African Safari Adventure: The Big 5

African Safari Adventure: The Big 5

You wake up to the shrill insistent ring of the telephone.  Tring, tring, tring.  It demands an answer.  You squint at the clock on your bedside table.  It's only 5:30 a.m.  Your voice is slurred with speech when you answer. 

“Good morning, wakey, wakey ,” is the cheerful accented voice on the other end.

You groan, pull on some clothes, grab coffee and a bagel from the breakfast buffet at the dining room and run outside where an open jeep with a driver and ranger awaits you.  As you drive with six other people into the jungle, you begin to revel in the clean crisp morning air, the cold and the dust, the stark beauty of a panoramic sunrise, the silence of the morning and the sense of wilderness all around you . . .suddenly, you round the corner and there in the middle of a half-paved road stands a leggy giraffe, it’s long neck rising majestically into the sky.

“Aaaaaah, morning sunshine,” you croon as the giraffe arches his neck towards a tree and begins to nibble on the leaves.

This is the quintessential African safari. An adventure. An experience of a lifetime. This will not be like any holiday you have had before—and it is certainly not your sleep-in, drinking-margaritas-and-reading-a-racy-novel-at-the-beach type of vacation. It is more akin to the excursion of an intrepid explorer—prodded awake in the early hours, made to walk or suffer countless miles of bumpy tracks in order to look for what?  No one can say exactly!

As our guide, Alex would say each day, ”You never know what you might see today.”

If you’re lucky, you may get to see all the Big 5 as we did or nothing at all.  The term ‘Big 5’ was historically used by hunters to denote the 5 most dangerous animals to hunt in South Africa: elephants, black rhino, lion, leopard and African buffalo.


African savannah elephants are the biggest mammals in the world, weighing up to 6000 kg each.  They can eat 400 kilograms of food and drink a liter of water a day.  On our second day at the Kapama Private Game Reserve, we came across a herd of elephants: male, female, babies and young ones.  Our guide explained that you hear elephants long before you see them and sure enough, we could hear them trampling branches and leaves underfoot before they came into view.  Our driver killed the engine of the jeep as they crossed our path, warning us to be extremely still.  African elephants are skittish animals, and any sudden movement can spook them.  A startled or surprised elephant’s first instinct is to charge.  They passed so close to us that I half expected one of them to lean in and kiss me on the cheek.


Did you know rhinos always defecate in the same spot?  Well, if you see your guide getting down from the jeep to pick up a dried rhino dung, study it’s color and shape then, tear it open to show you the poorly digested wigs and bark that were consumed by the animal, you will never forget that bit of trivia.  Very soon you’ll begin to recognize the tons of rhino dung that line the paths of the ancient game reserve like a carpet of under felt.  If you’re patient, you’ll be rewarded by the sight of a couple of rhinos wallowing in the mud at a watering hole. 

“Enjoying a mud bath, I see. What we pay hundreds off dollars for,” one of the ladies in our group observes dryly.

In reality, rhinos do not have sweat glands, so they must cool down by drinking water, rolling in the mud and staying in the shade.


The African buffalo is one of the world’s most dangerous and aggressive animals.  There have been attempts made to domesticate them, like the domestication of the Indian buffalo, but they have been unsuccessful.  The buffalo have been known to attack humans if they’re on foot but not in a jeep since their perception of a vehicle is that it's just another large animal.  Our guide, Alex told us that he was chased once or twice by a buffalo and had to rapidly climb a high tree for safety.  “Otherwise, I’d be dead meat,” he finished.


On the first night of our game drive, we were fortunate to see three lionesses and her baby cubs frolicking with each other.  As the evening light faded we saw baby cubs swipe and swat each other with their paws, which was the height of cuteness.  For us, the footage captured of the cubs playing with each other would have been enough but next day our guide heard radio chatter that an old lion had been spotted in the bush.  Our guide directed the jeep into the jungle, knocking down shrubs and small trees in our path.  “Since Kapama is a private game reserve,” he explained, “we are allowed to go off-road unlike government-run parks.” There was a flash of golden mane, and then we spied the old man sitting in solitary splendor, devouring a scaly pangolin that it had freshly killed.  We watched him from a distance of a mere 8 feet.  A massive beast with a golden mane and beautiful yellow eyes. . . our lion chase was over.


Photo credit: Chand Duggal

Photo credit: Chand Duggal

The leopard is the most elusive animal of the big 5 at Kruger National Park.  Our sighting of this predator was limited to a glimpse as two leopards crossed the road late at night after our sundowner stop.

In a nutshell, South Africa is a memory, a constant presence and full of future possibilities.  Africa is old and wise, new and dynamic, and I will visit it again.

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The continuing African Safari Adventure: The rest of the Animal Kingdom!

HAMILTON: What is the Fuss All About?

HAMILTON: What is the Fuss All About?