Spotting the Big Five
While a certain amount of good luck is involved in game spotting, knowing the various animals’ habitats and habits greatly improves your chances of seeing the Big Five. Early morning, late afternoon and evening are when most of the action happens, which means that when the animals rest during themiddle of the day, so can you.
Lion – Daytime Hunter
Hunting either in prides or individually, lions favour prey of wildebeest, buffalo, zebra, giraffe and warthogs. It’s the lionesses that initiate hunts and usually make the kills, often in the early morning or late afternoon. Lions live with their prey on open grasslands, though tree-climbing lions have also been documented.
The Kruger National Park is iconic lion country and prides occur throughout the park. However, south of the Olifants River, between Orpen and Satara camps, the eastern grasslands near Tshokwane and the mixed woodlands around Skukuza, Lower Sabie, and Crocodile Bridge camps are all excellent for lion spotting. The Waterberg in Limpopo, Pilanesberg National Park in North West Province and Addo Elephant National Park in the Eastern Cape are also superb for lion viewing – and these areas are malaria free too.
In KwaZulu-Natal head directly for Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, and for black-maned lions the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in the Northern Cape won’t disappoint.
Leopard – Night Prowler
Active at night, leopards are usually spotted in the early morning or late afternoon. They favour areas of dense riverine bush or forest and love mountainous areas or rocky outcrops. Solitary animals, leopards eat impala, baboons, fish, reptiles and even insects.
While leopards occur naturally throughout South Africa, the Lowveld - especially the Sabi Sands and the Kruger National Park are prime leopard country. Still, these cats are notoriously difficult to spot and could be just metres away from you, yet they remain invisible. In Kruger, between Skukuza and Tshokwane, Satara, Olifants, Letaba, Punda Maria and the banks of the Sabie River are good spots. Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is another excellent option, as is the Pilanesberg National Park.
There’s more luck in spotting a leopard than any other of the Big Five, so remember to scan trees and rocky outcrops too for this extremely elusive cat.
Buffalo – Herd Instinct
The Kruger National Park is home to thousands of buffalo living in large herds of up to 500 animals. They’re easy to spot, particularly near the Shingwedzi River, around Mopani, Letaba, Satara, Skukuza, Berg-en-Dal and Lower Sabie. Buffalo like the open grassy plains as they are chiefly grazers. However, when times are tough they can also browse off trees.
Addo Elephant National Park is another excellent venue for seeing herds of buffalo enjoying the coarse long grass of the Eastern Cape.
Elephant – Led by the Matriarch
The heavy weights of the animal kingdom, adult male elephants can weigh up to 5 750kg – and a body this size requires a lot of maintenance, especially if you’re vegetarian. Elephants live in herds led by a matriarch and they feed day and night on large quantities of grass, leaves, fruit, bark and roots.
The whole of Kruger National Park is elephant stomping ground and it’s believed the park has over 10 000 elephant. Shingwedzi, Mopani, Olifants and Letaba are particularly good areas to see elephant, as well as between Skukuza and Tshokwane.
However, it you want to be up close and personal with elephants there’s no better place in Africa than Addo Elephant National Park in the Eastern Cape – and the elephants here are far more relaxed than those in Kruger. Plus, elephant viewing is almost guaranteed. The Waterberg also has good elephant viewing, as does the Pilanesberg National Park. In KwaZulu-Natal head for Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, Ithala Game Reserve, Mkuze Game Reserve or Tembe Elephant Park, the only place with true Natal elephants.
Rhino – Brute Force
There are both black and white rhinos in Kruger National Park. White rhinos are bigger and have wide bottom lips for grazing; black rhinos look similar, but for their pointed bottom lips for browsing trees. Neither animal is black or white, but more grey, though the two types live in different habitats. White rhinos like flat, open plains with permanent water and live in family groups; black rhinos are scarcer, prefer thickets and are solitary.
In Kruger the south is best for rhinos. Head for Pretoriuskop, Berg-en-Dal, Crocodile Bridge and Lower Sabie – not forgetting Satara. The Waterberg also has lots of rhino; but the iconic rhino territory is KwaZulu-Natal – Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, the park that saved rhinos from extinction, for whites; and Mkuze Game Reserve where you will find the biggest black rhino population in the world. Ithala Game Reserve has both blacks and whites. Look out for dung middens to see if there are rhinos close by.
Spotting the Small Five
If you don’t spot a lion, look out for an ant lion digging a cone-shaped hole in the sand. Leopards are elusive, so look for a leopard tortoise instead. Buffalo only occur in certain areas, but buffalo weavers are plentiful. Elephants are the biggest mammal, and elephant shrews one of the smallest. Rhino beetles, quite obviously, have no resemblance to the ancient horned animals that are their namesake.
- For Kruger National Park and Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park visit www.sanparks.org
- Pilansberg National Park: www.pilansbergnationalpark.co.za
- Addo Elephant National Park: www.addoelephantpark.com
- For Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, Ithala Game Reserve and Mkuze Game Reserve go to www.kznwildlife.com
- Tembe Elephant Park: www.tembe.co.za
- The Waterberg: www.waterbergtourism.co.za
- The Lowveld: www.lowveldnet.co.za