Going on safari in Africa has become closely associated with seeing the Big 5. Have you ever wondered what that is all about and where you should go? The term “Big Five” originally referred to the difficulty in hunting the lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and African buffalo. These five large African mammal species were known to be dangerous and it was considered a feat by trophy hunters to bring them home.
Today, with most visitors armed with cameras, the Big 5 are still perhaps the most exciting encounter on a safari. Here are some of the best places to see the Big 5 in Southern Africa:
Kruger National Park – South Africa
Whether you’re on a guided tour or self-driving, Kruger National Park is a great choice for a Big 5 safari. The park is the size of a small country, and the wide variety of habitats it protects is reflected by the varied wildlife. Identifying all the different antelope species in Kruger can be an enjoyable challenge. In terms of the Big 5, lion, buffalo and elephant are easily found in southern Kruger, which is also one of the best places to see white rhino. With time on your hands and a bit of luck, you might spot a leopard too. Make sure to be out and about at dawn and dusk to increase your chances of seeing this shy cat which is active at night.
- When to visit Kruger: Wildlife viewing in Kruger is best from May to September. These are the dry winter months when animals don’t stray far from waterholes and rivers. During the wet summer months, the bush gets very thick and animals are more difficult to spot.
- Where to stay: Well-equipped, basic rest camps offering campsites and huts can be found throughout Kruger. Several private concessions within the park offer a luxurious and more exclusive alternative.
Sabi Sand Game Reserve – South Africa
Spotting the Big 5 doesn’t get easier than in Sabi Sand Game Reserve. This cluster of jointly-managed private reserves has open borders with Kruger and forms part of the same ecosystem, but animals tend to be more relaxed. Furthermore, unlike in Kruger, guided drives in open vehicles are permitted to head off-road, which makes for fantastic close-up viewing. The real star of Sabi Sand is the leopard. Nowhere else is this usually shy creature so habituated. Most guests are treated to sightings of leopards as they go about their daily routine: a male patrolling or hunting, a female nursing cubs, possibly even a mating pair in action.
- When to visit Sabi Sand: There is no bad time to visit Sabi Sand, but wildlife viewing is best in the dry winter months from May to September.
- Where to stay: There are many lodges spread over the different reserves of Sabi Sand. All offer a similar experience inclusive of meals and activities. The standard of décor, service and guiding is superb. There is no camping or budget accommodation in Sabi Sand.
Mana Pools National Park – Zimbabwe
Mana Pools, a World Heritage Site, is Zimbabwe’s most exciting national park for activities. It is prime territory for a Big 5 safari, and game drives are hugely rewarding. But what sets Mana Pools apart is the opportunity for genuine adventure via walking and canoeing safaris. Paddling on the Zambezi River is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Aside from gliding past huge crocodiles and hundreds of hippos, you’re likely to see elephant and buffalo coming to drink, possibly even a pride of lions. And if you think seeing these animals from a canoe will get the adrenaline going, imagine how you’ll feel approaching any of the Big 5 on foot!
- When to visit Mana Pools: The best time for wildlife viewing is in the Dry season when animals stay close to the river and the bush is thin. The roads get very bad in the Wet season and part of the park might get closed off from December to March.
- Where to stay: There are several small, exclusive camps in the park as well as basic campsites.
Okavango Delta – Botswana
The Okavango is one of Africa’s most iconic wildlife destinations. The delta is home to all of the Big 5, although rhino (both black and white) can be hard to find. Buffalo and elephant thrive in the wetlands, and you should see some big cats as well. The most productive activity for spotting typical safari animals, including the Big 5, is a game drive. But you should put aside time to do a guided walk and for exploring the delta’s channels by mokoro (traditional dugout canoe). Gliding silently through waterlilies, dodging the odd hippo and scanning the shore for animals coming to drink, is an experience that will stay with you long after your trip.