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Even though you know that Africa and South Africa are so much more than the Big Five, the familiar images soon begin playing in your mind: lions roaring; elephants trumpeting; buffalos lurking in long grass; rhinos standing stately under a thorn tree; leopards prowling in the gathering darkness.

You’ve seen the Big Five in books and you’ve seen them on TV. But it’s time to come and see them for yourself.

The real thing.

In person.

And there’s no better place for this than South Africa, which offers the most exciting, memorable and exhilarating experience of your life – coming face to face with the Big Five.

How did these five animals – the lion, elephant, buffalo, rhinoceros and leopard – come to be called the Big Five?

It was originally a hunting term used by the so-called ‘great white hunters’ in the hunting heyday of the 19th and early 20th centuries, when professional hunters bagged as many trophies as possible in as short a time as possible.

Considered a rite of passage for seasoned travellers, everybody from American presidents to European royalty and heads of state came to Africa to shoot a large, dangerous animal.

The Big Five quickly became known as the most dangerous animals to hunt on foot, and the name stuck – although now ‘shooting’ is done through a camera lens.

The lion is arguably the most sought-after of the Big Five because it is synonymous with an African safari. Charismatic, powerful and beautiful, everybody wants to see the appropriately named 'King of the Beasts'.

Once, hundreds of thousands of lions roamed the world, but today conservationists give approximate numbers of between 25 000 and 30 000 left, most in sub-Saharan Africa. In South Africa, your chances of seeing lions are high, whether in our national parks or in private game reserves.

Lions are creatures of the savannah and open plains (you’ll rarely find them in a forest) and function in prides, usually numbering about five to 15, depending on the territory – although the Kruger National Park is known to have at least one big pride of up to 25 animals.

Everybody wants to see the appropriately named King of the Beasts

They are social family animals – related females rule, usually alongside a large dominant male that has won the pride in fierce competition with other males. Lionesses stay with the pride, while young males leave at two to three years of age. Males sometimes form coalitions to enhance their hunting success, but you’ll rarely see one with more than four lions.

Lionesses start breeding at four years old, and typically give birth to a litter of three or four cubs after 14 to 15 weeks of gestation. Lionesses of the same pride often give birth at or near the same time as their ‘sisters’, which allows for communal suckling and round-the-clock care.

And don’t expect to see an old lion – they are defeated in battle, often die of their wounds or are no longer able to hunt. Lions are in their prime from five to nine years of age. Male lions, once they’ve taken over a pride, have to work hard to keep it. Younger males – with attitude – are always on the sidelines.

Some prides specialise in hunting certain animals and develop specialised skills for this prey of choice – young elephants, ostrich, wildebeest.

Lions have no natural enemies other than hunters, although lion cubs fall prey to nomadic male lions that kill them in attempting to take over a pride. Hyenas, leopards and wild dogs also kill lion cubs.

Perhaps it’s the African elephant that should be called ‘King of the Beasts’ – it is the world’s largest and heaviest land animal. Its ears alone measure up to 2m x 1.2m (roughly the size of the surface area of a double bed) and can weigh up to 20kg (44lb) each, while it can grow to a height of more than 3m.

Elephants abound in South Africa – you can see great herds of more than 100 in the Kruger National Park or smaller breeding herds in private reserves.

Elephants are highly social animals and females rule. A herd will typically have a matriarch with vast cultural knowledge that leads the herd, keeps it under control and chooses its direction and pace. Even when feeding (and an adult elephant, arguably nature’s most versatile vegetarian, can eat up to 300kg of grass, bark, branches and foliage a day), the herd rarely strays far from the matriarch.

Young bulls leave the herd when they become teenagers and either live alone, form bachelor herds or seek the company of old lone bulls that have long left the herd.

But a mother-daughter bond can last up to 50 years.

An elephant is pregnant for 22 months, and will often cross-suckle other babies in the herd.

Male lions, once they've taken over a pride, have to work hard to keep it

Your first sighting of a tiny baby elephant will be one of your most indelible memories. How do these small creatures, some not yet reaching up to their mother’s tummy, avoid being stepped on or crushed by the herd? Mother, sisters, aunts and cousins are always on the alert. Watch how mothers protect their babies by always putting themselves between danger and their offspring, and how the whole herd immediately goes into protective group defence mode when threatened.

