For those on the prowl for a new adventure and the ultimate escape from the office comes a new holiday phenomenon: The Extreme Safari. The world took note when Hollywood celebrities Julia Roberts and Natalie Portman took animal sightings to the next level by tracking full-grown gorillas through lush, dense forests. Since then, adventurers and animal lovers have left their binoculars at home, opting for novel, exhilarating experiences that throw the traditional safari out the jeep window and plunge travellers into a world swilling with danger, excitement and adrenaline.
"We've seen a lot of interest from clients who have perhaps already done a 'typical' safari and want to take their second safari experience to the next level," says Lucy Jackson, director of luxury tour operator Lightfoot Travel. One way of doing this would be to change travellers' perspectives on the conventional safari. According to the Swakopmund Skydiving Club in Namibia, thrill-seekers from all over the world have been flocking to their premier "drop zones" to tick off the No 1 item on their bucket lists: the Skydiving Safari.
High above the heart of the Namibia Damaraland, your parachute provides the perfect bird's-eye view of the vast, mountainous terrain and rolling grasslands below to spot the famous desert elephant and lion - a stunning view that is further enhanced by the fact that you're 3,050m above ground, soaring through the clouds at 200km/h.
After your jump, afternoons are spent roaming the land by car in search of more wild Damaraland beasts. Alternatively, you can experience a series of sunset or sunrise skydives above the Namib Desert - the oldest desert in the world - and descend upon the sprawling sand dunes. After a long day of jumping out of planes and traversing sand dunes, travellers can be assured that they'll be able to relax in pure comfort - the 14-day skydiving safaris include luxury camping.
These extreme safaris may teeter on the brink of what is considered exciting and what is considered totally insane, but these risky adventures are always founded on a solid base of safety precautions and expert opinion. In other words, no one is going to throw you out of a plane unless you know what you're doing. And, according to Swakopmund dive master Eddie Techman, many of these adrenaline junkies often request a repeat experience: "Most of our first-timers absolutely love it and want to jump again," he says.
The skydiving club has entertained thousands of travellers over its 28 years of operation, and it goes to great lengths to ensure its staff are members of the United States Parachute Association (USPA) and that they operate in USPA-affiliated drop zones.
Similarly, "safety" is a key word for Apex Shark Expeditions, who have been offering cage shark diving tours in South Africa for nearly 20 years. "We are official Shark Cage Diving permit holders and as such, adhere to a strict code of conduct," says Apex representative Karyn Cooper. "With more than 20 years' experience, we know where potential problems lie and take all precautions to prevent them from arising." After all, there are few things that get the heart racing like a face-to-face meeting with the notorious Great White.
Hosted by world-renowned shark enthusiasts Chris and Monique Fallows, Apex Shark Expeditions run tours to the Great White-infested waters of False Bay in Cape Town and offer single or five- to 10-day packages for small groups to witness the natural predation and breaching habits of the beast.
Guests can watch the one-tonne sharks make their airborne attacks on the Cape Fur seals before plunging into the icy waters in an underwater cage to see more up-close Jaws action.
For those who prefer to see magnificent animals on dry land, gorilla tracking has become an increasingly popular activity. Animal lovers and eco-tourists still have the opportunity to catch a guilt-free glimpse of the magnificent and endangered mountain gorilla before it's too late, by tracking them deep into African forests with the help of gorilla experts. The physically exerting experience might take hours, but for most nature enthusiasts, the sight of a brooding 200kg silverback alongside his family often makes the sweat, fatigue and nettle stings worth it. These tours don't come cheap - prices are approximately US$4,817 (HK$37,350) per person for a five-day tour including gorilla tracking and accommodation, while daily gorilla permits cost US$750 (HK$5,815) - but there is also the added bonus of knowing that you're doing your part for eco-tourism.
Volcanoes Safaris, which has been operating gorilla and chimpanzee tracking tours for more than 15 years in the Parc National des Volcans at the base of the spectacular Virunga range in Rwanda, is an award-winning pioneer in eco-tourism.
"Gorilla tracking supports the conservation of this threatened species and the protection of their fast-disappearing habitat," says Volcanoes Safaris managing director and co-founder Praveen Moman. "Clients can travel to remote parts of the world and enjoy incredible experiences while also making a direct contribution to local projects and supporting the communities around these protected areas. Eco-tourism is a win-win story."
WHAT: Swakopmund Skydiving Club
First-hand experience: "We free-fell for 30 seconds, which felt like five minutes, then suddenly the chute opened up and I was filled with mixed emotions - first the relief that the chute had opened, but also the amazing experience that I had just had." Nico Heath
WHAT: Volcanoes Safaris
First-hand experience: "Gorilla tracking was one of the best animal encounters I have ever experienced in my life. There is a seven-metre distance rule. However, don't be surprised if you get a lot closer." Tania Scott
WHAT: Apex Shark Expeditions
WHERE: South Africa
First-hand experience: "It's a little nerve-wracking being about two metres away from a huge shark with the biting power of one tonne, but it's absolutely unbelievable to witness. I stayed very close to the middle of the cage with my arms tucked firmly into my weight belt." Chris Brooks