By Aaron Gulley
A guide in Zimbabwe once offered me two pieces of advice before we set out on a walking safari: Stay in the middle of the group, as the suckers at the front and rear are likeliest to be picked off first by hungry game. If that fails, keep the guide with the rifle between you and the wildlife – or at least a less-fit-looking guest, in case it comes to a sprint. It was a wisecrack, of course, though I misplaced my sense of humor an hour later when, before either of my guides saw them, I spotted three lions gazing at us from 80 yards in thick vegetation. To my guide’s credit, he put himself between us and the animals, and then backed the group to safety. It’s a great dinner-party story, especially because no one was mauled. But what stuck with me from the experience was the primal awe of being in close, unchecked proximity to some of the planet’s wildest creatures.
Some travelers love museums and city tours; many seek out festivals or the world’s finest restaurants. Me? I’m just as happy sitting in a field of grizzlies in Alaska or swimming in a lake full of jellyfish in Palau. Coming face-to-face with animals is the ultimate reminder of the vitality and wonder still left in this world, which is probably why I continue chasing wildlife when I travel – though thankfully I’ve yet to have any chase me.
Perhaps my wildlife infatuation is a vestige of my youth. I was raised in the bush in Nigeria, where the first pet I remember was a duiker, one of those pocket-size antelope, which we didn’t dare name as it was only a matter of time before the creature made its way into the wrong villager’s compound and ended up on a spit. For a while, we also had a small monkey.
In this age of manicured travel, with itineraries planned to the minute and “authentic” experiences buffed to a flawless sheen, free-roaming wildlife is a reminder of the visceral, unpredictable world out there, an antidote to beige airport-lounge furniture and hip hotel lobbies’ just-quiet-enough ambient techno music. Once, on a photo safari at Ted Turner’s Vermejo Reserve, our guide set up to call a bull elk so we could photograph it, and four of them came in so fast and hard and close – one within ten yards – that no one was able to snap a single image. Another time, on a diving trip off Colombia’s Pacific coast to see whale sharks, we found zero of the big fish, but swam with blue whales, which weren’t meant to be there that time of year. Setting out in pursuit of animals is as surprising and satisfying as sitting down to an omakase dinner, where you show up, the chef decides what you’ll eat, and all you have to do is savor the results.
It doesn’t hurt that animals also happen to live in pretty country – usually some of the most serene, bucolic, and disconnected spots on earth. At Little Makalolo Camp in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, my wife and I spent a night at the Star Bed, a treetop platform half an hour’s drive from the main lodge, where you sleep above the grasslands in total seclusion. A herd of elephants rustling in the acacias 20 feet below us kept us up much of the night, and dawn ushered a pride of lions to the watering hole. But the things I’ll remember most from that experience are the night sky full of stars as bright as headlights and the absolute tranquility of the African veldt.
Citing rapidly disappearing species, such as the rhinos in South Africa or Siberian snow leopards, some will say, “You have to go see the animals now, before they’re all gone.” But that sentiment gets it all wrong: The truth is, the more of us who go to witness the miracle of wildlife around the world, the more of us there will be striving to preserve it. Just be sure to keep your guide between you and the lions. You’ll do very little for the cause if you wind up down the gullet.
Top Illustration: Zöe Barker