Seeing unique, unusual animals in their own environments is a pretty special experience. There’s a certain magic to sharing an incredible physical space with a non-human companion, especially if they’re rare, unusual or endangered. I thought I’d spend this post sharing three incredible experiences I’ve had with animals in the wild. All three experiences involved a bit of luck, and I won’t be forgetting any of them any time soon.
Getting close to Wild Horses, Mongolia
Wild Horses, known more correctly as Przewalski Horses or Takhi in Mongolian, are the ancestors of modern horses. These are true wild animals, unlike wild (feral) domestic horses, who roamed the central plains of Mongolia for millennia… Until the 1960s when they became extinct in the wild due to habitat loss and hunting. But a few remained in zoos and in 1992 after a successful breeding program, they were successfully reintroduced to the wild. Today it’s once again possible to see herds of Wild Horses galloping across the Mongolia steppe.
We drove into Hustai National Park, the home place of the wild horses, on a beautifully sunny day with a bitingly cold wind that kept the temperature down around 5C, a scattering of winter snow still on the ground. The bare, windswept Mongolian plains arched up into huge rolling hills of light golden grass, becoming more mountainous as we neared the park. We stopped at the obligatory visitors centre for our induction and picked up a local guide, an old man who was said to be an expert at finding the horses. We were also warned that as they are wild animals and there are only around 300 of them, we might not find any.
We, however, were in luck. After only about 20 minutes we stumbled upon a large herd of around 20 horses, casually grazing in the spring sunshine. My sister, our translator and I jumped out of our vehicle and walked up the hill towards them, going slowly and carefully and doing our utmost not to spook them. Their golden coats were nearly the same colour as the grass they chomped on, and they were unhurried and relaxed, letting us come as close as about 15 metres before casually turning and walking onwards.
We followed them at a gentle, relaxed pace for at least half an hour, enjoying the beauty of the moment with these calm, lovely creatures. Finally, we left the horses, trooping back down the hill with huge smiles, to be greeted by the local guide and our driver, also smiling hugely. Ordinarily, the horses move about in herds of 4-5. Seeing over 20 all at once had been a real treat for everyone.
It was only as we were leaving the park that we noticed the sign proclaiming that coming within 300m of the horses was “extremely prohibited”. Whoops. We told ourselves that it was ok though, because the expert local guide had been watching us the whole time and surely would have told us if we were causing problems.
The horses were just magic though.
Swimming with Manta Rays, Fiji
When it comes to underwater life, there’s big, and then there’s BIG. Manta rays definitely fall into the second category of big. Oceanic manta rays can grow up to eight metres from wing tip to wing tip – to put that in perspective, that’s twice the length of most cars. Their smaller cousins, the reef manta rays, tend to hover around the three or four metre mark – which is still around twice my height! (And I’m tall!)
Not a lot is known about manta rays, but one thing that is known is that in the cooler winter months (June-August), they migrate to the Yasawa Islands in western Fiji where, if you’re lucky, they’ll tolerate curious humans splashing around above them. The stretch of water between Drawaqa Island and Naviti Island is known as the manta ray feeding channel, and at high tide several individuals from a family of 53 glide into the swift current to feast on plankton. Where they go the rest of the time remains a mystery. The lead manta ray researcher on Drawaqa told me they were hoping to tag them this year but funding fell through.
Excited to see these mysterious, almost alien creatures, I stopped off at Barefoot Resort on Drawaqa on my way up the Yasawa archipelago. Every morning, the manta ray research team scout the channel around high tide to see if they’ve decided to appear. If they’re around, the team race back to the resort and beat the drums, yelling “Manta ray! Manta ray!” A dozen excited tourists race to the dive shop to collect fins, masks and snorkels, then pile into the boat which takes them into the channel, hoping the mantas are still hanging about.
The morning I was among this group, we were in luck. Three manta rays were gliding through the channel, and we excitedly leaped into the water to see them. The manta rays were pure elegance and grace, gliding gently against the current, their wide mouths open to fill their bellies with plankton. I floated face down on the surface, kicking gently to keep pace with the mantas, watching as they swept through the water, performing barrel rolls and revealing the fish hanging on their white underbellies for a free ride.
One manta swept up, around, and off from the others. I kicked hard to keep pace with it, following it in the current and feeling like I was flying, as it cruised into shallower water and we raced together. At its closest, the manta was only around one metre below the surface and just three or four metres ahead of me – and for a creature with a wingspan of over three metres, that’s close. Suddenly, it banked again, turning and swimming against the current. Kicking as hard as I could, I didn’t stand a chance of keeping up, and as the current took me the manta ray faded from view into the blue depths ahead of me, back to the mysterious deeps of the ocean.
Spying Borneo Pygmy Elephants, Malaysia (Sabah)
Seeing wild Pygmy Elephants in Borneo, according to our boat operator on the Kinabatagan River, is kind of like winning the lottery. People do, but only every couple of weeks, and it’s generally not you or anyone you know. But it does happen.
I took a wildlife spotting ‘safari’ trip on the Kinabatagan in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, hoping to see wild orangutans, hornbills, monkeys and more. It’s one of the world’s richest ecosystems, and the wide brown river is the ideal spot to see wildlife from. Our boat was one of 4 or 5 cruising the river that afternoon, each one a little flat-bottomed skiff seating up to 10 people or so. The late afternoon sunlight bathed everything in golden tones, as we peered at the jungle. Many species come to the river’s edge, and we found a large family of macaques climbing all over some low shrubs. I could have watched the baby macaques playing all afternoon – no bigger than my hand, they were all adorable.
Suddenly, our boat driver steered us away from the monkeys and back down the river, at a pace that was frantic compared to our earlier leisurely cruise. We saw another two boats had taken the same action, and we raced down the river, the water lapping the shore in our wake. An excited whisper spread among the group – our driver had gotten a radio message, someone had seen the elephants!
We soared back down the river, and suddenly there they were, making their way through the greenery at the river’s edge, mostly hidden by the bushes but still undeniably there and definitely, undeniably, elephants. I wasn’t exaggerating earlier when I said elephant sightings only happen every few weeks. We had joked that we might be lucky enough to see tem, but I don’t think any of us believed we actually would. Yet there they were, totally unconcerned by the little flock of boats filled with people eagerly peering at them.
I tried to get some good photos, but they were a little too far away, my camera was struggling with the light, and the greenery kept getting in the way of a clear shot. But they were wonderful none the less. There’s something so calm and confident about elephants, especially in the wild, when they’re just doing their thing.
Image credits: My sister Neat121 took the wild horse pictures – follow her on Instragram. The manta ray pics were taken by yours truly. The elephant pics were taken by me too, but I added a few from Wikimedia (marked with a *) to make up for my abysmal photography…