WILDLIFE WATCHING: The complete guide to; wildlife holidays

Stalking tigers on the back of an elephant, ticking off the `Big Five' on an African safari, watching birds from St Kilda to Kathmandu - this year's wildlife holidays span the planet and are as varied as the creatures that inhabit the world's wildest places. Go on, drive yourself to distraction. By Ann Warburton and Steven Toon

WHERE SHOULD I START?

Whether you want to gawp at lemurs, orang-utans or whales, there's probably a tour that will take you there. Join a one-day woodpecker special to Brittany for pounds 85 (Birdseekers 01752 220947), watch Arctic wildlife in Finland for pounds 895 (Naturetrek 01962 733051) or take two weeks exploring the jungles of Nepal for pounds 2,195 (Wildlife Worldwide 0181-667 9158). It is easy to recreate the stuff of TV wildlife documentaries on your annual break.

WHEN SHOULD I GO?

There are definite highlights on the wildlife calendar, so timing your trip can be crucial. In places with distinct wet and dry seasons, the "dry" is usually better for seeing game congregated at dwindling waterholes. Trips in the "wet" are not a waste of time - you might see less, but the scenery is greener and many animals have young. Monsoons, however, are another matter and some Indian game parks close during the rains.

As a quick guide, September in Namibia equals crowded waterholes at Etosha National Park, while October is the key month for polar bears in Churchill, Canada. January to April marks the whale-watching season in Baja, California, and wolves are more visible in East Poland from January to March. In May, millions of wildebeest in East Africa leave the Serengeti and migrate north (arriving in the Masai Mara in July), while brown bears congregate north of Vancouver to fish for salmon. The best time for tiger-hunting in India is from November to the end of March.

WILL I END UP WITH A BUNCH OF ANORAKS?

It's unlikely, but group dynamics are always a bit of a gamble. Wildlife holidays attract a wide mix, but if ticking off birds with serious twitchers is really not your bag, book onto a more general wildlife tour rather than a highly specialised one.

And grill the company you plan to travel with about the type of people their trips attract. Groups tend to average around 15 people, sometimes fewer.

According to Explore Worldwide (01252 319 448), most tend to split half and half into couples and singles. If you want to go it alone, Cox and Kings (0171- 873 5000) offers wildlife holidays for individual travellers in Latin America, while Wildlife Worldwide (0181-667 9158) offers self-drive wildlife itineraries.

Many companies will arrange a personalised itinerary, but at a premium.

IS A GUIDED TOUR BETTER THAN PLANNING MY OWN SAFARI?

If you don't have the herding instinct, do-it-yourself safaris are an option. It can be extremely rewarding (and cheaper) putting together your own itinerary, but it can be hard work. You need to garner the experience and expertise specialists have taken years to amass, and getting access to the wildlife in some parts of the world may be difficult or impossible. But some DIY safaris are simpler than you imagine. South Africa's national parks, for example, have good infrastructure and are easily accessible by two-wheel drive. Simple but adequate accommodation costs pounds 20-pounds 30 per night for two (reservations 00 27 12 343 1991), car hire is around pounds 20 a day (booked through companies like Trailfinders 0171-938 3366), and flights to Johannesburg are available for less than pounds 500.

WHAT WILL THE FOOD AND ACCOMMODATION BE LIKE?

Being uncomfortable is not an essential part of a wildlife-watching holiday. Most tours use good-quality hotel accommodation where possible and try to make the whole experience relaxing. You may have to stay in basic accommodation and eat simply for part of your trip - but generally you'll only trade comfort for closeness to nature. If money is no object, you can experience luxury and pampering in some of the world's top game lodges - a stay at one of Conservation Corporation's (00 27 11 775 0000) luxury African game lodges, for example, will cost at least pounds 500 per night.

WHAT SHOULD I PACK?

It's best to check with your tour operator what special items (and vaccinations) you might need. A waterproof or fleece is a good idea even in hotter climes as it can be chilly around dawn or dusk. Walking shoes or boots are essential, and a day-bag is useful for carrying binoculars, field guides, water bottle, insect repellent and so on. Take a torch if you'll be camping. You may also need a sleeping bag. Binoculars and a good camera are musts - pack plenty of film and stock up on camera batteries. Don't worry if you have not got a huge telephoto lens, an 80-200mm or 75-300mm zoom is often sufficient, and even a compact camera can give you nice scenics. Take 200 ASA film for most conditions, 400 ASA if you're headed for rainforest.

