Choosing A Big 5 Safari
Going in search of Africa's Big 5
The term 'Big 5' has nothing to do with the size or weight of the animal, rather it is term whose origins come from the days when big game hunting was a popular pastime: the Big 5 were deemed to be the animals that were most difficult to hunt on foot, and who, when cornered, presented the most danger to the hunter.
The animals who won this accolade are the lion, elephant, leopard, rhino and buffalo. Today, these animals are 'hunted' by the eager safari goers with their cameras, looking for the opportunity to see and photograph these African legends in their natural habitat.
It sometimes comes as a bit of a surprise to first-time visitors to Africa to find out that not every reserve and national park has the Big 5.
Almost everywhere that we feature as a safari experience will have lions and elephants (as well as other animals such as zebra, giraffes, etc), however the rhino and buffalo are not quite as widely found.
This does not mean that reserves that do not have the Big 5 are not worth visiting: in fact some of the very best safari experiences are in reserves that do not have the Big 5!
For example, Namibia's Etosha National Park is one of the greatest wildlife destinations in Africa, however as it does not have buffalo, it cannot count itself as being a Big 5 reserve.
Even in Big 5 reserves, you usually need both luck and a skilful guide to see a leopard in the wild.
The reason for this is that as a nocturnal, solitary hunter that relies on stealth and power, the leopard is rarely active during the day.
As a result, many visitors to a Big 5 reserve will leave having seen lion, elephant, rhino and buffalo, but will not have seen a leopard.
If you are determined to see leopard as part of your safari experience, probably the best place to go would be the Sabi Sands Game Reserve in South Africa.
There are hundreds of safari lodges and camps across Southern and East Africa that offer you the chance to see the Big 5.
You should keep in mind the size of the reserve when you are choosing where to go, as this can make a difference to the game viewing experience. A bigger reserve will allow for bigger populations of animals, and this will make a real: difference of you want to see a big herd of elephants (for example) rather than a family group of 5-10 animals.
Once you have decided when to go you can then begin to narrow down the options by country.
The world-famous private game reserves and safari lodges of the Greater Kruger Park in South Africa offer possibly the best Big 5 game viewing opportunities to be found anywhere, with lion and leopard tracking a particular speciality. If you want to get literally within a couple of metres of the wildlife, then this should be at the top of your safari list.
These lodges are either located within one of a handful of concessions in Kruger itself, or in one of the neighbouring private game reserves (such as Sabi Sands, Timbavati, Balule, Klaserie and Manyeleti) on the western side of the Park, or in one of the nearby fenced reserves such as Thornybush and Kapama.
Morning and afternoon game drives on open Land Rovers provide unrivalled game viewing in the company of highly skilled rangers and Shangaan trackers. The land is privately owned, so the game viewing vehicles are not restricted to the road network and it is therefore possible for the experienced guides to follow the wildlife through the bush and to get extremely close to the animals - an experience that really cannot be rivalled.
Elsewhere in South Africa, you can also encounter the Big 5 in the malaria-free private Madikwe Game Reserve, the Pilanesberg National Park, the Waterberg region (also malaria-free), some of the reserves in KwaZulu-Natal, and of course the malaria-free private reserves of the Eastern Cape - although it is fair to say that leopard sightings in the Eastern Cape are more rare.
Kenya's Masai Mara is another major Big 5 safari destination, and boasts an exceptionally high population of lions in particular. During the months when the famous Great Migration reaches the Mara plains, the lion population are particularly active, as the millions of wildebeest and zebra provide a constant source of enticing meal opportunities.
Because of the popularity of the Mara in terms of overall visitor numbers throughout the year, the reserve promotes itself not just as a Big 5 reserve, but as a Big 9 reserve - having extended the original group to now include cheetah, zebra, giraffe and hippo - in recognition that people also expect to see these 'traditional' animals on safari too!
Unlike the private reserves around Kruger, however, because the Masai Mara is a National Park, the game viewing vehicles are restricted to only driving on the roads, and no off-road driving is allowed, unless you are in one of the neighbouring private conservancies that adjoin the Park.
Tanzania is home to some superb Big 5 safari destinations, of which the most popular would be the vast plains of the Serengeti and the iconic Ngorongoro Crater in the north, and the quieter Selous Game Reserve in the south.
Again, no off-road driving is allowed, but this will not in any way detract from the excitement of seeing your first pride of lions lazing under a tree to escape the midday heat, or stalking stealthily through the grass whilst hunting. Or coming across a family of elephants or buffalo gathered around a waterhole, or watching a leopard skillfully climb up a tree and settle itself along one of the branches.
Big 5 At A Glance
- Lion, Leopard, Elephant, Rhino Buffalo
- Africa's most dangerous animals
- Leopard is hardest to find
- Bigger Reserve = More Elephants