Africa Vacations – The African Big 5 in 24 Hours

Africa has a magical presence about it that captivates the mind and soul. Many people here in this beautiful country always say, once Africa get’s into your soul, it will never leave.

I was born and grew up in South Africa, and my love for the bush and the great Southern African outdoors developed from an early age. My mother used to always take us up to the Kruger Park, where some of my best childhood memories where created. When you are 6 years old, and you see a herd of 300 elephants walking through and African plain, actually feeling the floor vibrate as they walk past you, it infuses you with a sense of awe and complete amazement.

My respect for nature and focus on trying to experience the bush at every given opportunity got stronger and stronger and stronger. Can anything be more satisfying than spending a evening around a campfire with friends and family, while hearing the laugh of hyenas and the unmistakable roar of a lion echo through the night, in a place where you as a human are fenced in by an electric fence for your own protection, and knowing that around your little intimate African camp, there is nothing but miles and miles of untouched bush and wilderness, with all the amazing animals roaming completely free.

The Kruger Park is to me one of the best places in the world. Over 300 kilometers long and over 100 kilometers wide at it broadest part, it is a true piece of heaven on earth. It is comparable in size to a number of countries in Europe! Here, man is the one who needs protection and nature has free reign.

Just over a month ago, my wife and myself where invited to a friend’s wedding, at a fantastic game lodge, just outside Nelspruit, about 40 kilometers from the southern Kruger Park border.

This was a great weekend, as we and all our friends where invited, to spend the weekend here. Being this close to Kruger, I thought we had to take the opportunity to at least spend some time in the park.

On the Sunday morning, we left the wedding venue very early (around 06h00am), with a plan to head to one of the Southern Kruger Park gates, (Numbi Gate).

After a quick coffee and aspirin (to alleviate the headache from the festivities the night before ) we headed off. Driving through the province of Mpumalanga (the province that the southern part of Kruger Park is based ) is always a beautiful experience in itself. Hills with African villages dotted across them, and friendly people smiling and waving at you from the side of the road.

As we got closer to the Kruger Park boundary, and the Numbi Gate, I got this feeling of excitement, knowing we were just about to cross into one of the last untouched wilderness reserves.

Kruger has a number of gates along its perimeter fence, and I have a special memory of the Numbi Gate…

When I was about 7 years old, my mother and my aunt, who had come over from Germany for a visit, took me to the Kruger. We spent about 5-6 days in the park, staying in various camps in the southern region. As we got to the last day, after a fantastic time, and seeing so many different animals and such great experiences, we really hoped we could still see a Cheetah, the fastest animal alive, a beautiful sleek cat, which is in the endangered list.

As we drove to the gate that morning, preparing to leave the park, yes, you will not believe it, a Cheetah walked out onto the road, about 300 meters from the Park exit! With such a rare sighting, one often finds a traffic jam of cars, with everyone wanting to catch a glimpse of this magnificent creature, yet we were completely alone. The cheetah slowly walked across the road, we could see its belly was full as it has obviously just completed a hunt, looked at us for a while, and wandered off into the bush. Within a minute, it was gone.

One of the rarest animals in Africa gave us an experience for a minute that is unforgettable. If we would have driven past that spot only 30 seconds or so later or earlier we would have missed it. This is the beauty of such an experience in this part of the world… you just never know what you might see, as here; nature is in charge, not man.

So as me and my lovely wife got the Numbi gate, we paid our day visitor fee, got our map and crossed over into the Kruger National Park. It’s not just about the animals you see and plan to see, it’s the beauty of the landscape, the varying topographies and vegetation types, the clean air, the African sun and the feeling that you have entered a domain that has remain untouched for thousands of years, that makes this so fulfilling.

We headed towards the Pretoriuskop rest camp; about 24 kilometers from the gate, where we planned to have breakfast. As the Kruger Park is generally fully booked, I only planned for us to do a day trip, and then head out of the park.