If an elephant trumpets, you’ll certainly hear it, but the infrasonic tummy rumbles they use to communicate with one another are most often too low for the human ear to pick up – although research shows that these calls have an elephant range of up to several kilometres.

And just because elephants are huge, don’t think they are slow; if a herd takes fright, or needs to move on quickly, elephants can reach speeds up to 40km/h – faster than you can run.

Elephants love water. To see a herd drinking, playing, splashing, swimming and dunking in the water will be another of your favourite safari memories.

Don’t be fooled by the docile appearance of the Cape buffalo (also known as the African buffalo). This mean, moody and magnificent animal is possibly the most dangerous of the Big Five, especially if you are on foot.

Robert Ruark, the American novelist, wrote that ‘a buffalo always looks at you as if you owe him money’. Come face to face with a buffalo (preferably from the safety of a vehicle), and you’ll see exactly what Ruark meant – the stare is cold, calculating and cunning.

Buffalos are social animals and move around in large herds – sometimes of many hundreds – chomping long grass as they collectively move and feed. In the dry season, you can often see a cloud of dust signalling an approaching herd.

Buffalos have to drink daily, and to witness a large herd approaching a waterhole – often in the early morning or late afternoon – is a memorable and noisy experience.

It’s quite easy to tell the males from the females. The males are blacker, bigger and have huge powerful horns that are joined in the middle to form a ‘boss’. When buffalos fight for rank and females (buffalos are non-territorial and don’t fight for territory like some others of the Big Five), the noise of the clashing and crashing of their bosses is awesome. It is estimated that the impact of their horns’ collision is equal to a car hitting a wall at 50km/h.

Females are smaller, more reddish-brown in colour, and their much narrower horns don’t meet in the middle. Calves are usually born in the rainy season, and although they can stand up on wobbly legs immediately, it takes several weeks until they can keep up adequately with the herd.

Although most of a buffalo’s senses are well developed, it’s their super-charged hearing that helps them find food and alerts them to danger. There’s usually a dominant male – or more if the herd is huge – that stays in the middle of the herd, as well as ‘pathfinders’, which may not be the biggest and best, but lead the herd and keep it together.

You may also see a group of old bulls together – caked in mud from wallowing.

These are known as ‘Dagha Boys’ after the ‘dagha’, or mud, the Zulus used to build their traditional huts.

Play the Game

Your first impression will be of its bulk and size. And then you may wonder how such a prehistoric-looking animal has existed for so many millions of years. Although unfortunately, the brutality and intensity of present-day poaching is a serious threat to the continuing survival of the species.

The second-largest land mammal, the white rhino’s name has nothing to do with its colour. It was the early Dutch settlers who referred to the animal’s broad lips as ‘wyd’ (wide), misinterpreted later as ‘white’.

This is a remarkable animal, weighing in at nearly 2 500kg (about 5 500lb) and often living up to 40 years of age. Because it is a grazer, eating thick, tough grass, it needs lots of water to digest its food, and needs to drink at least once daily. Sometimes you’ll see a rhino eating mud or soil, which acts as a dietary mineral supplement.

Match the rhino's speed

Its horn is used for fighting and defence and is not attached to the skull in any way.

Females live together in small groups, individuals breaking away when a determined bull decides to mate. Only one calf is born to a female at a time; the cow is very protective of her calf and will fight off an aggressive bull if necessary.

The calf always runs in front of its mother if they are fleeing from danger (a black rhino calf, on the other hand, will run behind its mother).

You’ll often find a white rhino resting in shade in the heat of the day or wallowing in mud. The dried mud acts as a sunscreen, a cooling agent and helps evict parasites that break off with the dried mud.

Look out for rhino middens beside the road. These are huge heaps of dung, used regularly by a particular male rhino to mark his territory. Females and non-dominant bulls also defecate on these middens, which act as markers and information signals to other rhinos.

Rhinos have poor eyesight but a fantastic sense of hearing and smell; watch a rhino’s ears – they constantly rotate in all directions as it works out what’s going on around it. And don’t think that because it’s so big and ungainly it’s a slow animal. If it’s running away (or chasing you), it can reach speeds of 40km/h.

The black rhino is smaller than its larger ‘white’ relative, is more solitary and elusive, and has a shorter head and beak-shaped lip that it uses for browsing leaves and twigs. Regarded as a more dangerous animal than the white rhino because of its volatile temperament, it is now one of the most endangered animals in Africa.

