Most extreme tours with wild animals

CNN  — 

Watching a wild animal prowl its prey, nuzzle young babies or dance its mating ritual is thrilling.

Hiking, trekking and adventuring into uncharted territory to watch wildlife in its natural habitat adds an addictive level of adrenaline. And we’re craving it more than ever.

Beyond the traditional African safari, travelers are searching for more fast-paced, challenging and authentic wildlife destinations. The ultimate thrill is to unearth terrain once inaccessible to travelers and come face-to-face with rare species.

These are the rising stars of wildlife travel – those that push boundaries by plumbing Earth’s extremes. Imagine scouring the depths of Djibouti’s waters to swim with whale sharks or journeying into the remote Siberian Arctic to live with nomadic reindeer herders.

With these adventures, the magic and mystery of creatures great and small are unleashed:

Reindeers in Russia

Travelers can now live with the Nenets, Russia's nomadic reindeer herders.

Far above the Arctic Circle, the indigenous Nenets nomadic reindeer herders live at the edge of extremity in the Siberian Arctic.

You must journey by train, bus and Trekol, a monster truck, to reach their isolated land, where few people have stepped foot. The Nenets have just started welcoming intrepid explorers to live and learn with them.

This trip is challenging to any adventurer’s limits. In frozen tundra where temperatures plummet to minus 50 Celsius (minus 58 Fahrenheit), the Nenets rely on reindeer herds. Reindeer sledding, fishing, hiking and camping with the Nenets people is as offbeat a wildlife travel adventure as it can get.

How to get there: A 15-day trip via Moscow and St. Petersburg with Intrepid Travel costs from $2,880. Visa assistance is also available.

Elephants in Gabon

Packrafting in the wilderness of Gabon’s Ivindo National Park is not a typical safari.

Expeditioners have reported peacefully paddling past gorillas in their lush natural environments, with forest elephants mere meters away in untouched jungle and wily chimpanzees leaping the treetops.

Floating amid dripping towering forests, deep dark braided rivers and equatorial Africa’s highest waterfall in a tiny rubber paddleboat feels out-of-this-world. Expect to see no other people.

Gabon is positioning itself as an eco-friendly wildlife tourism destination. This pioneering human-powered adventure of camping, trekking and paddling is reserved for the brave and fit.

How to get there: Secret Compass’s 16-day packrafting expedition is open to participant applications. Prices start at about $4,500.

Fossa finding in Madagascar

Sunset at L'Allee des Baobabs is as spectacular as the wildlife encountered in Madagascar.

Madagascar’s largest carnivorous predator, the fossa, can grow to six feet in length. Seeing one is rare but impressive.

A cross between a cat and mongoose, the fossa is endemic to Madagascar and can be tracked in the island’s Kirindy forest. Best known for its amorous mating displays, finding the fossa is a deep delve taking in many species of Baobab trees, also endemic to the fourth-largest island in the world.

Expect to meet several of Madagascar’s 106 species of lemur, the majority endangered and endemic. Tracking them is a thrilling chase through steep dense rainforests and raw wilderness, chasing the haunting lemur call, which echoes through rainforests and disorientates even the best guides.

How to get there: Rothschild Safaris offers an eight-day fossa and lemur-tracking safari adventure, including a spectacular sunset at L’Allee des Baobabs and the Tsingy Unesco World Heritage Site from $2,680 pp.

Gorillas in Democratic Republic of Congo

Organized voyages are now helping travelers explore the little-visited Kahuzi-Biega National Park.

Venturing deep into the equatorial rainforest of DR Congo’s Kahuzi-Biega National Park, this is a trek to meet the small population of eastern lowland gorillas.

Organized tours offer the chance to be one of the first to explore a region that’s yet to emerge as a major travel destination. The area also hosts philanthropy and conservation projects with locals, to dig beyond the headlines and spend time in a magical and misunderstood Central African country.

How to get there: A 14-day trip to DRC, Rwanda, Burundi with Wild Frontiers costs from about $7,350. Mountain gorilla permits are significantly cheaper in DRC at $400, while Rwanda has just increased them to $1,500 per person.

Polar bear Arctic expedition

Watching mother polar bear and cub roll in the ice makes the cold in Norway's Arctic more endurable. (Dominic Barrington/Hurtigruten Svalbard)

Take a frozen landscape of glittering glaciers and icy tundra, throw in an Arctic Sea filled with rare beluga, blue and bowhead whales and add land residents of snoozing bearded seals, blubbery walrus and Arctic reindeer, and you have the best reasons to cruise Norway’s remote Spitsbergen.


The tip of the iceberg is catching a glimpse of the king of the Arctic, the majestic polar bear. Watching them roll in the ice, plunge into the iceberg-covered waters and nuzzle their cubs is priceless.

Expedition ships venture into the spectacular fjords and remote mining towns in the land of the midnight sun.

How to get there: Hurtigruten offers a 10-day “The Complete Spitsbergen Expedition,” from about $5,670. If time is limited, there’s the six-day “Spitsbergen and Polar Bears’ Arctic Adventure,” from about $1,490.

