The Big Five of South Africa (and So Much More)

In South Africa, the goal of every safari is the “Big Five,” lions, leopards, cape buffalo, elephants, and rhinos. On our amazing bird watching tour of Kruger National Park (, we saw all of them before lunch, along with impala, kudu, zebra, giraffes, a common dwarf mongoose, and pairs of tiny Klipspringers.

Then after lunch, we saw the Big Five again, along with warthogs (Pumba!) and all the others. That’s just mammals. Have I mentioned that the birds were also spectacular?  (Really, read the blog!)

Leopard Sightings: Our first leopard sighting lasted about three seconds, a large female, who had been stalking some antelope. She walked through the tall grass and sauntered away almost before we had time to recognize that we were seeing one of the most beautiful animals in all of nature.

Our first, elusive leapord

Our second sighting, which thrilled all of us, including our guide Nic, was at the watering hole where we had previously seen the entertaining Hamerkop (a bird whose head is shaped like hammer). A small male drank, rolled around in the grass, and posed for great photos. Meanwhile, a nearby kudu sounded the warning, standing on a ledge over the watering hole, hidden behind some trees, and quite distressed that the leopard was dominating the water.

Lion Sightings: As we drove along, several cars were stopped on a bridge over a dry riverbed. Lions, lions, the whispers spread from car window to safari jeep through the crowd. I became “that” tourist, unable to understand the landmarks and unable to spot what everyone else was so thoroughly engaged in watching. I hope my frustration and probably too loud complaints about not being able to see them isn’t what caused the pride to get up and move. But their movement finally caught my eye, and we watched three females and three young cubs walk up the riverbed and out of sight.

Three mama lions and three cubs leaving up the ravine

That afternoon, just as we were ready to leave the park, we saw one of the adult females again. (At least, Nic told us she was part of the same group, and who were we to argue?) He said the other two adults and the cubs had headed to the river, and this one had stayed behind to rest.

(More info on lions is coming in the next blog. This is so much fun!)

Cape Buffalo Sightings: Nic drove us to a big watering tank, one of several in the park that wildlife managers have put in just in case the dry season gets too dry, with a nearby pond. Three cape buffalo lumbered past, while we were busy watching Yellow-Fronted Canaries, Blue Waxbills, Jameson’s Firefinches, and an Emerald-Spotted Wood Dove, among others (yes, it was THAT colorful!).

Our first, far away sighting of a Cape Buffalo

The afternoon sighting of cape buffalo was much more up close and in person. We drove into a dry riverbed full of tall grasses that nine older males with a small female (reverse harem?) were munching right alongside the road. They weren’t particularly comfortable with our presence but didn’t pay too much attention and mostly juts kept on munching.

Elephant Sightings: We didn’t count elephants, but we should have. We saw them all over, usually from far away. Sometimes it was males, sometimes it was a family group of females and youngsters. No matter what we saw or when we saw them, they were always a delight.

Rhino Sightings: All the rhinos we saw were white rhinos. Most were far away, but the last group we saw were lounging under a tree, and seeing a group when so few rhinos are left, was something special. Some of the ones we saw had their horns cut off, a precaution against poachers. In fact, while the park reports sightings of most other big animals, including cheetahs, it does not report rhino locations. Nic, with a sad catch in his voice, explained that rhinos are so rare in the park that they don’t even fight each other to mark or defend territory anymore, a major behavioral change.

Just before we were there, a friend from high school, Brian DeBlanc, and some of his family, were nearby the Kruger, helping to remove rhino horns (his younger sister Diana is a vet) through an organization called Council of Contributors, Perhaps conservation efforts like theirs will pay off, and the rhinos can return to their rightful place in the ecosystem.

Giraffes Sightings: My favorite giraffe on the planet was the first one was saw in the Kruger. He crossed the road in front of our jeep, stepped over to a tree right next to the road, and munched his breakfast right beside us. It also gave us a good look at a Red-Billed Oxpecker, the birds who pick ticks and other parasites off the animals. We saw many more giraffes throughout the tour, sometimes in pairs or small groups, sometimes alone. They are quiet (our daughter Emily says even stealthy) and weirdly graceful for their large size.

A giraffe having breakfast right next to our safari jeep!

Funny story: When we flew into the El Paso airport upon our return, a big poster in baggage claim had a couple of giraffes at the El Paso Zoo and boasted “Visit El Paso.” Bob and I looked at each other and laughed, sure that seeing giraffes would probably never be top of our list for visiting El Paso!

Zebra Sightings: We saw zebras throughout the day, in a variety of settings and group sizes. They are beautiful animals, and not too worried about the humans who drive around their environment.

All those antelope: Fernando Bitsi, a high school friend and one of our traveling companions, is an elk hunter, and he had an almost uncanny sense for spotting the antelope. The impala population of Kruger National Park runs upwards of 300,000. We saw about a third of them, más o menos, on the tour. We also saw majestic Kudu and adorable Klipspringers. On our sunset tour a few days after this one, we saw Waterbucks, Wildebeests, and an adorable Steenbok. As many as we saw, though, we got excited very time. Members of our group still text occasionally with, “Oh, look: impala!” just to bring back those fun memories.

Oh, look! Impala!

5 thoughts on “The Big Five of South Africa (and So Much More)”

  1. That was awesome, I can’t wait to share it with the residents at Dad’s assisted living facility. They have been anxiously awaiting more and better pictures. 🙂

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