The Big Five. Le Grand Cinq. The cream of Africa’s wildlife crop: whilst the continent has a plethora of non-safari related activities, let’s not beat around the African bush – it’s the animals you’re coming to see! We’ve put together our top safari destinations to see the Big Five, so you can start planning your own wildlife adventure.
The term Big Five was originally coined by game hunters to denote the animals that were harder to hunt but these days, the only thing you’ll be pointing and shooting is a camera as you marvel at these majestic creatures.
The official Big Five are rhino (both black and white), leopard, lion, buffalo and elephant and there’s an abundance of places you can visit to observe these wonderful beasties in their natural habitat.
1. Kruger and the surrounding reserves
Kruger National Park is arguably South Africa’s most famous game reserve, covering an astonishing two million hectares. At this size, it’s unsurprising that you’re likely to spot every one of the Big Five, and with such a high density of animals, it’s one of the top safari destinations to see the Big Five if you only have a few days spare to get your wildlife kicks.
The private reserves adjacent to Kruger such as Sabi Sand and Timbavati are also incredibly popular. The former is particularly well-known for its fantastic leopard spotting, one of the most elusive animals in Africa, and has an unparalleled concentration of all the big cats.
There is a vast array of accommodation in Kruger and the surrounding reserves, offering everything from grand luxury to tented simplicity. Some of our favourites include Cheetah Plains, Londolozi Granite Suites and Umlani.
2. Ngorongoro Crater
You might have envisaged spotting the Big Five on Africa’s wide, open plains, but did you think you might spy them from within an ancient volcano…?
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Ngorongoro Crater is one of the most spectacular wildlife wonderlands on earth and was formed two to three million years ago when a large volcano exploded and collapsed in on itself. Today the crater is covered in lush vegetation attracting a plethora of magnificent animals, including enormous numbers of black rhino, landing itself as one of our top safari destinations to see the Big Five.
You’ll also spot some interesting variations on the usual Big Five; think black maned lion and elephant with tusks bigger than you can imagine. This green gem is a dream to stay in and two of our favourite lodges are the space-age Highlands Camp and the beautiful Gibb’s Farm.
3. Mana Pools
Another magnificent spot for water-based game viewing (and another UNESCO World Heritage Site – the first in Zimbabwe no less), Mana Pools should be near the top of your ‘must book’ list for safari destinations to see the Big Five.
Hop in a canoe and watch elephant cross the mighty Zambezi just metres in front of where you float, or choose a more sedate boat cruise and spot lions skulking around the banks looking for prey. To truly discover the wildest corners of Mana Pool, enlist the services of wildlife guide extraordinaire, John Stevens, who will lead you in a combination of mobile camping and walking forcing you to really get back to nature.
For those looking for a more luxurious stay, try Little Ruckomechi Camp, set right on the banks of the mighty Zambezi River overlooking the Great Rift Mountains.
4. Okavango Delta
A maze of lagoons that lies in the heart of the Kalahari Desert, the Okavango Delta almost defies belief. This wildlife paradise is also unique from most others in the number of ways it can be explored, from intrepid walking safaris to traditional game drives and even from the water in a traditional mokoro or dugout canoe.
However you travel in the Delta, you’re guaranteed to spot some spectacular wildlife. You might struggle to tick rhino from your Big Five list (although they do exist!), but the other members of the group are all present and correct, with buffalo and leopard particularly common.
Botswana isn’t short of remarkable accommodation and you’ll be spoilt for choice when it comes to adding lodges to your route. We love Mapula Lodge not only for its day-time predator spotting but also its unusual nocturnal beasties; porcupine, honey badger, aardvark, aardwolf and bush babies to name a few!
5. Masai Mara
Probably the most famous game reserve in Africa, the Masai Mara needs little introduction. The reserves offers some of the best game-viewing on the continent and you’ll encounter elephant, buffalo, hippo, crocodile and giraffe on almost every game drive. The wildlife-rich area is also in no short supply of big cats, boasting leopard, cheetah and more lion than you’ll know what to do with! With all these oversized felines, it’s no surprise that BBC chose to film its Big Cat Diary series here.
Really, the Big Five are just a drop in the wildlife ocean of what you can expect to spot in the Mara. The seasonal Great Wildebeest Migration sweeps through each year, bringing more than two million wildebeest, topi, gazelle and zebra to the plains.
For unmatched luxury, we love Mara Plains Camp, so highly regarded it’s been added to National Geographic’s list of Unique Lodges of the World. If you’re looking to escape the crowds (the Mara is a very popular destination after all) Porini Cheetah Camp in the nearby Ol Kinyei Conservancy could be perfect!
6. South Luangwa
A bit of a wild card in a round-up of safari destinations to see the Big Five as this national park doesn’t have any rhino, but it does have something else up its sleeve that might be of interest…
One of the most spectacular wilderness areas in the whole of Southern Africa, the South Luangwa teems with game, and there are big cats aplenty. As well as lion, you can expect to see many other felines and the park is especially famous for leopard sighting, earning it the nickname “The Valley of the Leopard.” As well as cats, there’s a huge number of elephant and buffalo to spot, not to mention crocodile, hippo, zebra… Tempted yet?
You’d be hard-pressed to find an experience as magical as fly-camping in the South Luangwa – and this isn’t camping as you might imagine. Expect a full bar ready for sundowners, dinners of beef fillet and pork chops cooked over the fire, and a full English breakfast in the morning! Check out Return to the Wild for details and add it straight into your route…