The one animal everybody wants to see – beautiful, charismatic, sexy and dramatic – and also the most elusive. The leopard is a solitary animal (unless mating, or a mother with cubs) and will, whether male or female, fiercely defend its own hunting territory from other leopards.

Considered to be one of the most successful, if not the most successful, of all African predators, the leopard is a master stalker. If you are lucky, particularly on a night drive (as leopards are nocturnal animals), you may see a leopard stalking its prey – silently, ruthlessly – before getting to within 5m of the prey and then launching itself with a powerful spring. Surprise is its chief means of attack.

Leopards often athletically drag their prey up into trees (sometimes the dead animal is as heavy as the leopard) to avoid having it pirated by other animals, particularly lions and hyenas.

Look out for thick overhanging branches of big old trees – you may well find a leopard snoozing there during the hottest part of the day, or snacking on its prey.

Leopards take great pains to advertise their territories by scent marking, scraping the ground and defecating in exposed spots. They try to avoid confrontation with other leopards (unless protecting their territory) because, as solitary hunters, they can’t afford to get injured.

Leopards make great mothers and take excellent care of their offspring, moving them from one place of safety to another when the cubs are very small – just as well, because young cubs are vulnerable to other leopards, lions, hyenas and wild dogs. Take a look at the black markings behind the ears and white tip of a mother’s long tail – these are signals for small cubs to follow.

That long tail is also used as a rudder for balance when the leopard is climbing a tree or hunting. A leopard also has long whiskers that it uses as antennae to judge spaces between bushes and trees – an essential tool for an animal that hunts at night.

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The great white hunters were big-game hunters from Europe or North America who came to Africa to hunt game, especially in the early 20th century. The term has colonial connotations, but has also been associated with daring and adventure. These hunters led safaris in Africa for wealthy and privileged clientele from Britain and the United States.

These magnificent creatures are large, powerful and beautiful, and are often used as symbols of courage and nobility on crests, coats of arms and the like. Males can reach weights of more than 200kg (about 450lb).

South Africa’s national parks offer visitors unparalleled exposure to the country’s impressive diversity. Managed by South African National Parks, they are a system of parks that represents the fauna, flora, landscapes and cultural heritage of the country. There are 19 such parks, dotted around the country. Most have overnight tourist facilities.

Although sometimes misrepresented as conniving, cowardly scavengers, hyenas kill most of the food that they eat. Spotted hyenas are sometimes called “laughing hyenas”, owing to the laugh-like noises they make following a kill.

A predator is an animal that preys on others. African predators include lions, African wild dogs, hyenas, cheetahs and leopards.

A leopard’s tail can reach almost a metre in length, sometimes about the length of its body. When a mother leopard takes her cubs through undergrowth or long grass, she holds her tail upright. Cubs then follow their mother by looking out for the white tip of the tail, even at nighttime.

An elephant uses its versatile trunk to help it collect food and eat: it strips vegetation off trees and pulls grass from the ground. Its trunk allows it to reach high into trees for vegetation. Elephants also use their trunks to suck water up, either to drink or to spray themselves with.

Can do a titled graphic showing difference between male and females horns? or “noise of clashing of their bosses” Can we get any footage of this?

Dagha Boys are bad-tempered and unpredictable, and even the most experienced game ranger knows to stay well clear.

Rhino horn is one of the most precious commodities in the world at present – it is the pursuit of these horns that has led to the upsurge in poaching that threatens the existence of rhino. And although in South Africa, a country highly rated for its conservation efforts, we know that the horns’ supposed medicinal and aphrodisiac qualities are useless – as much good as your fingernail – some countries in Asia and the Middle East still prize them.

That’s pretty rapid – especially considering the average speed of Usain Bolt during his 9.58-second 100m-world-record run was 37.58km/h.

It’s relatively straightforward to get to South Africa because over 70 international airlines fly into the country. South African Airways, the national carrier, connects to major international air routes.

Talk to your travel agent or operator for advice on the airlines best suited for your journey, and also about special offers or cheap flights that are available.

Expect long-haul flights – from the United States approximately 15 hours; from Europe approximately 10 to12 hours; from China approximately 17 hours; and from India up to 12 hours. You may want to break your journey en route, but a direct flight – even if you’re longer in the air at one time – is often the best way to go.

