Ariadne van Zandbergen
South Africa ZA

Ariadne is a renowned African wildlife photographer whose work is featured in many well-known guidebooks and magazines.

Categories: African Hotspots, Animals on Safari, The Big Five

Going on safari in Africa has become closely associated with seeing the Big 5. Have you ever wondered what that is all about and where you should go? The term ‘Big 5’ originated in the early days of game hunting. Lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino were the most dangerous animals to hunt and were therefore considered the most valuable trophies.

Today, with most visitors armed with cameras, the Big 5 are still perhaps the most exciting encounter on a safari. Here are some of the best places to see the Big 5 in Africa:

 

Ngorongoro Crater – Tanzania

Elephant together with a buffalo at Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

Ngorongoro Crater offers incredible wildlife viewing. Although animals can move in and out of the crater, climbing the steep caldera walls requires some effort, so much of the wildlife is resident inside. This includes a healthy population of black rhino. These shy creatures are rarely seen in East Africa, but the crater is one of the few places where they are easy to find. The other four members of the Big 5 are prolific as well, although leopard sightings are hit-and-miss, and less likely inside the crater than on the forested rim. The good news is that these elusive cats are quite common in the Seronera area of Serengeti National Park, the next stop after Ngorongoro on most northern Tanzanian safari itineraries.

  • When to visit Ngorongoro Crater: Wildlife viewing is always good in the crater, but marginally better in the Dry season when the grass is short and animals are easier to spot. The calving season of the wildebeest is from January to February and the best time to avoid the crowds is in the low season months, April and May.
  • Where to stay: Several upmarket lodges are perched on the crater rim offering great views over the crater floor. There is a campsite on the rim as well, but be warned, it gets very cold here at night. Several lodges and hotels in the gateway town of Karatu are also used for visits to the crater. There is no accommodation within the crater, itself.

2,262 Ngorongoro Crater Tours

 

Kruger National Park – South Africa

White Rhinos drinking at Kruger National Park, South Africa

Whether you’re on a guided tour or self-driving, Kruger National Park is a great choice for a Big 5 safari. The park is the size of a small country, and the wide variety of habitats it protects is reflected by the varied wildlife. Identifying all the different antelope species in Kruger can be an enjoyable challenge. In terms of the Big 5, lion, buffalo and elephant are easily found in southern Kruger, which is also one of the best places to see white rhino. With time on your hands and a bit of luck, you might spot a leopard too. Make sure to be out and about at dawn and dusk to increase your chances of seeing this shy cat which is active at night.

  • When to visit Kruger: Wildlife viewing in Kruger is best from May to September. These are the dry winter months when animals don’t stray far from waterholes and rivers. During the wet summer months, the bush gets very thick and animals are more difficult to spot.
  • Where to stay: Well-equipped, basic rest camps offering campsites and huts can be found throughout Kruger. Several private concessions within the park offer a luxurious and more exclusive alternative.

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Sabi Sand Game Reserve – South Africa

Leopard portrait at Sabi Sand Game Reserve, South Africa

Spotting the Big 5 doesn’t get easier than in Sabi Sand Game Reserve. This cluster of jointly-managed private reserves has open borders with Kruger and forms part of the same ecosystem, but animals tend to be more relaxed. Furthermore, unlike in Kruger, guided drives in open vehicles are permitted to head off-road, which makes for fantastic close-up viewing. The real star of Sabi Sand is the leopard. Nowhere else is this usually shy creature so habituated. Most guests are treated to sightings of leopards as they go about their daily routine: a male patrolling or hunting, a female nursing cubs, possibly even a mating pair in action.

  • When to visit Sabi Sand: There is no bad time to visit Sabi Sand, but wildlife viewing is best in the dry winter months from May to September.
  • Where to stay: There are many lodges spread over the different reserves of Sabi Sand. All offer a similar experience inclusive of meals and activities. The standard of décor, service and guiding is superb. There is no camping or budget accommodation in Sabi Sand.

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Mana Pools National Park – Zimbabwe

A canoe trip down the Zambezi River at Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe

Mana Pools, a World Heritage Site, is Zimbabwe’s most exciting national park for activities. It is prime territory for a Big 5 safari, and game drives are hugely rewarding. But what sets Mana Pools apart is the opportunity for genuine adventure via walking and canoeing safaris. Paddling on the Zambezi River is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Aside from gliding past huge crocodiles and hundreds of hippos, you’re likely to see elephant and buffalo coming to drink, possibly even a pride of lions. And if you think seeing these animals from a canoe will get the adrenaline going, imagine how you’ll feel approaching any of the Big 5 on foot!

  • When to visit Mana Pools: The best time for wildlife viewing is in the Dry season when animals stay close to the river and the bush is thin. The roads get very bad in the Wet season and part of the park might get closed off from December to March.
  • Where to stay: There are several small, exclusive camps in the park as well as basic campsites.

