Six Months of Travel: Top 5 Animal Encounters

5. Feeding Baby Giraffes, South Africa

 South Africa is dotted with private farms which function essentially as tiny game parks where you can have up close experiences with animals led by professional game handlers and guides. Since they are typically full time managers of their wild-life and land, they can provide a more reliable and intimate encounter with their wildlife.

Chandelier is just outside Outdshoorn, the long ago Ostrich capital of South Africa. At a certain time of the early 20th century Ostrich feathers were the height of fashion and “Ostrich Barons” of the small dusty town built elaborate farms and mansions. Today, the town is still South Africa’s Ostrich capital but the primary economic drivers are tourism and game meat production (Ostrich steaks primary among them). Our guesthouse suggested that we stop by Chandelier as they had two juvenile giraffes that you could assist feeding.

The giraffes were each orphans, one a female from another park whose mother had died, the male an unfortunate reject from his herd at Chandelier. The game warden explained their history to us as he filled 2-liter coke bottles with cow milk. Once in the enclosure the animals came right over and basically took the bottles right out of our hands, swinging them up towards the sky as they gulped down their breakfast. The two were being cultivated to mate and in a year or so they will be released back out onto the reserve to start their own little brood.

It was amazing to stand so close to these huge animals and to feel their necks as they gulped down the milk. They were surprisingly elegant – and fast – when they ran. It was a very cool up close with a really beautiful pair of animals.

4. Meerkat Adventures, South Africa

Recommended by Lonely Planet and our friends in Cape Town, we were excited to join Meerkat Adventures for an early morning encounter with these rarely seen and very social animals in their natural environment.

We drove out before dawn to meet a convoy of cars waiting on the side of the highway just outside Outdshoorn for our guide and his son to direct us off the road to the nearby Meerkat nest.

They set up a table with instant coffee and rusks (a kind of Afrikaans biscotti) to warm us up in the chill of the early morning. We walked a few hundred feet from the road to a mound of earth covered in scrub. We waited for sun rise while our guide explained about his own path to working with and documenting these animals.

He explained the unrealistic and misleading life as depicted on shows like “Meerkat Manor.” Meerkats in the wild never live in groups as large as those on the show and that despite their apparent socialness, they have little awareness of one another outside the daily routine of their feeding. When members of their social group are eaten or killed by other predators, they do not seem to exhibit any awareness that a member of their family is missing. The complicated and sentimental temperament depicted on the show is a fantasy well-crafted to engage viewers.

As the sun and temperature above ground rose, the meerkats began to emerge to warm themselves and survey for predators. On their hind legs, their heads whip-sawing back and forth, they looked like clusters of commuters waiting for the bus. The characteristic standing lasted only a short while.  Once sun was fully up, they dispersed into the brush to begin the day’s hunting.

3. Great White Shark Diving, South Africa

We arose at 3:30 a.m. to make sure we could make the drive to Gansbaii to meet our boat at 6 a.m. We booked with White Shark Diving Company who had great reviews on Tripadvisor. Gansbaii is the traditional spot for shark diving in South Africa. It’s located near ‘Shark Alley’ and has the highest concentration of Great White Sharks on the planet. If you’ve seen a documentary on Great Whites, it was filmed here. One of the southern hemispheres largest colonies of seals is nearby, and the layout of islands creates a choke point as seals head out to the ocean to feed. The sharks wait… and hunt.

“Shark Diving” is a misnomer since no companies operating out of Gansbaii use scuba gear or a free floating cage. Instead, the cage is attached to the boat and you sit in the cage with your head above water as they chum to attract the sharks. When a shark comes by, you dive under water to watch them pass.

As promised we saw a significant number of sharks, the largest being a female who was 2.5 meters (almost 10 feet) long. She was also the most aggressive and devious of the sharks we saw. On several occasions, including ones you can see in the video, she came from directly under the tuna head almost snatching it away from the boat staff charged with keeping it out of her mouth. Our friend from the states described it well when he talked about the shark’s resemblance to machines. Whether it was their black dead looking eyes or the smooth, power of their movement in the water, they gave a strong and chilling feeling of otherness; that whatever consciousness amounted to for them would be unrecognizable to us. Their brain was wholly focused on one question: what it could eat.

2. Moholoholo Animal Sanctuary, South Africa

Two separate and unrelated parties we met at camp grounds recommended that we visit Moholoholo on our way out of Kruger National Park. The animal park and sanctuary has daily visits to their home for rescued wild animals.

The concept of ‘rescuing’ these wild animals is complicated because – in many cases – by virtue of intervening in these animals lives, humans ensure they cannot re-enter the wild. Animals that have been fed and cared for by humans can come to expect food from them, creating a dangerous tendency to approach humans they encounter. Many of the animal were also rehabilitated from injuries that prevent them from being able to survive any longer in the wild.

In the language of the game staff at Moholoholo, these animals are now ‘ambassadors’ for their species allowing humans to see them up close and hopefully create stronger interest in preserving their wild cousins habitats and way of life.

The experience at Moholoholo was both amazing and sad for this reason. We were able to see an incredible number of animals closer than we would ever encounter them in the wild including a wide variety of vultures, big cats and wild dogs. We petted a cheetah, met the famous escape artist Honey Badger ‘Stoffel’ and saw the world’s rarest and most valuable gazelle. Moholoholo was great, my only regret was that we didn’t see it before our trip into Kruger. I think seeing these animals up close before we saw them in the wild would have contributed to my enjoyment of our self drive safari.

1. Kruger National Park, South Africa

Kruger National Park is one of the world’s largest and most well known animal parks. It covers almost 20,000 square kilometers and contains over 147 mammal species, 500 species of birds, 116 reptiles, 34 amphibians, 49 fishes, not to mention its plants and insects.

Kruger was really the cornerstone of our driving trip in South Africa; our whole driving itinerary was built on what we could see on the way to Kruger.

It did not disappoint. We entered in the south at Crocodile Bridge. We stayed for three nights, each at a different campsite driving consistently north. We rented cottages at Skukuza, Satara and Olifants camps. Our drive in between each camp took several hours and by the end of our three days we had seen an incredible variety of wildlife: giraffes, lions, wildebeasts, elands, antelopes, zebras, monkeys, hippos and elephants and more.