On the way to Pretoriuskop, we saw the usual common and beautiful animals one does, impala, a few Kudu’s, giraffe and some hippo at a waterhole close to the camp.

Off course when one goes on an African safari, people generally want to see The Big 5. Lion,Leopard,Elephant,Rhino and buffalo. These are the “big” tourist drivers across Africa. They represent everything the African bush is about, grace,beauty,danger and a feeling of something ancient, a feeling of “how the world used to be” To see the big 5 is no easy feat, generally, if you are lucky, you will come across elephant, they are fairly common, especially in the southern and central regions of the park. Buffalo, is slightly more difficult, although with a bit of patience you will find them. Rhino are fairly widespread. Out of the 2 species, white and black rhino, you have a fairly good chance of seeing the more common white rhino.

There are about 2000 lions in the Kruger Park, these are slightly more difficult to find. They live in prides and are mostly nocturnal. The most difficult is the elusive leopard.

Leopards are by far the most successful African cat species. They are highly adaptable, secretive and are able to avoid man through their elusive nature. These amazing predators are very common throughout southern Africa, and are not just confined to reserves and parks. They are extremely agile, and a perimeter fence is not obstacle them. There are an estimated 900 leopards across the Kruger range.

As I mentioned, to see the big 5 is not easy, to see the big 5 in one safari trip…. Is very lucky. To see the big 5 in 24 hours? Very rare and special.

As we arrived at the Pretoriuskop camp, we had some breakfast, and I thought I would speak to reception to see if there is not perhaps a cancellation at this camp or any other one’s across the southern region, which would allow us to spend 1 night in the park. This was a long shot, but I tried. As unbelievable as it might sound, the lady at reception found an open chalet for us at the Berg and Dal Camp, about 50 kilometers south from where we were. Without hesitation I booked it, and ran back to my wife, filled with excitement, and told her about our luck! At first she was hesitant, thinking we should rather head back later, but I convinced her (for which she is still grateful).

We drove off to the camp, and spent a lovely afternoon driving through the hill covered bush region of the south. This is the far south of the Kruger, and the Berg and Dal camp is nestled right in the middle of a valley, surrounded by hills all around.

As we got to the camp, we checked in and decided to get a bite to eat at the cafeteria, which overlooks the waterhole. While having a glass of wine and a hamburger, we watched as elephants where drinking at the waterhole, heard the sound of a nearby fish eagle and where entertained by the vervet monkeys who were being their silly self around the restaurant area.

Vervet monkeys might be small and cute, but they are clever little guys as well, and know little fear. As my wife turned her head to watch the elephants, one of the monkeys boldly walked over and stole the top part of her hamburger from the table! Very unexpected but funny….. but hey… this is Africa!

Kruger offers night drives; these are truly amazing experiences, as you drive out into the African night with two experienced game rangers, who try to spot some of the more elusive nocturnal animals. If ever you get a chance to do this, I cannot recommend this more highly, is it absolutely magical.

I got us 2 seats booked on the night drive, departing the camp at 17h30pm, just as the sun sets.

We got our warm clothing, as the African night can be quite cold, a flask with some red wine J and headed off to meet our rangers. At the pickup point, we met the fellow “night drivers “who would be joining us.. they where a group of Spanish tourists who did not understand the fact that one need have to talk all the time. And when you are on a safari, it is advisable to keep just a little quiet, to ensure animals in the bush do not get scared away.

The red tinge of an African sunset was still visible on the western horizon, and we headed out into the dark night of the bush..not in our wildest dream, could we have imagined what this night would be like…

The ranger and spotter where fantastic, during a night drive, you look for the reflections of the animals eyes, when the spotlight passes over them. And off course you always keep an eye out for the elusive green eyes, as only a leopard has green eyes.

As we left the camp, we can across some bare trees, where the ranger spotted some marabou storks sitting high up in the branches; they spend most of the night there, to stay out of range of roaming predators. As the ranger explained all the detail of these scavenger birds, I heard the unmistakable sound of a lion roar in the distance. Everybody froze immediately to listen, and the roaring continued. A pride of lions was on the move, and by the direction of the sound, the ranger was able to pinpoint in which direction they were moving to.

