Safaris, traditionally, were an expedition to observe—or hunt—animals in their natural habitat, and "safari" and "Africa" go together like peanut butter and jelly. But Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve, the most popular safari destination in Africa, is not the only game in town when it comes to to see big, roaming beasts. Instead of heading down the well-trodden paths where the animals are as surprised to see you as a Serengeti sunset, consider some of these off-the-beaten track alternatives. We've rounded up a revived African location, as well as other options off the African continent to go and be wowed by wildlife, so, get ready for your Meryl Streep having-her-hair-washed in the outback close-up: lots of linen, wide-brimmed hats, and plenty of big, wild animal sightings that leave you awed.
Mozambique's Gorongosa National Park was once considered one of the best game parks in southern Africa. Biologist Edward O. Wilson called it "ecologically, the most diverse park in the world." In its 1960s heyday, the park played host to the well-heeled, as well as celebrities like Joan Crawford and John Wayne with luxury accommodations and a nightclub.
But the animal population—including elephants, hippos, lions, zebras, cheetahs, and leopards—was decimated during Mozambique's long civil war by hunters and hungry soldiers. By the turn of the 21st century, ninety percent of the park's animal life had been lost, reported The Independent.
In 2004, the park entered a new era when Mozambique and the Carr Foundation partnered to rebuild the park's infrastructure and restore the wildlife populations. Carr pledged $40 million over 30 years to rebuild the park as a source of tourist income for the local population. Since then, the elephants have returned, along with antelope. Writing in The Telegraph, Anna Murphy called a visit to the park after the rainy season "a shimmering grassy wetland, eye-poppingly verdant and spotted with purple and white water lilies. The wildlife was in the grip of spring fever: cormorants diving into the water, then sitting high in the trees with their wings spread out to dry; warthogs frolicking in their large, deep muddy wallows; and the male impala, their neck muscles overdeveloped from month-long competitive rutting for females."
Investment in the park is not only about the animals; 97 percent of the 400 staff members are local and the park places an emphasis on training women. You can camp in the park or stay an airy, mosquito net-draped bungalow.
If cats are your spirit animals, head to India to see the most majestic of them all. Tigers find sanctuary at more than 30 parks in the country. Spend a day or two at Bandhavgarh National Park, a wildlife sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh, and you're almost guaranteed a spotting of a wild tiger, says Lonely Planet. The park has the highest density of tigers in the region, but you are also likely to see several varieties of deer, wild boar, four-horned antelope, Indian Bison, wild dog, leopard, and Indian fox and bear—and you can see them all on an elephant-back tour. Right outside the park's main gates is the village of Tala, where you can find accommodations for any budget—including a small one.
Or try the 1,334 square-kilometers Ranthambore National Park, a favorite with wildlife photographers and one of the country's most famous parks. The landscape is dotted with ancient ruins, including a fort where tigers and leopards like to hang out. As you explore the park, expect to see leopards, jungle cats, sloth bears, hyenas, Indian foxes, jackals and crocodiles. Stay in one of the 25 luxury tents at the Oberoi Vanyavilas.
Spying the wildlife in Sumatra's drippy rainforests doesn't happen from the front seat of a jeep. Sign up for a trekking tour in one of Sumatra's national parks. In West Sumatra, find Kerinci Seblat, Sumatra's largest national park, where tourism is seen as one of the most viable strategies to protect the endangered Sumatran tiger. Birdwatchers will also love this park, home to more than 370 species. "Once-in-a-lifetime sightings might include the Sumatran ground-cuckoo, which was considered extinct until it was rediscovered here in 2002," reports Lonely Planet. Book a tour with Wild Sumatra Adventures, a which donates five percent of trip costs to tiger conservation. In Tanjung Puting National Park, book a river boat cruise through the jungle to see the world's largest orangutan population. The "people of the forest," as they are known, have been seen using natural elements as tools, and they live among crocodiles, clouded leopards, and the long-nosed proboscis monkey, which lives nowhere else in the world.
Whatever souvenirs you end up bring home from your travels, remember to hang on to that sense of awe and powerful perspective. "Travel makes one modest," Flaubert wrote. "You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world."