Penguin colonies in Antarctica and South Georgia and Falkland islands

An encounter with king penguins is a breathtaking experience in Antarctica.

Amid the towering glaciers and shelves of ice the size of small cities, the sight of thousands of king penguins is breathtaking.

Emperors maybe the biggest penguin species, but smaller king penguins steal the spotlight. Colorful glistening feathers around their neck and chest make them the most photogenic of all penguin species.

Rugged South Georgia is home to the largest king penguin colony in the world.

Chinstrap, gentoo, Adelie and – if you’re very lucky – emperor penguins are the others you may spot on an Antarctica voyage.

How to get there: Sail the remote bottom of the world on a 22-day voyage with G Adventures. Abundant land and sea outings and daily lectures complete this trip, starting in Montevideo, Uruguay, and ending in Ushuaia, Argentina. Price from about $9,670.

Snorkel with jellyfish in Southeast Asia

The prime jellyfish swimming spot used to be the Polynesian island of Palau, but diving trips are currently on hold due to environmental conditions that have caused numbers of the creatures to dwindle.

There are still options though.

The Indonesian province of West Papua is the remote Raja Ampat archipelago of emerald islands, aquamarine lagoons and one of the world’s richest coral reef ecosystems.

Beyond its renown as a biological hotspot in a fiercely protected conservation area and credited with restocking reefs throughout the South Pacific and Indian Ocean, Misool Island has two lakes that are home to countless stingless jellyfish.

The lakes are accessed by dinghy or a hike. Jumping into deep green waters, home to venom-free pink and gold pulsating globules, is a leap of faith. The jellyfish surround the body, brushing the skin, and mesmerize with their live luminous orbs. An underwater camera is a must.

How to get there: The archipelago is hard to reach. Misool Eco Resort House Reef is an exclusive dive resort with plush water cottages featuring overwater hammocks. Guides lead three or four dives daily, and marine biologists host presentations.

Day trips can be arranged via Divequest Diving Holidays.

Search for the snow leopard, Ladakh, India

One of Earth’s most elusive and endangered animals, the snow leopard patrols extremely inhospitable terrain. The Himalayan Kingdom of Ladakh, in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, is a brutal and dramatic massif of mountains and ice.

Adventure on foot and in 4WD vehicles, spotting blue sheep, ibex and Ladakhi urial, searching for the “Ghost of the Himalaya.” The snow leopard is a captivating creature of hazy fur and olive eyes, incredibly well camouflaged and agile in its extreme setting. Spotting one is a privilege known only to the few willing to brave the challenging conditions.

How to get there: With a renowned guide and track record of sightings, Steppes Travel offers a 14-day journey, including a tour of Thiske Gompa monastery in the Indus Valley, from $5,800.

Giant pandas in China’s mountains

Secluded nature reserves in Sichuan province and the Tibetan Plateau allow rare glimpses of giant pandas in their wild habitat. (photo by Brad Josephs)

With this unique trip, the search heads deep into the Minshan Mountains of Sichuan province and the Tibetan Plateau, the last wild habitat of the giant panda.

A grid of secluded nature reserves supported by the WWF, these little-visited wilderness shelters are also home to moon bears, goat-like shaggy takin, blue sheep and golden monkeys.

There’s also a chance to learn about panda conservation at three world-renowned research bases. Catching a glimpse of some of the last wild giant pandas is to witness them living and breeding freely in a region of natural China that only handfuls of travelers have seen.

How to get there: A 12-day voyage exploring remote nature reserves in search of rare wildlife and the giant pandas with Natural Habitat Adventures is priced from $10,495

Swim with whale sharks in Djibouti

With mouths up to four feet (1.4 meters) wide and a length of up to 46 feet (14 meters), it’s reassuring to know that whale sharks only eat plankton. Encountering the solitary whale shark in open water is overwhelming.

Annual gatherings are far and few between. The Bay of Ghoubet, west of Djibouti, is a prime area for swimming with the docile giants of the sea. A rare expedition merges tourism with conservation, aboard a small expedition boat monitoring the mammoth fish. The waters are also filled with manta rays, beaked and pilot whales, dolphins and several shark species.

How to get there: An expedition, based on a live-aboard dhow boat, cruises the west coast of Djibouti while aiding the MCSS Whale Shark Monitoring Project. The Sheraton Djibouti offers timely packages.

Giant otters in Guyana

Described as everything from water dogs and super-sized weasels to river puppies, the rapidly vanishing giant river otter can be found in one of its last South American refuges, Guyana’s Karanambu. The carnivorous river otter can grow to the length of a human.

Guyana’s inland landscape of wild waterfalls, vast tropical rainforests and ancient tablelands are untouched wildlife havens. Jaguars also roam the jungles of this land.

How to get there: Take in one of the world’s tallest and most powerful waterfalls, Kaieteur Falls, on a 14-day voyage through uncharted territory and staying in remote lodges, with Journey Latin America, from about $5,340.

Anisha Shah is a journalist and photographer, specializing in emerging travel destinations. After six years as a BBC radio and TV journalist, she’s now a freelancer published across media including CNN, Africa Geographic, BBC Travel and Huffington Post. Tweet her @anishahbbc