As I hoisted myself onto the back row of the safari jeep, I felt a slight sense of disappointment. I had flown more than 14 hours and then rode another five hours in a van to get here to South Africa’s Kruger National Park, home to the continent’s most stunning wildlife. Yet, the view seemed oddly anticlimactic.
The terrain was dry and devoid of personality. How could this be the great big safari destination everyone raved about? Even staring at the landscape, I couldn’t imagine seeing any of the promised animals in this setting.
But then as we started driving deeper into the park, I spotted a kudu antelope. Before I knew it, I couldn’t keep up with the constant sightings of zebras, giraffes, elephants — even warthogs (hi Pumba!). The more we explored the park, the more I realized I wasn’t here for the dirt roads and dusty grasslands — it was about coming into these animals’ home, and being granted the opportunity to see a slice of their daily lives in their natural habitat.
But the irony is that I didn’t grow up in an animal-loving family. It’s not that we disliked them; we just never got used to them. So I grew up — for lack of a better term — afraid of animals.
As a child, I’d physically flinch when I saw a goldfish, or when a bird flew too close. I’d admire the class hamster and chicks from afar, but shuddered at the thought of getting close, for fear of “accidentally” touching them.
So the fact that I was on an African safari, where our singular purpose was to try to spot the Big Five game animals — the buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion and rhinoceros — was a shock, even to me.
Diving into the Fear
Even though I had carried this innate fear of animals for most of my life, somehow I was immune to it when I was travel planning — maybe because for me, travel was more about the experience than the creatures. In fact, I didn’t even question the absence of fear when I decided to take my very first major solo vacation to the Galapagos Islands.
No one in my life could believe that the girl who shuddered at beta fish on her coworkers’ desks and wouldn’t pet her friends’ dogs would go —on her own! — to a place known for its breadth of endemic species.
But perhaps it was the set-up of the Galapagos trip that helped: we had a land and a sea excursion each morning and afternoon, and our guide would give us the run-down of what we would see, so that I knew exactly what to expect. Part of the shock always comes from not expecting an animal, so being prepped allowed me to manage my expectations — and actually get excited.
First we got on a dinghy to search for penguins. With my camera perched and ready to go, it felt like a mission. “There’s one,” our guide called one. I looked, but all I saw was a rock. One by one, my tourmates started squealing in delight. That was when I realized, the cute little creature was much smaller than I had imagined, and blended right into the stone. My first Galapagos animal spotting, and I actually found it fun! Of course, there was a body of water separating me and the bird, so it felt like I had a safety net, but that instinctive fear didn’t kick in at all.
The next test was actually jumping into the water to snorkel since half of the beauty of the islands is hidden underwater. As I suited up, my stomach started turning. Coming face-to-face with fish in open water was one of my greatest sources of anxiety. I stalled and let everyone else go before me. Finally, one, two, three… splash.
I expected to be immediately immersed into a tropical fish tank, but this wasn’t that at all. In fact, I was hovering quite a distance above the starfish and blue tang below. That gave me a sense of control, realizing that I could choose how close I got to them. Knowing that I was in charge, I swam freely back and forth. I didn’t take any deep dives, like some of the others, but here I was, cohabiting in open water with wildlife!
When I got home, I couldn’t believe the photos I'd taken: chilling with iguanas on the beach, swimming alongside a penguin, and coming face-to-face with tortoises. Those moments weren’t like going to see the Eiffel Tower or the Leaning Tower of Pisa, landmarks that are always standing still, waiting to be gazed at. These were all encounters that occurred spontaneously, in a beautiful happenstance with another species.
Maybe what I had always been scared of was the unpredictability of how an animal would act when I drew near. But when I traveled somewhere, it was more about absorbing the entire DNA of a destination, including its wildlife.
The more I traveled the world, the more organic animal encounters came up and I found myself indulging in—and even chasing down—opportunities. I pet a koala and took selfies with kangaroos at Featherdale Sydney Wildlife Park, let a snake hang around my neck a la Britney at Okinawa World, snorkeled with fish in the clear waters of Bermuda at Grotto Bay, and got so close to Cape penguins I could use portrait mode at Boulders Beach in Cape Town.
But there were still times the fear instinct kicked in. When I was at the Tusculum Farm just outside of Washington, D.C., in Laytonsville, Maryland, I was happily admiring the llamas, horses, and chickens to the point that I even stepped inside the coop to see the fresh eggs, even though chickens are another major fear of mine. But when we got to a pen with a whole flock of sheep, I just couldn’t do it. Maybe it was the intensity with which they all rushed over when the gate opened that felt unpredictable. Still, I was able to absorb the experience from the “safe” side of the fence.
Then there was the time I was on an overnight trip on Australia’s Great Ocean Road with Teepee Tours when we made a random stop to see a flock of colorful parrots. As soon as we walked in their direction, they started flying toward us, landing on my tourmates’ heads and shoulders. I knew this was a unique experience, but my instincts held me back. I stood aside and kept turning in circles, terrified that one might appear from behind and land on me.
Our tour guide was encouraging, trying to get me to stick out my arm. He noted that at our previous stop, I had just tried surfing—something I had also been afraid of—so I should give this a go too. Sure, that made sense. Yet, I just couldn’t. I stepped away and excused myself, knowing my limits.
Chasing the Big Five
But of course, the biggest animal journey came when I finally (and rather spontaneously) booked a trip I long had my eyes on: an African safari getaway with G Adventures. And, since I went on my own, no one on my trip had to know about my history with animals.
The first night, as we went around the table introducing ourselves, almost every single person said they loved animals and had been planning this trip for almost a year. I secretly thought that maybe the only reason I was actually here was that I had just booked it a few weeks back and didn’t have time to overthink it.
At a rest stop before we got to Kruger, a few of the other travelers bought a guide to all the animals. After just one look inside, I shuddered. (Yes, even pictures of animals often elicit the same reaction — to the point I used to have friends go through magazines and cover up photos with post-its.)
Instead of expressing my fear, I joined the party and bought the guide. And soon enough, I found myself bouncing along in a safari jeep with a cheesy wide-brim hat and a pair of binoculars around my neck, eagerly on the lookout for animals.
It was all so surreal, like it was a Disney park manufactured to give us an animal experience, except that it wasn’t. This was their home. It was real. We were the visitors in their land, and no sighting was a guarantee, meaning every glimpse we got of the animals was truly a gift.
Over the course of a game drive in Kruger and another four drives in the Karongwe Private Game Reserve, we got close to cheetahs as they nuzzled each others’ noses. We saw a herd of no less than 50 elephants having a pool party in a watering hole. We saw mama giraffes take care of baby giraffes. And we followed an entire pride of lions, including a papa lion that looked exactly the way The Lion King taught me.
I became hooked on the adventure — so much so that I didn’t mind the 4 AM wake-up calls. Sure, sitting inside the jeep, there was a distance between us and the animals, but still, we were out here in the wild, channeling all our animal instincts.
Perhaps I’ll never be completely comfortable around animals, but that won’t stop me from chasing adventures with them. After all, with an estimated 8.7 million species on this planet and only a couple hundred countries, the creatures that make up a place just might provide the most insight about a destination.