Globetrotter Franci Neely Shares Her Wildest Encounters With Wildlife

Franci Neely
5 min readMay 23, 2023

Franci Neely has had some up close and untamed encounters with some of the most majestic animals in the world. Neely experienced waking up in an open-air lodge in the African bush with the Malawi sun rising over the horizon and Thomson’s gazelles grazing the land. The Big Five cruising by like an African traffic jam.

One of her most memorable experiences? Monkeying around on a golf course with Ope, a 6-year-old female chimpanzee.

A Glimpse Into a Rescued Chimp’s Life in Equatorial Guinea

Charting a new course: Franci Neely befriends a chimp in Equatorial Guinea

Rescued by workers at the Grand Hotel Djibloho in Rio Muni, Equatorial Guinea, the charming chimp won over Neely with her frisky shenanigans.

Franci Neely says Ope is one of three chimpanzees that have been rescued by the staff at this lodging in a quiet central city.

A resort staffer took Neely and her group on a golf cart tour of the grounds, which feature an 18-hole championship golf course, a spa and fitness center with a Turkish bath, and African cuisine dining options.

“We had the golf course to ourselves, which must be the case pretty much every day,” Neely says. “We stopped our golf carts once we saw little Ope ambling toward us. She wanted to play.”

Neely describes Ope as an impish trickster popping the golf cart keys in and out of her mouth and even putting them into the vehicle’s ignition. The tenderhearted chimp insisted on giving Neely a hug and leaping on top of the cart for added amusement.

During her time in Liberia, Neely ran into more chimps who had been rescued. She looks back with a smile, recalling a boat ride down the Du River where she spotted a male chimpanzee at Second Chance Chimpanzee Refuge near the fishing village of Marshall.

“Humane Society International Liberia’s Second Chance Chimpanzee Refuge is providing lifetime care to more than 60 chimpanzees who were used in invasive research for decades in the West African country of Liberia,” says the organization’s website. “These chimpanzees have been through so much in their lives — from the decades of painful research they endured to civil wars in Liberia that resulted in the death of many of the original 400-plus chimpanzees.”

Seeing the chimps happy and free now brought joy to Neely’s heart.

Ranching out: Franci Neely posed with Mundari people at the Mundari cattle camp near Juba, South Sudan, on Feb. 19, 2022

From primates to bovines, at a Mundari cattle camp in Sudan, Franci Neely came into contact with its sacred cows, which are a breed called Ankole-Watusi. Their gigantic horns are an immediately identifiable characteristic and the Mundari people base their lives and cultural and religious beliefs around these majestic creatures. These animals are so cherished by the Mundari people they believe the spiritual realm can be tapped into using cattle as mediums. The tribespeople ignite bonfires as a natural repellent against mosquitoes and then cover their skin with the ash to channel energy.

Living a seminomadic life, the Mundari people also mold the horns of their revered cows to give the horns unique shapes.

The cattle camps such as the one Franci Neely visited are in many ways generational learning incubators. Elders of the tribe teach younger members the cultural practices of the group, which includes caring for the cows.

Although Sudan is on a level 4 travel advisory right now due to armed conflicts, Neely says she enjoyed her time there and is thankful she had a chance to connect with the Sudanese people.

Riding High in Sri Lanka

Neely found a new, eco-friendly way to travel in Sri Lanka. High atop an elephant, Franci Neely took in the beauty of the South Asian country, which is one of the most popular travel spots in the world, and known for its teas and exotic spices. Her favorite Fendi shoes came along for the ride, of course.

Franci Neely Sees the Big Five in Malawi

The waterbuck stops here: Franci Neely says she enjoyed observing Malawi’s wildest locals

Trunk show: A herd of elephants enchants Franci Neely in Malawi

Croc spot: Crocodiles hang out in Malawi waiting for prey

While rock climbers flock to Malawi, the African nation is also home to breathtaking sunrises and sunsets and exquisite wildlife. Neely was able to admire African bush elephants, leopards, lions, black rhinoceroses, and African buffalo from her open-air style accommodations. These animals are considered the Big Five. During her time in Malawi, Franci Neely was just a few feet away from elephants, waterbuck, and crocodiles. Lake Malawi, which spans the entire coastline, is home to many crocodiles and hippos.

During a boat ride through Liwonde National Park, Neely shot several videos chronicling her time in Malawi and captured memorable footage of a hippo grazing in a marsh and a bird landing on the hippo’s back. “It was so cool [to watch the hippo eating],” Franci Neely says. “It’s hundreds and hundreds of acres with animals who are protected. When we came in, I saw a bunch of yellow baboons.”

Neely crafted a lasting bond with her boat captain, Angel, who was delighted to give her a tour of the park which, in 2017, was repopulated with cheetahs. Several other species have been reintroduced to the area, including African wild dogs and black rhinos.

African park rangers continue to protect the land and initiate efforts to bring awareness to the area, spearheading conservation and climate change efforts.

The fearless world traveler admits she’s taken some risks when it comes to experiencing new foods abroad.

“One of the things that I like to do is sample local cuisine,” Neely explains. “I will not eat insects, however, although I did eat an insect once knowingly. I ate a queen caterpillar in Australia because I wanted to impress my stepchildren. That was the main reason. But the other was that our guide told us, assured us, that it would bring me health.”

Originally published at on May 23, 2023.