I’m having a night in with a spiced chai latte and a nature documentary, so I thought I’d share with you a little bit about my thing for animals. It’s more of an obsession really. Tiger – Spy in the Jungle might be my favourite telly series ever, and earlier this year I was glued to Frozen Planet. If I’d been any good at science at school, I’d probably be living on a ranch somewhere in Africa right now working on a conservation programme.
I’ve already written about the life-affirming experience I had on Crescent Island in Kenya, but I’ve been incredibly fortunate to see many other wild creatures in their natural habitats too. Here are my top five.
1. Orangutans, Sumatra
Sumatra was our last stop on our tour of Indonesia. We flew from Surabaya in the south east of Java for a quick 48-hour dash into the jungle, via the little town of Bukit Lawang, before flying back to Jakarta and then home. Bukit Lawang is famous for two things: its orang-utans and its gigolos. We were obviously there for the former.
We told ourselves it didn’t matter if we didn’t see any orangutans, but in reality we’d flown a really long way for this experience. As luck would have it we didn’t even have to leave the grounds of the Jungle Inn where we were staying to see one. The day before our trek, we were walking back from the village when at the end of the garden we spotted a large ginger furball across the river. It’s not terribly unusual for this to happen, as Bukit Lawang is properly in the jungle, with waterfalls and steam rising though trees, as well as monkey cries and butterflies the size of your fist.
Trekking through the jungle is the most physically demanding thing I’ve ever done – much tougher than the half marathon I completed earlier this year. The climbs require hardy leg muscles and balance, of which I have neither, and the descents were truly precipitous. I couldn’t go up or down stairs properly for days afterwards.
But hearing big alpha male orang-utans crashing through the trees and watching the babies bravely attempt to swing from branch to branch made it all worthwhile. Even more so when they started to watch us, make eye contact with us, size us up. Knowing how very intelligent they are and how much our DNA we share with them, it hurt deeply in those moment to think how critically endangered they are, and how it might only be a matter of time before our goofy ginger cousins die out completely.
2. The big cats, Masai Mara and Lake Nakuru
I initially put ‘the big five’ here, but then crossed it out because in what world is spotting a water buffalo more exciting than watching a cheetah devour its kill? Not mine, that’s for sure. Anyway, ‘the big five’ was originally a hunting term for the animals most hard to track and kill (lions, leopards, elephants, black rhinos and water buffalo), which was later adopted by tourism operators.
Much as with the orang-utans, we were told not to get our hopes up about lions; it was possible that we might not see any. But we did. They were everywhere! We even saw cubs. Almost as impressive as seeing them was hearing them as we sat around the campfire at night. Our Masai guards could tell us exactly how far away they were just by their roars.
It was the last day of our safari and a cheetah was the only the animal left on my list of things to see. It looked like it wasn’t going to happen, until we received a call from another guide who’d found one — and it had just made a kill! By the time we reached the cheetah it was having a rest between courses. Scavengers – jackals, vultures and storks — lurked nervously in a ring around the cheetah and dead antelope, but none succeeded in tearing away dessert.
It was the leopard proved most elusive. Evidence of them was everywhere as once they’ve made a kill, they drag their prey up into trees where they can go to town with less botheration from scavengers. Alas, I only saw one and it was from a distance – it was asleep in a tree. Still, tick!
3. Komodo Dragons, Komodo National Park
Five nights sleeping on the deck of a tug boat in the Flores sea, being tossed between waves and battered in storms and we finally arrived. First stop was Komodo Island itself, where we baked ourselves on an arc of pink sand (one of only seven pink beaches in the world) and snorkelled over the kind of coral I’d presumed was only ever seen through scuba masks.
We then headed on to Rinca, where we discovered we’d just missed a BBC film crew who were headed in the other direction. The dragons were there to meet us on arrival though, basking in the sun by the guide huts.
Rinca’s landscape looks almost prehistoric, and the dragons – the world’s largest lizards – are pretty much the closest things to dinosaurs we’ve got. As such, we all got our sweatiest acting scared faces on and pretended we were lost in Jurassic Park.
The Komodo dragons are seriously dangerous. I know, because I saw them kill a water buffalo in an episode of BBC’s Life. If I was going on what I saw from their behaviour as they lay sprawled like beached whales in the midday heat on Rinca though, I wouldn’t have put them down as being able to attack a sloth.
4. Sea turtles, Gili Islands
We’d heard rumours that if we were very lucky, we might spot turtles when snorkelling around the Gili Islands, but no sooner did I don my mask and snorkel and paddle out over the coral, than there they were.
I dived down a little further so I could swim right alongside them. I reached out and touched one on its shell. It turned slightly and gave me a cranky look as if to say, “you know you’re not supposed to do that,” before carrying on its merry way. Occasionally they’d bob to the surface and open their mouths like drunk old men while they took in the air, but mostly they just sculled about doing their own thing, ignoring me and each other.
I didn’t have an underwater camera with me unfortunately so you’ll just have to take my word for it. Here are some pretty pictures of the Gili Islands and a sanctuary for baby turtles to appease you though.
5. Flamingos, Lake Bogoria
Flamingos don’t sound terribly exciting, do they? And they’re not really, when they’re on their own. When they’re clustered together in their hundreds though, forming huge pink blotches across an expanse of water with a backdrop of mountains and geysers, everything changes.
Lake Nakuru is famous for flamingos, but truthfully most of them can be found further north these days, wading about in the alkaline waters of Lake Bogoria, one of the Great Rift Valley’s spectacular crater lakes, just our side of the Equator. They get their spectacularly bright plumage from the aqueous bacteria that thrive in the saline shallows.
Bogoria was one of those places I expected to enjoy, but which I basically thought would be a pit-stop on our way to see the more exciting animals. Oh how wrong I was. I was completely enchanted by the dramatic scenery and the peace and quiet of the place. I didn’t have long there, but the eagles and flamingos and hot springs make it a stunning destination in its own right.
And the big five I dream about
- Tigers, India
- Mountain Gorillas, Uganda/Rwanda
- Dolphins, Monkey Mia, WA
- Polar Bears, Svalbard
- Wildebeest migration, Tanzania
Just give me time, reader, give me time.
N.B. I remember watching Born Free as a child and being captivated by Elsa the lioness and the relationship she had with Joy and George Adams. In the film, they were played by real-life couple Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers who later went on to set up the Born Free Foundation. Virginia still runs Born Free with her son Will Travers, who I was lucky enough to meet when he launched the EU Zoo Enquiry at the European Parliament. If you care about conservation, it’s worth taking a moment to check out some of the amazing work they do around the world, making sure animals in captivity aren’t mistreated and returning them to the wild wherever possible.