Solo Travellers Meet Themselves in Authentic Animal Encounters

For those who have a kinship with animals, there’s little more awe-inspiring than getting up close and personal with nature’s creatures in their natural habitat. The encounters that aren’t manufactured and don’t disrupt the natural order of things. It’s an experience you can’t pay for, can’t truly plan, and can’t know to expect. It makes you feel alive. You meet yourself – that part of you that is connected to every living being in the universe – in those moments. And are transformed, in ways subtle but enduring.

We asked you, our fellow Journeywomen, to share some of your most memorable and transformative animal encounters with us. We laughed. Smiled broadly. Were awestruck. And inspired.

Read on for a safari of stories we collected from the time machines of your memories – with a few of my own favourite moments peppered in. We’ll be releasing them in instalments for easy reading, so be sure to watch this space.

There are times when we plan expeditions into the wild, hoping for encounters.

When a rhino ignores the rules of the road

Marti S. went to Kruger Park in South Africa in 2012. She chose it for the heady combination of safari adventure and political history. “I grew up in and around old-fashioned zoos and had seen great ones doing fine conservation work, and cruel ones with tiny dirty cages all over the world,” she says. “My favorite wild animals are domestic because I live on a state prairie preserve. Seeing what I saw on this trip made me appreciate my deer, coyotes, red foxes, birds of prey and other creatures even more.”

While on safari in the park, Marti’s Land Rover was charged by a rhino. She wasn’t afraid at the time – too engrossed in fascinated observation and holding tight inside the 4×4 in case they got rolled over. “I have no photos – not only because we were grabbing on, but also because we were trying to stay as quiet as we could, with no extraneous clicks, whirs or flashes,” she says. “The driver did a fine job of swerving as she crossed back and forth in front of us several times. The guide was using the radio to get the drivers behind us to back up so we could give her space. They finally got the message, but it took a few moments for the now long line of vehicles to retreat, just as the rhino turned directly toward us and pawed the road. Ruh,roh!”

At this point there was nothing to lose by laying on the Jeep’s horn, which bought the caravan a few startled seconds to reverse.  “We never did catch site of the calf we believe she was guarding,” she muses. As a kicker, a little way down the road, a car was off to the side out of gas with a pride of lions resting 100 yards away in the brush. Marti’s guide got out and warily helped the car’s driver refuel from a spare can, while the group kept watch from the Rover.

“I was quiet after that, really unusual for me. And I did have a Scotch when we got back to the hotel…for breakfast,” she says. “The lasting impression for me is of the vastness and grandeur of the ecosystem, the resourcefulness of people who have been at home here for eons, and what humanity’s real place is in the scheme of Earth up and down the food chain.”

Into the mists for a gorilla adventure

Jane C. went to Rwanda in April 2012 to see the mountain back gorillas and chimps after a woman she met on a previous holiday told her about the trek. “We walked into the bush as a group of eight after the trackers had radioed back the location of the gorilla family. You get one hour observing once you get to the gorilla’s location. You’re not allowed to no nearer than about 25 feet, but if the gorillas come closer, you simply stay calm and don’t point at them,” she explains. “One female gorilla actually touched me as she passed. Talk about an unforgettable moment! It was just like watching a family with kids – the young ones rolling over their parents and one was hanging on to mom the whole time.”

Yes, Jane has photos of the experience, but it’s her memories she prizes most. “I can honestly say that looking animals in the eye is such a moving experience. We all live together on this twirling ball called Earth,” she says. “No zoo experiences will ever match being in the wild to see animals. We purposely have done trips to see animals that are getting rarer. Twice to India for tigers, a safari in Tanzania where we saw the Big Five, a shark tank experience outside of Cape Town to glimpse a Great White.”

 

Jane C. with the gorilla family she had the unique experience of observing in Rwanda.

Soul connections with elephants in Botswana

Dee K. travelled to Botwana in 2014 on a wildlife safari. She and her group unexpectedly came across elephants crossing the road leading to and from river. “I had assumed I might see that many from a distance, but when our Jeep stopped and then was surrounded by the crossing herd, I had such mixed feelings of awe, wonder, excitement and slight fear,” she says. Her guide whispered for everyone to be silent and as still as possible. The only sound was camera clicking while people shot photos.

Five feet away was a group of mother elephants, surrounding a baby. “I did have eye contact with a couple, and as I stared into their eyes, I felt a connection with them, deep into their souls,” she says.” My first thought was ‘how could anyone say animals DON’T have a soul?’ since I could feel and see it! I was silently crying with joy at being able to share this quiet moment with them. We probably sat there for 15 or 20 minutes, before most had passed us, and we could move away. I still remember the depth of my feelings at that unforgettable moment.”

Later, the group parked under a tree with a leopard resting in the branches above. They observed the giant cat for 10 minutes before he became bored of the human presence and left. “He never looked directly at us, but the feeling of being within five feet of such a creature is incomparable,” says Dee. “Again, I wondered if he would leap into our Jeep, but he basically ignored us as we took photos. Our guards had told us when we saw animals, to minimize whispers and movements; that by being still and silent we could get closer and really observe them.”