Upmarket game lodges often have their own airstrips (prepare for a safe, but bumpy landing) and your safari package may well include charter flights between Johannesburg, Cape Town or other airports and the various safari lodges. If you’re travelling to the Kruger National Park or Mpumalanga, there are scheduled flights to Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport outside Mbombela (Nelspruit).

You’ll probably fly directly into OR Tambo International Airport or the multi-award-winning Cape Town International Airport. Stay overnight at an airport or easy-to-reach hotel to get your mojo back. You don’t want to arrive in the bush for the safari of a lifetime grumpy and exhausted.

There are no hard and fast rules for spotting game – including lions. But if there is plenty of prey, lions spend almost all their time just sleeping or lazing about as their bellies are full and thus there’s no need to hunt.

Find them in deep shade or under trees. But don’t be fooled – they are conserving energy for the hunt, which often begins in the late afternoon when they wake up, yawn, stretch and sometimes call to one another; and then, as they get to their feet, fierce concentration takes hold as they set off in search of prey.

You’ll see them almost everywhere in the parks and reserves, particularly at dams and rivers where they go to drink. Elephants drink daily – they consume up to 160 litres of water each day. And remember: if you meet them on a park road, elephants have right of way.

You may come across a lone buffalo or a whole herd at any time, but as buffalos need to drink daily, you’ll often see them at water sources in the early morning or late evening. If you’re at a floodlit waterhole, you may see them at night.

Old Africa hands say that ‘you never know what’s round the next corner’. That’s true of all game. You could round a corner in the Kruger National Park and find a rhino fast asleep snoring under a tree, or a ‘crash’ of rhinos browsing beside the road or at a dam. Keep your ears and eyes open at all times.

Although you may spot one at any time, evenings and nights are the best times for finding a leopard because they are primarily nocturnal animals. A night drive at a private game reserve in Sabi Sand should produce a leopard. In the Kruger, or in any of the Big Five national parks, go on a sunset or night guided drive to increase your chances of seeing one.

This is not an exhaustive list of where to see these animals – rather, it is a suggested list. You will be able to see these animals at any Big Five reserve.

Although you may encounter lions anywhere in the park, the area around Satara Rest Camp is considered to be one of the best for spotting lions. The sweet grass in the area attracts hundreds of plains animals, which in turn, attract predators. The Nwanetsi River road (S100) and the Satara-Nwanetsi road (H6) are top lion-spotting drives.

This malaria-free reserve in North West province has a good population of lions. Plus, this is possibly your best opportunity of seeing elusive wild dogs – Africa’s ‘painted wolves’.

This lovely park in KwaZulu-Natal is one of South Africa’s oldest and most famous. The Big Five are all here, and you stand a very good chance of seeing lions. Go for a guided game drive – rangers often know where the best sightings are.

This is the place to find the legendary black-maned Kalahari lions. You won’t find elephant or rhino here, but if lions and cheetahs are on your wish list, fly to Upington in the Northern Cape, pick up a rental van or SUV, and drive yourself to one of the most remote and starkly beautiful of all South Africa’s national parks.

This prestigious private reserve has won many awards for its conservation efforts. You’ll not only see lions, but almost certainly cheetahs as well.

This award-winning private reserve is a conservation triumph. Spot lions from a game vehicle or do an escorted walking tour in the wilderness area.

Although the Western Cape can’t deliver wildlife on the same scale as the famous Mpumalanga parks and lodges, you’ve a good chance of seeing resident lion prides.

You’ll find elephants throughout the park (look along rivers and at dams), but the further north you go, the bigger the herds. Olifants Rest Camp has arguably the best site in the park – built on top of a rocky ridge with fabulous views of the Olifants River below, where elephants bathe and drink in a passing show. Letaba Rest Camp, even further north, sits plumb in the middle of elephant country.

The third-largest national park in South Africa, Addo Elephant National Park in the Eastern Cape, as its name implies, is a great place to see elephants. Whether you go for a day trip, stay overnight, take a guided game drive or drive yourself, you’re bound to encounter some of the 600 or more free-roaming elephants.

Because there are no boundaries or fences between the Kruger National Park and Sabi Sand Reserve next door, expect to encounter elephants galore.

You’ll certainly see elephants in this award-winning conservation reserve, and probably the rest of the Big Five as well.

Although you won’t find the massive herds that the Kruger National Park is home to, you’ll certainly encounter elephants of all shapes and sizes.

