I went on my first safari when I was about 11 and was so excited with every animal I saw, that I very soon got through rolls and rolls of photos on my little Kodak Instamatic camera. Of course, when we got home and had the photos printed, they consisted of endless shots of animals so far in the distance it was impossible to see them at all, and the only creatures close enough to be identifiable were endless parades of monkeys and baboons! Decades later with many safaris under my belt, I have become a little more discerning and have spent quite a lot of time traveling to see the more unusual, rare, or special animals that Africa has to offer.
1. Straw-Colored Fruit Bat Migration
See Them In Kasanka National Park, Zambia
Despite what most people think, Africa's largest wildlife migration does not take place in East Africa’s Serengeti or Masai Mara. In fact, it takes place in the skies over the Congo and Zambia. Annually, between October and December, more than 10 million straw-colored fruit bats descend into a tiny patch of evergreen swamp forest, appropriately referred to as The Bat Forest inside Kasanka National Park in Northern Zambia. This natural phenomenon is unique to Kasanka and is the largest mammal migration on earth. While Kasanka's bat migration may not be well known, it tops many of Africa’s more famous migrations for the sheer numbers of mammals participating.
In bat season, during the day, you can see squeaking masses of bats clinging to tree canopy, but come sunset, in a spectacular display, the bats leave the forest, flying off to feed, only returning in the early hours of the morning. At sunset you can stand, sundowners in hand, watching the bats set out for their nocturnal activities. I can also highly recommend the very early (3:30 a.m.!) wake-up call and viewing of the bats as they return from their night time feeding; seeing millions of bats silhouetted against the rising sun is a sight you will never forget.
From hides (wooden platforms built in trees) to public viewing areas, there are several places to view the bats. The climb up to the tree hides is not for the faint-hearted, so for those who prefer to keep their feet firmly on the ground, the ground-based public viewing areas are recommended.
In addition to the millions of straw-colored fruit bats, Kasanka is home to nearly 500 bird species and 114 mammals, including the special, secretive, semi-aquatic and least known of Africa’s large fauna, the sitatunga antelope. To book your visit, contact Kasanka National Park directly.
Editor’s Note: To see bats stateside, read up on the five things you need to know before you visit University of Florida’s amazing bat houses.
2. Brown Hyenas
See Them In The Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Botswana
The shy brown hyena, with its shaggy dark brown coat, short tail, and pointy ears, is the rarest of the hyenas. Listed as near-threatened, with a global population estimated to be less than 10,000, this is a special animal to see. In Botswana’s Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) catching sight of one of these elusive creatures is a fantastic experience, and as they are only active during the night, they can be a challenge to find.
For my 21st birthday, I had been given Mark and Delia Owen’s book, Cry of the Kalahari, about their seven years spent researching the brown hyenas of the Kalahari. The book had filled me with a real desire to visit and see for myself what they had seen. My opportunity came more than 20 years later when my family and I spent several days in the CKGR. Finally, on our last night, we caught sight of the animal I had been waiting so many years to see. The day had been hot and we had stopped for sundowners on the open plains, to watch giraffe and springbok graze. As the sun sank low in the sky, lightning illuminated the vast clouds, far away on the horizon. As we headed back to camp and dinner, we saw, trotting away from us and only just visible in the fading light, two brown hyenas. I could hardly believe my eyes, and whilst it wasn’t the clearest sighting, having waited so many years, it will always be very special to me.
The CKGR is also home to a variety of other terrific wildlife including lions, magnificent oryx, and the endearing bat-eared fox. The best way to see the park is on a mobile luxury tented safari, like the ones offered by Island Mobile Safaris.
See Them In Mahale Mountain National Park, Tanzania
The Mahale Mountains on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, halfway between the Burundi and Zambian borders, are home to a thriving population of some of the last wild chimpanzees in Africa. The only way in or out of Mahale is by charter flight with the last stretch done by boat. In the entire park, there is not a single road, so your entire experience will be on foot. This is a wholly unique wilderness and a long way off the beaten track. But the lake, the beaches, the extraordinary forest, and of course the chimpanzees all make it a journey well worth undertaking.
If trekking 5 or 6 hours a day up very steep inclines in humid jungle conditions is not for you, then perhaps cross Mahale off your destination list! The group of chimps that can be visited here have a territory of approximately 24 square miles, which covers beach, lowland forest, hills, and valleys, much of which is almost impenetrable.
For us, day one was a long trek. Two hours hiking straight uphill, by which time the entire group was dripping with sweat and our clothes clung to our damp bodies. But nothing can describe the adrenalin rush that kicked in when we first heard the calls of the chimpanzees in the forest. Exhaustion and aching legs were instantly forgotten, as the shrill calls echoed through the forest. Carrying on through the dense vegetation, getting closer to our target, anticipation growing until suddenly there they were.
Humans are supposed to maintain a minimum distance of 30 feet from the chimpanzees at all times, though this is sometimes easier said than done. Constantly on the move and indifferent to human presence, the chimps do occasionally get quite close. We were warned not to be startled or to run if charged at by any of the chimps and whilst this seemed good advice, it was not as easy as it sounds! Chimpanzees are many times stronger than humans and rather intimidating when charging downhill, whooping, and screaming -- holding my ground as six young males rushed past close enough for their hair to brush against my bare legs took considerable willpower!