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Masai Mara National Reserve – Kenya

Lion pride with cubs resting at Masai Mara Game Reserve, Kenya

The Masai Mara is home to all of the Big 5 but is most famous for big cats. You’ll be tripping over lions and cheetahs as they are remarkably common, and leopards are regularly seen too. Black rhinos are also present, but unless you’re fortunate enough to stay in the remote Mara Triangle in the far west, your chances of seeing one are slim. However, Lake Nakuru National Park, a popular stop-over en route to the Masai Mara, is home to both black and white rhino. The latter is commonly seen in small family groups grazing around the lake.

  • When to visit Masai Mara: Wildlife viewing is good throughout the year. To catch the wildebeest migration, you should aim to be here between late August and early October.
  • Where to stay: There is no shortage of accommodation inside and just outside the reserve. All budgets and styles are catered for. There are several campsites as well.

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Phinda Game Reserve – South Africa

Cheetah with cubs at Phinda Game Reserve, South Africa

Phinda is one of South Africa’s top private Big 5 game reserves. You have a choice of four stunning accommodations spread out over the reserve’s different habitats: Rock, Mountain, Forest and Vlei (wetland) Lodge. The guiding is superb and you’ll easily see four of the Big 5 (lion, elephant, buffalo and white rhino) as well as some Zululand specials, such as the graceful nyala and the shy red duiker. Although there are plenty of leopards around, you’d be lucky to see one. As compensation, Phinda’s flagship species is the cheetah and sightings of this graceful big cat tend to be incredible.

  • When to visit Phinda: Phinda’s wildlife viewing is always great but animals are slightly easier to find in the Dry season from May to September.
  • Where to stay: There are four luxury lodges in Phinda.

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Akagera National Park – Rwanda

Buffalo at Akagera National Park, Rwanda

While Rwanda is well known for its mountain gorillas, it is also home to the Big 5 and many other savannah-dwelling animals. The place to go on a classic safari in Rwanda is Akagera National Park. Wildlife here was heavily depleted by warfare and poaching, but since 2010 it has made an impressive comeback. Following the reintroduction of black rhinos and lions in 2017, Akagera offers a truly off-the-beaten track opportunity to see the Big 5 in Africa.

  • When to visit Akagera: The Dry season, from June to September, is the best time to visit.
  • Where to stay: There is a luxury tented camp, a seasonal bush camp and a midrange lodge inside the park. There are also several campsites without facilities available to self-sufficient travelers.

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Murchison Falls National Park – Uganda

Hippos in the Victoria Nile below Murchison Falls, Uganda

Murchison Falls National Park is as much worth visiting for its spectacular scenery as for its wildlife. It is bisected by the Victoria Nile River. A boat trip to the base of the waterfall for which the park is named is not to be missed. The river is home to hundreds of hippos and crocodiles and, in the afternoon, you’re likely to see buffalo and elephant on the shore. Murchison Falls is not a complete Big 5 destination as rhino is missing, but many visitors stop in at Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary en route for an exciting rhino tracking experience.

  • When to visit Murchison Falls: December to February is best for general wildlife viewing but be prepared for hot weather at that time.
  • Where to stay: There is a good choice of upmarket and midrange lodges inside the park and budget accommodation is available just outside. There are several campsites too.

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Okavango Delta – Botswana

Mokoro trip over the Okavango delta, Botswana

The Okavango is one of Africa’s most iconic wildlife destinations. The delta is home to all of the Big 5, although rhino (both black and white) can be hard to find. Buffalo and elephant thrive in the wetlands, and you should see some big cats as well. The most productive activity for spotting typical safari animals, including the Big 5, is a game drive. But you should put aside time to do a guided walk and for exploring the delta’s channels by mokoro (traditional dugout canoe). Gliding silently through waterlilies, dodging the odd hippo and scanning the shore for animals coming to drink, is an experience that will stay with you long after your trip.

  • When to visit Okavango: The best time for wildlife viewing is from July to October.
  • Where to stay: There are dozens of luxury lodges in the Okavango. Camping is popular too.

224 Okavango Delta Tours

 

Majete Game Reserve – Malawi

Elephant herd at Majete Wildlife Reserve, Malawi

Majete Game Reserve is one of Africa’s modern environmental success stories. Prior to 2003, the park was almost completely hunted out. Since then, under the management of African Parks, nearly 5,000 individual animals, including all of the Big 5, have been reintroduced. Elephants have bred so successfully that a surplus of 200 individuals were relocated to Nkhotakota Game Reserve. Although sightings require a bit of patience, Majete offers a totally unspoiled experience, far away from the crowds. A ‘behind the scenes’ tour, offering insight into what it takes to run a Big 5 reserve, is recommended.

  • When to visit Majete: You can visit anytime, but July to October is best for wildlife viewing.
  • Where to stay: There are two midrange lodges to choose from (one inside and one just outside the game reserve). Top of the range is an exclusive luxury lodge which operates in its own private concession. Campers are taken care of in a well-equipped community campsite.

Majete Game Reserve Tours

 

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