PLANNING A TRIP
Tiger, gorilla, bear, lemur, cheetah, whale, rhino... wildlife travel has no shortage of must-see A-List celebrities, but the inspiration for your trip could equally be a wildlife spectacle or remote wilderness. Planning a wildlife holiday is like grappling with your very own theory of natural selection. As your plans evolve, certain things will inevitably fall by the wayside (dismissed perhaps by budget restraints or seasonal factors) – but at the same time, fresh ideas will emerge that lead you to exciting new possibilities.
Planning a Wildlife Holiday Q&A
14 Things Your Should Ask Yourself
The wishlist and reality check
This is the fun part of planning a wildlife trip, delving into the diverse range of wildlife holidays available, from safaris and bear-watching trips to expedition cruises and conservation volunteering. As you compile a shortlist of wildlife you hope to see, places you’d like to visit and activities you want to try, give some thought to what else you may want to do, whether it’s a few days flopping on a beach or some city sightseeing.
Once you’ve compiled a wishlist, it’s time to apply logistics to weed out the trips that are non-feasible.
When to go
Timing is everything. There is little point, for example, in planning the trip of a lifetime to see penguins in South Georgia if you can only travel in August. A quick glance at this wildlife calendar will reveal that Antarctica has a brief window of opportunity for viewing wildlife during the austral summer (from around November to February).
Wildlife seasons and events
Although some wildlife is relatively static and present year round (mountain gorillas for example), many species respond to seasonal changes in their environment or life cycle and travel great distances. To maximize your chances of a sighting you need to synchronise with the migration of humpback whales; you have to understand how the post-monsoon flush of vegetation can make tiger spotting in India almost impossible, or how the annual spawning of salmon along the coast of British Columbia and Southeast Alaska can bring a bumper crop of bear sightings.
How long to go for
It’s also important to consider the length of your trip. Trying to shoehorn a wildlife holiday into too few days cannot only be impractical, but it can also mean you spend most of your trip travelling.
How much will it cost
Budget is likely to reap the most casualties on your wishlist. That dream trip traversing Ecuador, from the coast (or Galápagos Islands) to the Amazon Basin might become prohibitively expensive once you’ve thoroughly researched hidden costs, like internal flights, visas, national park fees and non-inclusive activities. Many wildlife destinations, however, have a range of options when it comes to cost. In Namibia, for example, you could book a top-end safari, zipping along the Skeleton Coast in a chartered Cessna and dropping in at luxury tented camps, or, for a fraction of the cost, you could join an overland camping safari where you pitch your own tent and help cook meals.
The nitty gritty
Once you have decided on the theme and highlights of your wildlife trip and allocated an appropriate budget and time frame, it’s time to start tackling the paperwork and practicalities.
Independent versus group travel
Now is the time to decide how you want to travel – whether you’d prefer to join an organised group tour, ask an operator to tailor-make a trip for you or plan everything independently. As well as cutting costs, going solo can offer the freedom to travel at your own pace and the flexibility to adapt your travel plans – handy, for instance, if wildlife viewing proves particularly rewarding in one area and you want to extend your stay. Independent travellers can also make responsible travel decisions such as staying in locally owned accommodation and hiring local guides.
However, be sure to check whether an organised tour doesn’t, in fact, offer better value once you’ve taken into account the discounts that operators can pass on to their clients from block bookings. Remember, too, that bonded operators guarantee financial security, high standards of service and a commitment to responsible travel through their membership of ATOL, IATA, AITO and other organisations. Perhaps most crucial of all, it is only by arranging your travels through a specialised operator that you can gain access to locations like Antarctica.
Good wildlife travel companies will also have intimate knowledge of the places you’re interested in visiting. They’ll be passionate about wildlife and keen to share their personal recommendations.
Organising your documents
Once you’ve booked your trip, make sure that your passport is in date for at least six months beyond your period of travel and apply well in advance for any visas that you might need. Check that your vaccinations are up to date and find out if you need to start a course of anti-malarials. Arrange travel insurance that is comprehensive enough to cover the activities you’ll be doing. Most operators will require this as part of the conditions for booking a trip.
As far as money is concerned, traveller’s cheques are the safest way to carry money, but it’s also a good idea to take some cash in either local currency or US dollars. Many camps and lodges accept credit cards which are also useful for security deposits (against car rental etc), cash advances at ATMs or in emergency situations when you might need to replace stolen gear or purchase an air ticket at short notice.
Although international flights are usually included as part of a tour package, some operators offer ‘land only’ rates, leaving you to make your own travel arrangements. Searching online for bargain flights is one option, but you could also consider travelling by train, overland truck or ferry to reduce your carbon footprint.
Health and fitness
Just as you need to plan well in advance for obtaining visas and vaccinations, it’s important to include a training and fitness regime on your countdown-to-departure calendar. A typical African safari doesn’t demand athletic levels of fitness, but you’ll appreciate some pre-trip toning if you’re planning to track mountain gorillas or paddle a canoe along the Zambezi. Some wildlife trips involve simple-to-learn activities like sea kayaking, while others require more demanding skills such as scuba diving.