Although Gondwana hosts only a couple of small breeding herds of elephants as well as a herd of bulls, your chances of spotting them are very high.

You can find buffalo all over the park, but there are always big herds around Satara Rest Camp in the middle of the park, and further north around the Olifants, Letaba and Shingwedzi rest camps. Look for them in thickets beside rivers, or drinking at dams.

The Big Five are all here, and you stand a very good chance of seeing buffalo. Go for a guided game drive – rangers often know where the best sightings are.

Famous for its herds of free-roaming elephants, Addo also has buffalo herds. In winter, when it is very dry, you can sometimes spot an approaching herd by a rising cloud of dust.

Buffalos are present year round in this malaria-free reserve, but in winter, when the vegetation is low and dry, watch out for clouds of dust signalling the approach of a big herd to a waterhole.

As well as watching out for the Cape buffalo, recognised as possibly the most dangerous animal to encounter on foot, pay a visit to the on-site Born Free Foundation Big Cat Rescue Centre and the Shamwari Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre.

Rhinos – both black and white – can be found all over the park, but you will be much more likely to see white than black. Rhino middens – big piles of rhino dung – alongside roads are indicators that you are in rhino territory. If you are driving yourself and encounter a rhino near or by the road, always give it right of way and keep your engine running in case you are charged.

Situated in the Waterberg in Limpopo province, this scenically beautiful national park is home to all the Big Five. Although game is not always easy to spot because of the dense vegetation, you should see white rhino, and possibly black rhino.

South Africa leads the world in rhino conservation. It was here, in this famous KwaZulu-Natal national park, that white rhino conservation had its beginnings in the 1950s and 1960s when the endeavours of conservationists such as Dr Ian Player brought the white rhino back from the brink of extinction. You’ll certainly encounter white rhino, and possibly its shorter, stockier and more dangerous counterpart – the black rhino.

This game reserve in North West province, bordering Sun City, is famous for its very visible rhino population. You’ll certainly spot white rhino, and if you’re very lucky, black rhino. Remember that the white rhino calf runs in front of its mother, the black calf, behind.

Madikwe is home to both white and black rhino. Your chances of spotting them on a morning or evening game drive are very high.

This award-winning lodge is home to the Big Five, including black and white rhino.

Leopards are present throughout the park, but one of your best chances of seeing a leopard is in the south of the park, in and around the Lower Sabie and Skukuza rest camps. The H42 tarred road between Lower Sabie and Crocodile Bridge is reputed to be one of the best game drives in the park, with a good chance of seeing a leopard; as are all the main roads and dirt roads around Skukuza. Look up at overhanging branches of big riverine trees, and along riverbanks. Book a sunset or night drive at any of Kruger’s rest camps to increase your chances of spotting a leopard.

Sabi Sand has the highest density of leopards in the world, and if you are staying at any of its private lodges (no day visitors are allowed) you are almost guaranteed to see a leopard. Londolozi and MalaMala are world famous for their leopard sightings.

Leopards are highly elusive nocturnal animals, but if you choose to go on a guided sunset or night drive, your chances of seeing one will increase substantially.

Leopards are notoriously elusive and difficult to spot, but if one stashes its prey in a tree, which often happens, your chance of a sighting is good.

Shamwari has its share of these elusive, nocturnal cats, and your ranger will make every effort to find you one if it’s high on your wish list.

Although this national park is famous for its huge, legendary black-maned lions, it’s also home to leopard and cheetah, but not elephants or rhino.

The ant lion is a very small insect with a big body, small head and big jaws that digs a funnel-shaped ‘trap’ in the earth, and then waits for its prey – usually ants – to happen along. Ask your ranger to point out an ant-lion trap in the sand or dry earth.
Although this hopping, rat-sized rodent, so-called because of its long trunk-like nose, is found all over southern Africa, it’s a very shy creature and not often spotted.

This noisy black-and-white bird with a repertoire of cheerful calls builds untidy communal nests of sticks and twigs with several entrances, always on the west side of trees.

Photo courtesy Greg Tee/Creative Commons
This 5cm- to 6cm-long armour-clad beetle of the scarab family has a large horn that it uses for fighting and foraging for food. In proportion to its size, it’s believed to be one of the strongest animals in the bush.
You may well see one of these attractive little tortoises with its leopard-like markings on the road as you are driving along.

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We hope to see you in South Africa soon.