• Evelyn Nakazi

'Big 5' Hotspots for an Adventurous Safari

Updated: Dec 14, 2021

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' is 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

Ngorongoro Crater

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.

Kruger National Park – South Africa

Kruger lions

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', lions, buffalo, and elephants 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 that 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.

Sabi Sand Game Reserve – South Africa

Sabi Sand

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.

Mana Pools National Park – Zimbabwe

Mana Pools

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 elephants 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.

Maasai Mara National Reserve – Kenya

Maasai Mara

The Maasai 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 Maasai 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 Maasai 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.

Murchison Falls National Park – Uganda

Murchison Falls

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 elephants 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.

Phinda Game Reserve – South Africa

Phida Game Reserve

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.