Africa's Most Extreme Wildlife Encounters

Eat with giraffes, cuddle with chimpanzees or ride an elepant, all while living in colonial-style luxury.
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On a continent where tourism is defined by legendary safari experiences, African tour operators have to go the extra mile to create animal encounters that stand out. Some require a great deal of skill from their guests, as in horse-riding ability or sheer leg strength to hike as much as five hours a day; others are simply luxury lodges that bring the animals literally to your doorfront.

Nairobi is often just a stopping point before traveling onto reserves such as Masai Mara and Lake Nakuru.

The Giraffe Manor

gives plenty of reason to travel no farther. This stately Tudor-style mansion, built just outside of Nairobi in 1932 by the heirs of the Macintosh Toffee fortune, has a regal brick facade and shading of ivy, but more importantly it sits in the middle of 140 acres of wild bush -- home to wild hogs, deer and the once highly endangered Rothschild giraffe from which the small luxury hotel gets its name.

The two-story lobby, with herringbone wood floors and a double staircase fit for British aristocracy, is exquisite, but who can really notice when the nine resident giraffes are poking their heads through the 20-foot windows and into the main reception to greet guests? Essentially part of the family, the giraffes are part of the greater

African Fund for Endangered Wildlife

and

Giraffe Centre

, which aim to teach conservation through direct, eyeball-to-eyeball contact. The playful, curious creatures tuck their heads into morning breakfast and accompany guests on daily walks in one of the most nurturing and affectionate wildlife experiences in existence.

At The Giraffe Manor in Nairobi, the playful, curious creatures are welcome to tuck their heads into morning breakfast and accompany guests on walks.

Those who do use Nairobi as a stopping point are often headed for longer safaris in Tanzania and Serengeti, home to the Great Migration -- one of the biggest migrations on the planet, as 1.5 million wildebeest and a half-million zebra rove in search of food and water. In June through August, these animals pass directly through the

Singita Grumetti Reserves

, home of the famed Sasakwa Lodge. The sprawling Edwardian-style lodge sits on a lone bluff on the private Singita Grumetti Concession, where night drives and walking safari are allowed, and offers one of the best animal shows on earth from personal verandas equipped with plunge pools and vintage telescopes.

Those familiar with the Singita lodges in South Africa's Sabi Sands and Kruger National Parks will find a colonial-inspired lodge with even more over-the-top amenities, including a rare-horse stable that offers skilled equestrians the chance to experience the Great Migration saddleback from one of 14 to 16 highly trained thoroughbred polo ponies. Guests choose from Western or English saddles and gallop the open plain with experienced guides, taking in extraordinary game viewing before stumbling upon secret meadows where Singita staff have prepared surprise cocktail or lunch parties. Still haven't had enough of the wild? The lodge recently launched overnight mobile tent safaris that takes Sinigta luxury to locations in the bush.

For a more studious African adventure, a former chimpanzee research community has become one of the most elaborate primate interactive experiences at

Greystoke Mahale

-- part of lux-adventure operator Nomad Tanzania. A trip from Dar es Salaam by prop plane takes travelers to this white-sand paradise on a remote shore of Lake Tanganyika at the foot of an almost extraterrestrial landscape of green mountains and a camp that looks like Robinson Crusoe gone glam. There is thatch-roof architecture, interior decor a la

Indiana Jones

and open-air bathrooms that are divinely of another time.

But if ogling luxurious lodge amenities is your thing, you're probably missing out on the essence of the Mahale Greystoke experience. A series of hiking expeditions begins with trackers scoping out the location of one of nine primate species on the mountains, including the chimpanzee. Guests follow to await the arrival of the chimps. The primates, accustomed to human interaction, spend an hour or so smacking and cuddling one another among a terrain of leopards, wild pigs and exotic birds.

Botswana is renowned for its concentration of big five wildlife (lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and cape buffalo), including some of the largest herds of elephants in all of Africa.

Abu Camp

is a series of elaborate canvas tents with elaborate cantilevered decking on 500,000 private acres in the Okavango Delta, the seasonal flood plain that is the world's largest inland delta. A main lounge and dining area links the property's six vaulted guest rooms, which are tucked among mature sycamore fig tree and feature interior design of handmade furnishings and tribal art.

Upon arrival, guests are integrated into the Abu elephant herd, a family of 11 gentle, people-friendly giants. Once the introduction has been made, the safari experience takes place atop the elephants -- on padded saddles, mounted behind trained drivers. Travelers get to know their elephant partner, feeding and sometimes swimming with them. Once the safari begins, you're able to interact with herds of giraffes and zebra as the elephants meander through the waters of the delta with inquisitive trunks and the occasional thunderous roar.

When not with the elephants, the camp hits the bush in handmade canoes or afoot, to experience wild Africa up close -- more so than you ever dreamed.

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Michael Martin is the managing editor of JetSetReport.com, a luxury travel and lifestyle guide based in Los Angeles and London. His work has appeared in InStyle, Blackbook, Elle, U.K.'s Red magazine and on ITV and the BBC.