She hoped to see the Big Five and the nature gods granted her a boon. She saw everything she hoped to and more – lions, elephants, giraffe, hippos, rhinos, monkeys, Cape Buffalo, and leopards. “I had never been a giraffe ‘fan’ so to speak, until I saw them in the wild. The way they move across the savannah and feed on the tree tops is NOTHING like you’d see in a zoo. And then when I was able to feed one at a rescue/rehab center, it melted my heart. Their tongues are so velvety,” she says. “Animals in a cage don’t have room to roam and live like they should. I understand why we need zoos, as some are protected from extinction, but I wish more people could just let them live naturally. I have always loved animals, but now I keep them even closer to me by blowing up my photos into wall art. My breakfast room wall is covered in safari photos of our favorite animal shots.”

A large grey elephant stands, trunk down, in front of a wall of green trees, with another elephant emerging from the trees in the background   Spotting elephants in the wild in Botswana’s Chobe National Park.

Then there are those rare times when it happens organically.

A rare cassowary sighting in the Daintree Forest

Joyce B. had driven most of the morning from Port Douglas, Queensland to the Daintree Forest and was keen to get out of the car and take a walk. She and her group found a well signposted trail on duckboards that they assumed would take them to a beach. “After about 20 minutes, we came across a park ranger who signalled to us to keep still,” she says. “Then this amazing, huge, beautifully coloured bird appeared in a creek right beside the path. It dabbled in the water for a few minutes, then looked right at us before stalking off. It wasn’t scared – and having seen the size of the beak and claws, I know it had nothing to fear from mere humans.”

A few minutes prior to that breathtaking experience, the group had spotted some strange blue fruits lying on the ground. They were cassowary plums – poisonous and indigestible to all creatures except the cassowary “who apparently eats it, regurgitates it partly digested, then eats it again. It was quite an experience – totally unexpected and all for free,” says Joyce.

Cassowary plums: Poisonous to all creatures but this majestic bird.

Wild in the City

Amit J. was sitting in the garden of a Jaipur hotel one recent morning, drinking tea, when she spotted movement in her peripheral vision. “Glacing over, I caught sight of an elegant male peacock. Moment later, close on his tail, another. Unimpeded, they were strolling the grounds. Enjoying the ambience,” she says. “Flaneurs, like us – only of a different feather. Ahhh…sightseeing of the most unexpectedly extraordinary kind.”

Birds of a feather: Peacocks stroll around a Jaipur hotel garden.

Rainshowers bring all the parrots to a yard in Sydney

While in Sydney in February, I was graced with a jaw-dropping urban encounter that I’m still processing. After several days of oppressively muggy heat, the skies over Sydney opened up and gave the city an epic rain shower. With the entire world praying to every rain god there ever was to give Australian firefighters some support with the bushfires, the sound and sight of rain was welcome. I found myself humming a take on a classic Toto tune: “I bless the rains down in Australia.”

Suddenly, I heard a raucous symphony erupt from flock of birds outside that had me flinging open the patio door to stand on the balcony facing the large tree in my friend’s yard. As I peered up into the branches, I saw a company of parrots taking cover under the canopy of leaves — a rainbow of colour against the green.

I’ve never seen a parrot outside of a cage, and certainly never expected to see an entire flock of them in an urban setting. My fingers itched for my phone to snap a photo, but something told me to stay present. So I stood, transfixed, for nearly 30 minutes. And observed.

Everywhere I glanced, a parrot graced a branch — feathers mussed and sodden. They all looked mightily peeved, stepping from one foot to another rather grumpily. Impossibly amused, and more than a little charmed, I spent sometime fancifully imagining the sentiments behind their chatter.

I watched the different stations forming within the tree: The First Watch on the top branches, the Drying Station (a particularly leafy area near the lowest branches the parrots burrowed through to dry off), and the Walking Circuit (I couldn’t ferret out a true purpose to this one, though it seemed to me they were playing a game to stave off boredom).

They flew away periodically at some order from the uppermost branches, and flew back again. After the rain lifted slightly, lifting nature’s spell with it, I ran to get my phone. I called to the parrots, willing at least one of them to come close enough for me to capture a decent shot of them.

Two obliged — obsidian eyes blinking and boring into me for some long moments before nobly peering off into the distance. As though they knew their best angles. There really are no words to describe the emotions the experience stirred in me.

Urban Jungle: Parrots flock to a tree in Sydney.

When grief recognizes its twin in another creature

In early February, I was on a 4×4 tour of Lord of the Rings filming sites as part of my Adrenaline Junkie adventure with Haka Tours. We’d stopped at Paradise — a mountainous area ringed with farmland. Charmed by the grazing sheep, I’d wandered over to the fence for a look.

A cow I mistook for security detail began mooing loudly. I walked back over to where our group stood and she got louder, staring directly at me. Feeling slightly foolish and fanciful, I answered the call. Something told me I needed to.