Chimpanzees are not immune to human diseases, which in some cases can be fatal. Consequently, everyone in proximity to the chimps must wear surgical masks and no eating or drinking is allowed in proximity to the animals. To prevent interference with natural behavior, time in close proximity to the chimps is limited to one hour. Mondays and Thursdays are rest days for the chimps and no trekking is allowed on these days. Rest days coincide with the twice-weekly flights at the Mahale airstrip (a 90-minute boat ride away).
Pro Tip: The place to stay in Mahale is Greystoke Mahale.
4. Whale Sharks
See Them Around Saint Helena Island
The tiny volcanic island of Saint Helena could provide the key to whale shark reproduction. Located quite literally in the middle of nowhere, over 1,000 miles due west of Angola and nearly 2,500 miles from Rio de Janeiro, this is one of only a handful of locations around the world where whale sharks gather in any number.
With great excitement we tumbled into the water, masks askew and snorkels barely clasped in our mouths. We had come to Saint Helena at the tail end of the whale shark season and after a morning spent looking for this most enticing of species, we had finally found one. As we entered the water and adjusted our snorkeling gear, we found ourselves face to face with an alarmingly large and wide-mouthed creature. Whale sharks’ vestigial teeth are so small you can see little more than their gums, and their gullets are only the size of your fist, but it is still quite disconcerting to be so close to one of these rare and extraordinary filter-feeding sharks.
There are very few wildlife encounters that can rank as high as your first whale shark sighting. Swimming and snorkeling are the best way to interact with these magnificent creatures around Saint Helena, as here they are normally found near the surface. Whilst whale sharks are generally undeterred by swimmers, they can, at times, be quite curious about strangers visiting their realm. This can be a little intimidating, and we did find ourselves frequently “back-peddling” in an attempt to maintain the required 9-foot buffer distance between us.
Whale sharks are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), but visit Saint Helena annually from November until around April, peaking in January and February.
Only one airline, Airlink, offers flights to Saint Helena (from Johannesburg and Cape Town). On the island, I recommend staying at the Mantis Hotel, and for whale shark tours, I recommend Dive Saint Helena.
Editor’s Note: For more on bucket-list underwater encounters, consider swimming with manta rays in Hawaii: eight things to know.
5. Ethiopian Wolves
See Them In The Bale Mountains, Ethiopia
Ethiopia’s Bale Mountains are home to the rarest canid in the world, the elusive Ethiopian wolf, Africa’s most threatened carnivore. With its thick, brick-red coat, white belly, narrow snout, long legs, and lithe body, it looks more like a large fox or a jackal than a wolf. Ethiopian wolves are highly social creatures, living in family packs, but remaining solitary hunters. Decimated by habitat loss and infectious diseases carried by domestic dogs, there are now fewer than 500 of these wolves left in the wild, marooned in a handful of isolated pockets in the mountains of Ethiopia.
The Bale Highlands are home to 20 endemic Ethiopian mammals (including the magnificent and endangered Mountain nyala), 12 endemic amphibians, 12 endemic reptiles, 16 endemic birds, and all the Bale monkeys and big-headed mole-rats in the world. The star of the show though is undoubtedly the Ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis). The Bale Mountains are home to about half the world’s total population of Ethiopian wolves.
Only about 150 or 200 people a year trek in the Bale Mountains, and on our visit we pretty much had the place to ourselves. This is a trip for the more adventurous. Accommodation is in tents, which are tiny but snug and warm. Many mornings we awoke to find the outside of the tent covered with a layer of ice! Traveling to the Bale Mountains is an amazing opportunity to visit Ethiopia’s most important biodiversity hotspot and see some of the rarest creatures in the world.
Pro Tip: Simien Trek can organize your entire Ethiopian itinerary.
6. Wild Dogs
See Them At The Mana Pools, Zimbabwe
Currently listed as endangered by the IUCN with only 6,600 remaining in the wild, African wild dogs are one of the continent’s most captivating carnivores and one of its most endangered species. Once found all over Africa, their numbers have drastically declined over the last 100 years. At Mana Pools, the wild dogs thrive in the park and can regularly be seen hunting, generally in the early morning and late afternoon when temperatures are a little cooler. There are six main wild dog packs in the park, numbering around one hundred. Three of these packs live on the flood plains and have become relatively accustomed to human visitors.
Late afternoon we sat silently watching a pack of 16 wild dogs. They lay napping in a shady depression, camouflaged by their mottled coats. The air was warm and still. The only sound to be heard was a distant birdcall. Aside from the occasional flick of a tail, the pack lay inert. We were transfixed. The sun sank lower in the sky. One by one the dogs woke, yawned, and stretched. Getting to their feet, the pack members exchanged elaborate greetings -- whimpering as they sniffed, smelled, and licked one another. The dogs became livelier, prancing, and playing. There was a definite light-hearted atmosphere amongst the pack as they gamboled together, waiting for the last few deep sleepers to stir. Playtime over, it was time to get to work, and the pack readied themselves for the night’s hunt. As they set off the hunt, a hyena, previously hidden from sight, appeared, obviously intending to follow the dogs, hoping to cash in on their hard work and score himself a free meal.
Pro Tip: African Bush Camps offers three different locations within Mana Pools that provide excellent options for accommodation and a safari to see wild dogs.
Africa is home to an array of exotic, special, and endangered animals. This list merely skims the surface, so perhaps on another occasion, I will have a chance to tell you more of what I have seen and what else you should add to your bucket list. See more of my Africa and safari recommendations here.