HOW SAFE WILL I BE?

A close encounter with a truly wild animal is a memorable event, but animals should not be disturbed or disadvantaged by your presence. That way you and the animal should stay safe. Rare, endangered or elusive animals may only afford you a fleeting glimpse, but if an animal is fairly well protected and reasonably habituated to humans you may get very close indeed. Ask trip organisers how often and how well they tend to see promised species before you book. Your guide should ensure your safety, particularly where dangerous animals like elephants, buffaloes and hippos are concerned. However, most firms insist on you having insurance. Check your policy covers this type of holiday and make sure you have adequate cover for expensive equipment such as binoculars, scopes and cameras. Having said all that, wildlife holidays are generally safe and you'll probably find the insects are more of a problem than the big game.

WILL I NEED A WILDLIFE FILM CREW TO HELP ME FIND FAUNA?

The advantage of a specialist package is that you don't need a zoology degree to find the local fauna and flora. Most operators employ expert tour leaders. But don't rely on the experts if you want to get the most from your holiday. Read up beforehand about the animals you're likely to see and try to pick up a little fieldcraft. Guides will often give you a quick lesson in "turds and tracks", for example, so that you can follow an animal through the bush from the tell-tale signs it leaves behind. Animals often keep unsocial hours and don't always jump to command, so pack lots of patience as well as a field guide.

WILL I BE DISTURBING THE ANIMALS?

Yes. Any sort of tourism, however green, is going to make some impact on the animals and their habitat. Small group tours are less destructive than mass tourism and, hopefully, put something back into the conservation pot. Most companies set out their ethical views and what support they give to conservation bodies in their brochures. Greentours (01298 83563), for example, claims to donate 50 per cent of profits from its Kazakhstan holiday to the wildlife reserve its tours visit.

DO NATURE HOLIDAYS COST THE EARTH?

Organised wildlife holidays can be pretty steep, but this isn't your average two weeks in the sun. Costs are often fully inclusive so you're only going to need pocket money for drinks, postcards and souvenirs. That said, do check for hidden costs such as airport taxes and insurance. Some quotes are exclusive of flights, and if you are booking gorilla trips you may have to pay locally (around pounds 180) for permits.

There is a huge range of trips at a wide range of prices, so shop around. The Travelling Naturalist (01305 267994), for example, runs trips of 10 to 17 days to the Andes, the Amazon, or the Galapagos for just under pounds 3,000, whale-watching in Newfoundland for pounds 1,775, eight days in the Orkneys for pounds 725 or four days in the New Forest for pounds 375. Adventure holiday firm Explore Worldwide (01252 319 448) offers a 17-day Tanzania safari visiting the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater for around pounds 1,500, 17 days in Namibia for just under pounds 2,000, or a 21-day Borneo trip to see turtles, birds and orang-utans for just over pounds 1,000. Two weeks in "Wild Persia" with Greentours (01298 83563) in November costs just under pounds 2,000, while its 15-day "Tigers of the Raj" tour is just over pounds 2,000.

CAN I COMBINE WILDLIFE WATCHING WITH OTHER HOLIDAY PASTIMES?

There are packages to suit all tastes, though clubbers might want to give these holidays a miss; lights can go out pretty early. Several companies offer combination packages. For example Wildlife Worldwide (0181-667 9158) offers two-week "Wildlife and Cape Town" or "Wildlife and Wine" holidays to South Africa for around pounds 2,500, and Abercrombie and Kent (0171-730 9600) has a 10-day "Monuments and Birds" holiday to Egypt in October for pounds 2,345, including a Nile cruise and visit to the Pyramids.

WHERE CAN I FIND MORE INFORMATION?

Specialist travel companies advertise in magazines such as BBC Wildlife and Bird Watching. If you want to DIY, start with a good general guide. Rough Guide and Footprint guides focus a lot on wildlife tourism, but do not rely on them for specialist information about animals. For natural history books and field guides, contact Subbuteo (01352 756551).