As I walked up to her, the loud mooing immediately ceased. I spoke softly to her, and I kid you not — she appeared to gesture to her right with her head. I glanced over and noticed a dead calf in the long grass (you can see the wee thing’s hooves in the foreground of this photo).

The sight of it literally stole my breath and a sound known to grieving humans and creatures the world over escaped my lips, which I could feel had frozen into a shocked-and-stunned O. I looked up from the calf and locked eyes with the cow. We exchanged a long look — mother to mother, grieving heart to grieving heart.

I told her how sorry I was for her loss, and how beautiful I thought she was. The words were inconsequential. I knew the comfort they carried would transcend language barriers. Grief has its own language. As does empathy. That cow needed what I offered. Somehow understood that I could give it to her and reached out to me. And I’ll be damned if I didn’t need that exchange as well.

A grieving cow in New Zealand asks me for comfort.

And the moments that – though they happen in the blink of an eye – stay with you long after.

Getting cut-off by a giraffe in Kruger Park
Susan H. visited Kruger Park in 2008. Being in a game reserve, she expected to see a number of animals in their natural habitat, and particularly wanted to see lions, hippos (her favourite), elephants, and zebras. “I was driving along a dirt road in a really crappy little car when a giraffe broke through the trees and started running down the road. Pure grace,” she says. “In contrast, I screamed and slammed on the breaks. I’m sure there were some swear words which may or may not have escaped my lips. If we had been going just a little bit faster, the giraffe would have either hit our car, or we would have hit it.”

It loped down the road for about 100 metres, and then went back into the trees, turned around and looked directly at the humans in the car. They sat there for a few minutes. Then started laughing uncontrollably. “That would have been awesome to be able to tell people you wrote the car off because of a giraffe! Even this many years later, I look back on that moment in complete awe of Mother Nature!”

As Susan drove through the park, she says it was almost a game of Where’s Waldo?, scanning the landscaper for a glimpse of an animal. “Just when you think nothing is there, you see the back end of an elephant. All photos from my travels immediately bring back memories of the things I’ve experienced. It may be the experiences, or it may be that I’ve gotten (gasp….and I’ll never admit it) older. I have a real appreciation of nature, and animals. Although not enough to give up a yummy steak.”

Susan’s giraffe friend stares back at her from the camouflage cover of the bush.

Costa Rica delivers two women amazing animal experiences years apart

Laura M. was in Costa Rica with her daughter in 2014. They were waiting in the hotel lobby for a ride when an employee said: ‘There is a sloth in the middle of the street trying to get across.’ Says Laura: “We ran out to see it. They are adorable. And slow! There were tour buses coming, so someone picked him up and brought him to the other side. He literally stood up when he got to a tree and looked back at us. It was as if he knew we were snapping pictures and posed for us. We were just so happy we got that close to a sloth.”

A wet-from-the-rain sloth poses for a photo.

Rowena L. made the trek to Costa Rica over the 2019-2020 holidays, hoping to see wildlife on an impromptu basis but knowing there are no guarantees. She particularly wanted to see monkeys because they are so cheeky, smart and fun. One day, one came running when he heard Rowena open her bag. “I think he thought I had treats. I didn’t want him to touch me and certainly not bite me. In Canada, if you touch a monkey, you can no longer donate blood,” she says. “I’d heard they jump on your pack and back. It was startling to see him so close. We had a staring contest. I thought it was super cool to be so close to nature. It brought a smile to my face. It’s magical seeing animals in their natural environment.”

The cheeky monkey Rowena had a stare-down with.

When an animal reads your energy and grants you a rare gift

It can be daunting to make eye contact with animals in the wild, as so many take a direct gaze as a sign of aggression. But animals are experts at reading energy, body language, and intent. When I visited the Sacred Monkey Forest in Ubud for the first time in 2013, I received my fair share of unwanted attention from primates trying to ferret out if I had food or drink they could swipe. One bold and cheeky little monkey ripped my water bottle out of a hand that had been tightly clenching it.

Then I turned a corner into a quiet little secluded garden where this mama monkey sat nursing her baby. I was enthralled by her calm energy and sweet eyes. My energy is equally calm, and using my animal whisperer voice, she let me approach and stand over her to snap a portrait. I told her, mama human to mama monkey, how beautiful her baby was, what a good mama she was, and how I only wanted a photo to remember this moment.

She gazed up into my eyes the entire time I spoke, and I saw trust in them. She loosened her arms enough so I could get a good look at her baby. I thanked her, gave a little bow, and walked off to leave her nurse in peace. The entire encounter probably spanned two minutes. A little thing. But one of the more powerful memories of my life.

A mama monkey shows me her sweet baby in Ubud’s Sacred Monkey Forest.

Amanda Burgess

Amanda Burgess is a Toronto-based writer and creative strategist whose bags are always packed for her next adventure; co-founder of the Sharyn Mandel School in Gobele, Ethiopia; and Acting Editor of Journeywoman. Follow her and her adventures on Instagram @unshakeable.me.

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