When we started planning a January getaway just two short months ago, we knew we wanted to go back to South Africa.  We had already spent a week in Cape Town two years ago and we wanted more.  Maybe it was Planet Earth II.  Maybe it was because I just finished reading An African Love Story: Love, Life and Elephants.  But either way, the idea of going on safari popped into our heads.  It would be a first for both of us.  Everyone we knew who had been on a big 5 safari before all said, “Do it!”  It would be the trip of a lifetime, the chance to see the big 5 on safari and more, so we went for it.

And we couldn’t be happier.

In order to keep the loading time of this page low, only a few of the photos have been included.  A complete album can be found on our Facebook page, The Smalls Abroad.  Plus, stay tuned for more posts about about all the other animals we saw, where we stayed and advice if you are considering going on safari.

What is a “Big 5 Safari”?

The term for the big five originally came from hunters who identified the 5 African animals considered to be the most dangerous and most elusive to hunt.  Of course, instead of guns, we were hunting the big 5 with our cameras: Lion, Elephant, Rhino, Buffalo and Leopard.  During our four-night stay at Makanyane Game Lodge in the Madikwe Game Reserve, we were lucky to see all big 5 two or more times.

Lions: The Kings of the Jungle

Makanyane Game Lodge had a pride of lions that hung around their private lands within Madikwe Reserve.  The pride consisted of two lioness mothers and their four cubs.  We generally saw them about once a day and sometimes twice, on each game drive.  We’d check in to see if they had eaten.  Our guide said it’d been days since they had a good meal.

When we first caught up to them, we saw them chowing down on a baby wildebeest.  The cracking of bones. The low growls.  The lions shared happily.  But then came the two males who had been hanging around, and were unwanted.  They charged in scattering the mothers and their cubs, the younger feisty male stole the carcass and went off under a tree to finish it off.  We saw the whole fight.  Our guide gave them their space to fight it out.  It was our first unforgettable safari experience and we were the only ones there to see it.

A few days later we were looking for them as they had moved from their most recent spot.  In the distance we saw a springbok and an impala looking in fear toward the hillside.  They took off up the hills.  They were getting away from something.  And just as we were about to turn around and continue our drive in search for another big 5 animal, one of the lionesses came out through the bushes.  Followed by her sister and the cubs.  Then the males.  It looked like they were all one big happy family.  Bones poking through their sagging skin, they still hadn’t eaten a good meal.  We quietly drove along with them as they crossed the plains, stopping for water and some playtime.

We also found more lions, a mother/son duo.  That lioness is thought to be the grandmother of the cubs we were following.  And her son should have been out on his own by now as he was an adult.  However, our guide suspected they helped each other hunt and kept each other company.  They had obviously eaten recently when we saw them taking a catnap under the trees.  The male was flat on his back, paws up in the air, probably dreaming of a kudu dinner.  They weren’t bothered by us in the slightest.  It was incredible to see these Kings of Jungle up close just a few meters from our vehicle.

African Elephants: The grey giants

The quiet giants were everywhere.  We even saw them from our lodge.  They traveled in herds but we also came across some loners.  The babies were the cutest.  They were constantly grazing, taking down shrubs and stomping effortlessly through the park.  Red mud covered their grey skin.  There was never any traffic on the reserve’s roads but when elephants were crossing, we’d have to stop and wait.  Our guide was careful to keep our distance.  If something were to frighten or threaten them, we’d be no match if they charged at the vehicle.  And when they weren’t eating, drinking or cooling off with a shower, some were mating.  We had the pleasure of seeing it.

White Rhinoceros: Our modern day dinosaur

Both white and black rhinos exist in Madikwe but in our time there, we only saw a small ‘crash’ of white rhinos.  And in reality they aren’t white, both species are grey.  The name comes from the Dutch “widj” which means ‘wide’ and refers to the shape of their mouth.  They were the most skittish of the big 5.  As we approached to watch them eat, they would turn their back to us and move away.  That was a good thing because you wouldn’t want to be charged by one of them.

Cape Buffalo:  The bad-tempered bush cow

We were nearing the end of our safari without a buffalo sighting.  And frankly we were keen to see more of the big cats anyway.  But a call on the radio from another park guide, and we were off to see the herd.  They crossed the street, and grazed.  At first we saw a few, but then seemingly out of nowhere the entire herd appeared.  They just watched us with cautious curiosity.  The one grazing by the side of the road didn’t care for us at all.  And then some exhibitionist among the bushes, put on another mating show for us.

Leopard: The Elusive Beauty

I’ve saved the best for last.  We didn’t have any expectations going into our safari and we were happy to see any animal we could.  But once we heard there was the possibility of seeing the elusive leopard, we couldn’t contain our excitement.   Our guide drove us to the other side of the park, about 1.5 hr drive in the hopes of seeing the leopard.  The guides in the park work together and communicate the  whereabouts of the animals they see.  Once the leopard (and other sensitive animals) are found, they take turns approaching them for the sighting.  In the case of the leopard, only two vehicles were allowed.  When we got into the vicinity, we waited at a distance on standby until a spot opened up and we were called in.

Our first sighting of the leopard, didn’t hold much promise.  He was perfectly camouflaged within the tall grass.  How the first guide or tracker was even able to spot him speaks to the immense knowledge and know-how that they have.  We sat and waited, hoping the leopard would do something.  And for the hundredth time on our safari, luck was on our side as we saw him get up and move to another spot.

We were were pretty happy with our one sighting when two days later, a call on the radio came through.  Another leopard, a young female was spotted.  The guide said she is super chill cat who always seems to give safari-goers incredible sightings.  We were able to approach quite close and she was undisturbed.  Her prey slung half eaten in a tree nearby.  My only wish is that we could have seen her eating up in the tree.  But after all the sightings we’d had, we really had no reason to complain or wish for more.

There is more on the way…

We followed a pack of wild dogs and saw a kill.  The highlight of our safari trip.  We also saw plenty of giraffes, impalas, zebras and more creatures of the African continent.  I’ll also go in depth into our stay at Makanyane Game Lodge and what to expect from a big 5 safari in a later post.

Hope you enjoyed the first installment and leave a comment below.  

Which big 5 animal would you most want to see in the wild?

And hey, thanks again for reading!  I’m linking up with #WanderfulWednesday with Lauren of Lauren on Location, Van of Snow in Tromso, Isabel of The Sunny Side of This and Marcella of What a Wonderful World. Go check out other great travel posts to fill you with inspiration.

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My name is Emilia - I love versatile trips! You might find me at a trendy new restaurant one night, but the next day you're just as likely to find me at a local market sampling exotic foods. I'm open to just about anything when I travel and I want to encourage you to be open too!