WILDLIFE HOLIDAYS WITH A DIFFERENCE

WORKING HOLIDAYS

Spend your holiday working with wildlife researchers as a volunteer. The Green Volunteers' scheme gets willing helpers involved with "live" projects to help with funding. Many projects accept volunteers for short periods of one to three weeks; most ask for a financial contribution and expect you to pay your own travel costs. Details of current projects - including a Welsh bird observatory , sea turtles in Costa Rica, wolves in Poland and penguins in Peru - are in Green Volunteers' directory (pounds 12 including p&p; 01767 262481).

TIEN SHAN MOUNTAINS

In a world where real wilderness is increasingly hard to find, 17 days in the "Mountains of Heaven" might be what you're looking for. As well as brown bear, ibex, wild boar and other rare mammals, the Tien Shan mountains in southern Kazakhstan are also excellent for wild flowers and bird life. A fully inclusive trip with nine days in the Aksu-Dzhabagly Reserve costs pounds 2,295 in June, and includes accommodation at the homes of reserve workers and in traditional Kazakh tents, plus a visit to the steppeland lakes. Contact Greentours (01298 83563).

WESTERN AUSTRALIA

The Kimberley region of Western Australia is pretty much virgin territory for naturalists. Much of the landscape of rivers and gorges can only be accessed by four-wheel drive vehicle and the area is excellent for birds and Australia's bizarre marsupials. Ten-day trips from Broome, led by an ornithologist, cost from pounds 1,095 (excluding flights to Australia). A week in Kakadu National Park - Australia's famous wetlands - will cost an extra pounds 895. Contact Wildlife Worldwide (0181-667 9158).

WILD FLOWERS

Take time out to smell the roses or other wild flowers in the Alps, southern Spain and south-west Australia. Or visit Namibia and South Africa for 18 days at the end of August to see blankets of Namaqualand flowers, photogenic quiver trees and Namibia's living fossil, the Welwitschia. The holiday, led by Botanical Society of the British Isles president Mary Briggs, costs pounds 3,125 through Cox and Kings (0171 873 5000).

PHOTOGRAPHIC HOLIDAYS

A fully inclusive 10-day trip, photographing big game in Botswana's Okavango Delta with Heather Angel and staying in luxury tented camps, costs from pounds 4,800 next December, and includes trips in dugout canoes in the wetlands. Alternatively you could try 10 days at the end of May with Niall Benvie in Latvia, home of beavers, boars, wolves and wild flowers. This would cost pounds 895 excluding flights, from Light and Land (01737 779944).

TOURS ON THE WILD SIDE

ECUADOR AND THE GALAPAGOS ISLANDS

Remarkable wildlife and the story of evolution rolled into one. To retrace Darwin's steps on a 20-day holiday this summer, including two weeks on a brigantine schooner, you would pay pounds 3,395 (an optional four days in the Amazon jungle costs a further pounds 695) with Naturetrek (01962 733051).

KENYA

A 16-day, three-centre holiday visiting Amboseli National Park, at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro, a rhinoceros sanctuary on a private reserve in the northern foothills of Mount Kenya, and the Masai Mara, including walks, game drives and a night drive, costs pounds 3,375 (an 11-day budget version is pounds 1,500) through Wildlife Worldwide (0181-667 9158).

THE TIGER TRAIL

Take a 13-day Indian Jungle Odyssey through Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan, home of the elusive Bengal tiger and once the hunting ground of the Maharaja of Jaipur. The pounds 1,795 tour also includes the birdlife of Bharatpur nature reserve, Bandhavgarh and its tiger population, the Taj Mahal and the temples at Khajuraho. Contact Cox and Kings (0171-873 5000).

THE WILD WEST

Greater Yellowstone, in the Rocky Mountains, USA, is the world's largest intact temperate ecosystem, with spectacular scenery and amazing wildlife, including grizzly bears, bison, moose, bald eagles and bighorn sheep. A 12-day holiday to Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park, including Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in the remote Centennial Valley, costs pounds 2,999 from Abercrombie and Kent (0171-730 9600).

KINGDOM OF THE ICEBEAR

Take a "tundra buggy" in Churchill, Canada, next October to see one of the largest concentration of polar bears in the world. A chilly nine-day trip should get you close to the bears and you may also see arctic foxes, snowy owls and caribou. Prices from pounds 1,825 through Discover the World (01737 218800).

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