Thought safari holidays were all about heading to Africa in search of the Big Five? Not necessarily. These days, wildlife-watching expeditions can take you all around the globe from tropical wetlands to frozen tundra. Bust the stereotype with a trip to one of these five alternative safari destinations…
1. Croc-spotting in Australia – fly from £631
While the vast majority of Australia-bound travellers head straight to Sydney and other East Coast hotspots, the more intrepid take the road less travelled to the Northern Territory. Start off in Darwin and you’ll find plenty of places offering safari tours into nearby Kakadu National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that encompasses a wide variety of landscapes and experiences. Clamber your way up one of the dramatic sandstone escarpments that tower over the forested lowlands below. Then hike along secret gorges to find cool waterfall pools and ancient Aboriginal rock art; and go croc-spotting on a billabong cruise. There are more than 10,000 crocodiles here and the sight of a huge saltie sunning itself on a sandy bank just yards away is something you don’t forget in a hurry.
Stay: Melaleuca on Mitchell – Darwin YHA has a good location in the Esplanade area, an outdoor pool, and the choice of dorm accommodation or private rooms from around £31 a night.
2. Birdwatching in Costa Rica – fly from £465
For UK ornithologists used to spending much of their time trying to distinguish one small brown bird from another, twitching in Costa Rica comes as a revelation. The country is populated by all kinds of vividly plumaged birds that send jewel-bright shards of colour flashing across the sky. If you’re not cut out for sitting quietly in a hide all day, the good news is that you could easily spot them while you’re doing something more active. In Monteverde’s cloud forests you can trek along treetop suspension bridges, whizz through the canopy on a zipline, climb up trees and rappel down waterfalls. At any moment you might come across a hummingbird or a toucan. Or even (everybody’s top spot) a male quetzal, a little beauty of a bird from the top of its fluffy green head to the tip of its long, trailing tail.
Stay: The much-loved Pension Santa Elena offers rustic accommodation at a range of price points (rooms from around £22 a night) and earns rave reviews for the friendliness of its staff.
3. Cruising cats in Brazil – fly from £691
Think safari and you generally think Jeep – but in the Pantanal, in Brazil, there’s every chance you’ll be boarding a boat or paddling a canoe for your daily excursions. Here, in the world’s largest tropical wetlands, gliding quietly along the river channels is the best way to seek out resident wildlife such as caimans, capybaras, giant otters, tapirs and – the undisputed star of the show – jaguars. For your best chance of spotting these beautiful big cats prowling the banks in search of prey, travel during the dry season (June/July to September/October). Fly into Cuiaba and follow the Transpantaneira road south to Porto Jofre, where a cluster of riverside lodges offer the perfect base for explorations.
Stay: Porto Jofre Pantanal (from around £187 per night) has en-suite bungalows, an outdoor pool and boats with guides to take you out on river safaris.
4. Tracking down polar bears in Canada – fly from £1,551
Forget khaki combats and lightweight safari jackets – packing for a polar bear safari in Churchill, Canada (aka polar-bear capital of the world) is more like packing for a ski trip. Yes, you could go in summer and stand a reasonable chance of spotting the great ice bears, but by far the best time to catch them is in the chilly winter months of October and November. They gather in their hundreds along the shoreline of Hudson Bay, waiting for the waters to freeze over so they can head out to their seal hunting grounds. While they wait they’re easy to find: take a day-trip aboard a Tundra Buggy or Polar Rover (specially adapted vehicles raised high above the ground on huge wheels) and there’s every chance of surprisingly close encounters. Polar bears’ natural curiosity brings them right up to the vehicle, every bit as keen to check you out as you are to observe them.
Stay: In peak season, IceBerg Inn, a few minutes’ walk from Churchill train station, has rooms from around £143 per night.
5. Safari for softies in Singapore – fly from £339
Not sure you’re quite cut out for a full-on, off-the-beaten-track, might-not-always-have-access-to-WiFi safari? No problem. Singapore has a safari-for-softies option where you’re guaranteed close-up encounters with all kinds of wildlife without having to abandon your well-connected city base for more than a few hours. The hugely popular Night Safari, next door to Singapore Zoo, is the world’s first safari park for nocturnal animals, so has the unusual opening hours of 7.15pm to midnight. Once inside, you can follow four walking trails through the grounds, which are designed to replicate different geographical regions from the Himalayan foothills to the jungles of south east Asia. Or, take the lazy route: if you don’t mind a bit of a queue, you can jump aboard a tram for a 40-minute ride around the enclosures, spotting everything from clouded leopards and fishing cats to pangolins and possums along the way.
Stay: If money’s no object, book yourself in to Raffles, a Singapore icon that’s newly reopened after a two-year, multi-million-pound refurbishment. If the budget’s tight, try The Pod @ Beach Road Boutique Capsule Hotel, where small pod rooms start from around £37 a night.
Inspired for your next expedition? Grab your binoculars and start scanning for the best flights below.
All flight and prices mentioned in this article are estimates of the cheapest prices based on Skyscanner’s flight search tools. These are subject to change and were correct at time of writing on 19 August 2019.