital deer, painted storks, egrets, ibis and large, meaning fish eagles. “You see,’ beamed Blacky. ‘This is the place for animals!’ It was amazing, however I don’t think it would ever become a big tourist attraction. That was because we were in the middle of a rubbish dump. I got out of the car and wandered through the polythene bags and oil drums and stood only a metre away from a bunch of monkeys fighting over the remains of what looked like a vegetable curry. Now, where else in the world can you get that close to wild animals that’s aren’t in a reserve or national park?
Grey Nurse Shark, Stingray and a very snappy Snapping Turtle
Melbourne Aquarium, Australia
I’ve done a shark dive before (in Fiji), but the reef sharks were a nice (as in nice and safe) distance away. During the 30-minute Melbourne Aquarium dive however, the grey nurse sharks bump right into you. And I mean literally bump into you. Our dive master informed us that if one of the scary-looking beasts swims directly at you they won’t see you (apparently they can’t see straight ahead). If they do, you have move your head to the side so they can see you and swim around you. Otherwise they bump head (and sharp teeth) first into you. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said. ‘They have plenty to eat, so they won’t be interested in eating you.’ He told us that we should be more worried about the giant snapping turtle. ‘He will try and bite your head off,’ he said. At one point our snappy happy friend tried to bite another fellow diver’s noggin and our dive master was holding it at arm’s length by holding its shell while the turtle snapped away only centimetres away from his head. And while I was dodging all the cross-eyed sharks and the crazed turtle, baby stingrays kept coming up to me for a cuddle. ‘They’re like puppies,’ the dive master told us. ‘They just want a cuddle and a tickle.’ It was more than cuddling – the amorous little fellows wrapped themselves around your leg, while mum (or dad) kept a large ink-black eye on you.
Raccoon, Chipmunk, Mule Deer (and possibly a Bear)
Yosemite National Park, California, USA
In just one day at Yosemite National Park I got to see a whole bunch of critters. I’d hired a bike and was riding around the park to different waterfalls and lookouts and at my first stop I was accosted by a gang of chipmunks. I got off my bike and a curious little chap came over to say hello. He was followed by a whole bunch of his mates. When I held out a cracker a couple of them even jumped on my hand and did a bit of a dance before leaping off and up a tree. And I tell you – they were a darn sight cuter than Alvin and Simon. During the day I spotted quite a few a deer, but that night as we were sitting by the campfire, a mule deer walked right up to us looking for food. So was the cheeky raccoon who sat at my feet begging for food. It was below zero at night, so when I went to bed I rushed from the lovely warmth of the fire to my tent and jumped into my sleeping bag without even taking my clothes off. It was while I was just about to nod off that I remembered I still had my toiletries bag in the tent. Our tour leader had told us not to leave any food or even toothpaste in the tent because hungry black bears would sniff it out. I was too comfy and warm to get out of my sleeping bag, but that just meant that during the night any noise I heard I was sure it was a bear after my toothpaste – and my tasty legs.
Eagle (and a poor little bunny rabbit)
One of my favourite travel experiences of all time was staying with a Kyrgyz family in the middle of a desert. I was in a guesthouse in the town of Karakol where, on the wall at reception, was a photo of a local ‘eagle hunter’. When I asked the girl at reception if she knew where you could go eagle hunting she grabbed the phone and called a friend who had a friend who just happened to be an eagle hunter in the middle of nowhere. My host’s name was Talgar and when I arrived at his three yurt family compound he was sitting on his horse. Perched on his arm was Tumara, a mighty-looking Mountain Eagle, standing almost a metre high with a curved beak the size of a carving knife. I was given a thick leather glove and Talgar made a high-pitched whistling noise and Tumara jumped onto my gloved hand. She was incredibly heavy, but what I noticed more was the fresh blood around her beak. Tumara had already eaten, so we had to wait until the next morning to go hunting. The next morning I was given a beautiful white horse to ride and followed Talgar and Tumara up a steep ridge that was impossibly narrow and impossibly steep. I’m not one who is normally scared of heights, but my stomach was still back down at the bottom of the ridge. We rode all morning, up and down high ridges, looking for prey, but didn’t spot a single furry critter. I didn’t mind, though. I loved being on the horse and being with Tumara. Eventually Tumara did spot a cute little bunny and was off for the chase. It didn’t take her long to snare her prey and Talgar raced down to pull Tumara off the bunny. ‘I keep the fur, and the rest is Tumara’s dinner tonight,’ he said.
Sea Turtles and a kaleidoscope of fish.
Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia
I have dived or snorkelled everywhere from Fiji to the Red Sea to the Caribbean, but the best place I’ve been is in my own backyard. Well not technically my backyard, but in Australia on the Great Barrier Reef. I’ve done the pontoon trip with Quicksilver Cruises a few times (which is amazing), but my favourite trip was a day trip to the Low Isles, which is 25 km north-east of Port Douglas. We spent the day swimming amongst the coral just off the beach and not only did we see the usual array of brightly-coloured fish, but giant green sea turtles. Lots of them. You could swim right up to them and they would give you a cursive glance before zooming off. And I mean zooming off – they could really move if they wanted to.
Monkey and Elephant
Near Phnom Penh, Cambodia
I’ve written about our Dad and Daughter visit to the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center here. Not only did we spend the entire day hanging with gibbons, sun bears, crocodiles, elephants, tigers and otters we got to hand feed elephants, jump in a cage with a troop of boisterous adolescent monkeys and had an elephant paint a T-shirt for us – while we were wearing the T-shirt.
I’m giving away books for FREE!
To celebrate the launch of my new website simply tell me your best wildlife encounter in the comments below for your chance to win one of three signed copies of Tell Them to Get Lost. An expert panel of judges (okay, my wife and daughter) will pick the winners on Wednesday 15th April.