Truly wild waterways

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Navigate these rivers and wetlands for some of nature’s best – and most exhilarating – wild aqua encounters. This article is adapted from Lonely Planet's 1000 Ultimate Adventures.

Everglades, Florida, USA

Everglades by Bing. Creative Commons Attribution Licence.

It’s a far cry from Disney World – there are no mouse costumes or saccharine-sweet endings here. This is Florida’s wild side, where it’s survival of the fittest in an immense damp spread of sawgrass marshes, hardwood hammocks, mangrove forest and cypress swamp. The best way to explore is by boat – hire a canoe or kayak to get closer to the inhabitants. As well as many land mammals, look out for lovably ponderous manatees, prehistoric American crocodiles and alligators (this is the only place they coexist), and a variety of frogs and toads, which provide the Everglades with a raucous ribbiting chorus.

Go: The Everglades National Park (www. nps.gov/ever) is open year-round. Peak season is the dry winter period; some facilities close during wetter summer months.

Selinda Spillway, Botswana

The Selinda Spillway is a channel linking Botswana’s Okavango Delta to the Linyanti and Kwando water systems. Or it is at the moment. Sometimes it’s not – that’s down to Mother Nature. For three decades this rivulet ran dry; profuse flooding in 2009 saw it flow once more and for now it’s possible to canoe part of its 100km length. Seize the opportunity and you won’t be disappointed, though you may be scared stiff. Hippos are rampant here, enjoying their newly saturated home and not keen on sharing it with paddlers, but keep a respectful distance, and you’ll get on just fine.

Go: The four-day Selinda Canoe Trail begins 45km downstream from Selinda Camp; trips run April to October, depending on water levels. See www.greatplainsconservation.com.

Sundarbans, Bangladesh

The Sundarbans is not an easy place to be. This vast delta region – where the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers discharge into the Bay of Bengal – is a morass of shifting islands, stifling swamp and impregnable mangroves. It’s no place for humans. Animals, however, love it. Chital deer and rhesus monkeys hide in the thickets; turtles, fiddler crabs, gharial and crocs patrol the waters; and Bengal tigers – 250 of them – rule the roost. The big cats here are known as two things: great swimmers and man-eaters. Boat trips offer the best, and safest, sightings.

Go: Bangladesh has three seasons: monsoon (late May to October), cool (November to February) and hot (March to May). Cool season is the driest and best time to visit.

Zambezi River, Zambia/Zimbabwe

Victoria Falls by Harvey Barrison. Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike Licence.

The Zambezi isn’t Africa’s longest river. But its 2700km course – which moistens six countries en route from its source to the Indian Ocean – is arguably Africa’s wildest. And nowhere is this more true than its run along the ZambiaZimbabwe border. First it plummets down Victoria Falls, from where multi-day rafting trips encounter not just unruly rapids but cantankerous hippos and crocs. Further downstream, the river is flanked by Lower Zambezi (Zambia) and Mana Pools (Zimbabwe), two of the continent’s greatest national parks, and all manner of creatures – from enormous elephants to elegant egrets – come to take a drink here.

Go: Zambezi rafting trips are best August to November, when water is high and more rapids can be run; rapids are mostly Grade IV.

Jacques-Cartier River, Québec, Canada

It’s estimated that there are between 500,000 and one million moose in Canada. That’s a lot of moose. But then there’s a lot of Canada. So to make your ungulate-ogling nice and easy, travel just 30 minutes out of Québec City (the country’s most historic hub) to Jacques-Cartier National Park. Here a forest-cloaked valley hugs the Jacques-Cartier River, cosy cabins dot the bush, friendly guides staff the visitor centre and moose sightings are virtually guaranteed. Paddle out onto the inky waterway in a traditional rabaska canoe to spot the leggy creatures when they come down to the water to feed.

Go: Canoe hire and rafting trips can be arranged from the visitor centre. Fall colours are at their best late September to early October.

Cuiabá River, Pantanal, Brazil

Pantanal by Nori Almeida. Creative Commons Attribution Licence.

Stuff the Amazon. If you want to actually see the wildlife of Brazil rather than be stymied by impenetrable jungle, head to the Pantanal. A boat trip on the Cuiabá River – or one of its secretive tributaries – will likely reveal what the Amazon does not: the country’s mind-boggling biodiversity. A splash in the water? Could be the wake of a diving kingfisher, the slow skulk of a caiman or the acrobatic antics of a giant otter. Something wallowing? Maybe a capybara cooling off or a thirsty tapir. And that flash of movement along the riverbank? Yep, a jaguar, staring right back.

Go: The best time to visit the Pantanal is May to September, when wildlife is concentrated at shrinking water sources and temperatures are mildest.

River Stour, Dorset, England

Around 40 years ago otters were virtually extinct in England. Agricultural pesticides and increased pollution had made the rivers unlivable – things were dire indeed. Fast-forward to 2011, following a concerted effort to clean up the waterways, and the UK Environment Agency happily announced that there were otters present in every county. These sinuous mammals can still be tricky to see – they’re shy and most active in the early hours. But the otters of Blandford, a market town on the River Stour, don’t seem to have read the rules, unabashedly splashing about in broad daylight to the delight of passers-by.

Go: Blandford Forum is 25km northwest of Poole, 35km southwest of Salisbury, at the junction of the A350 and A354 roads.

Mekong River, Kratie, Cambodia

The Irrawaddy river dolphin is not doing so well. Although considered sacred by many local people, the number of poor Orcaella brevirostris in the Mekong River has dwindled to fewer than 100, the species falling victim to pollution, habitat loss and accidental entanglement in fishermen’s nets. The World Wildlife Fund is working with both the Cambodian government and Buddhist monks to try to help the dolphins; its outlook is fairly positive. But for now the best chance to see them is from the sleepy town of Kratie, where sampan boat trips upriver offer privileged encounters with these gentle, beakless, critically endangered creatures.

Go: Kratie is 350km northeast of the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. The road is surfaced all the way; buses take around five hours.

McNeil River, Alaska, USA

Brown bear by Carl Chapman. Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike Licence.

The world’s largest known get-together of hungry brown bears takes place on Alaska’s McNeil River from June to August. Up to 70-odd bruins cluster at the rapids and rock pools of this remote water system situated 400km southwest of Anchorage and reached by floatplane. They come for the salmon, which are returning in vast numbers to spawn. As these plucky fish fight the flow, making magnificent leaps to surmount obstacles in their path, the bears wait, open-mouthed, looking for an easy supper. It’s not all about the bears though – harbour seals, bald eagles and other birds are also attracted to this fishy frenzy.

Go: Permits, issued by lottery system, are required to visit McNeil River State Game Sanctuary & Refuge; apply at www.adfg.alaska.gov.

Tysfjord, Norway

The west coast of Norway is notched with thousands of dramatic sea inlets. And, some years ago, a load of herring chose Tysfjord (just north of the Arctic Circle) as the one in which to overwinter. Once the local orca figured this out, they decided this was the place to be in the colder months, too. Now, as temperatures drop, hundreds of hefty killer whales cluster here to bait-ball feed, herding the silver fish into a lump, whacking them with their tails and then chomping on the stunned shoal. Sailing out from the village at the base of the fjord, you might get to witness this fish feast in action.

Go: Boat trips run from the Tysfjord Turistsenter at the base of the fjord, Thursday to Saturday, from November to late January; trips usually last 4–6 hours. See www.tysfjord-turistsenter.no.