A male lion’s roar can be heard up to 10 kilometers away during the night, and the sound simply epitomizes the African experience. I can assure you, once you have heard this sound in the bush, nothing will ever compare to it.

We immediately started heading towards the direction of the roar, which had stopped by this point. You need to remember that we were driving on back dirt roads, only accessible by 4×4 and only allowed to be transverse by rangers. Therefore travelling anywhere at night, in this extreme remote region, will not happen fast.

As we headed towards the tar road where the sound came from, our Spanish friends continued to entertain us with their explanation of everything and anything, but all in all, we got along and all kept our eyes on the horizon, where the spotlight beam was panning, keeping our eyes peeled for any type of eye reflection.

We continued driving towards the Crocodile Bridge gate, on the southern point of the Kruger Park, where the Crocodile River formed the southern boundary of this vast African wilderness.

Then, it started! On the tar road, about 100 meters ahead, we saw a female lioness walking out on the road. Excitement and awe overcame the vehicle. As the land rover inched closed, another female appeared on the road, both fairly young lionesses, about 3 years old. Bear in mind though, that a lion reaches its peak when they are about 4. Then came the “big boy’, a young fit and strong male with fully grown man appeared of the night covered bush, into the spotlight. He and the 2 females where on the move, this looked like they were preparing to hunt!

The ranger explained that this group of lions was part of a bigger pride that was dominant in this southern area of the park. As they walked towards the car, the lionesses laid on the road, making suggestive “cat gestures” to the male, suggesting that they where perhaps in heat. They got up again and started walking, when all of a sudden; one of the female’s got agitated with the males advances and launched an impressive roar and tooth flinch at him. This antagonized the male and he returned the gesture.

Let me just explain, that if you have the incredible luck to experience this sound close up and live, you will understand why it is so powerful and impressive. The sound literally stopped everything; everyone was unable to say anything, as the roar penetrated everywhere, seemingly shaking the air around us. Absolutely incredible…

We spent a good 30 minutes with these three lions, who where entertaining us on the road. The ranger suggested that we move on, down to Crocodile Bridge, to see if we can spot some hippos and crocodiles. We reluctantly agreed, as we wanting to see the lion spectacle for a while longer, but as the ranger said, they would still be on the road on the way back, as lions often tended to walk on the roads at night, making use of the easier terrain, and because the road is still warm from the hot African sun during the day.

We drove off towards crocodile bride, this is one of the gates in the Kruger at the very most southern point, and as mentioned before, the river forms the southern boundary of the park.

This particular gate is effectively already in the park, so there is no actual fence, other than the gate and ranger control point to drive through. One would only exit the park once crossing the bridge and passing through the perimeter fence and gate.

As we drove towards the inner gate, we were all still buzzing from the lion encounter; never in my wildest dream would I have expected what happened next…

Just as we drove past the ranger house and the gate, my wife shouted”Leopard!”. For the first 30 seconds, the ranger kept on driving, and we all thought she was joking, she got quite agitated with us ( rightfully so!) and insisted there was a leopard lying in the flower bed of the ranger house at the gate!

This off course sounded unreal at the best of times! At her insistence, the ranger stopped, and slowly reversed, and there she was; A young +- 3 year old leopard, lying in the flower bed, about 3 meters from the vehicle!

People track leopard for days in thick deep bush to try and catch a glimpse, and here we find a leopard on the park boundary in flowerbed of the gate/ranger house! Incredible!

There was complete silence in the vehicle, even the ranger rubbed his eyes, wondering if it was real… or wondering why he had missed this magnificent creature.

The leopard got up and walked to the entrance road of the gate and lay down again.. we slowly followed, watching the fantastic spectacle. About 100 meters away, towards the bridge, a hare was running across the road, the leopard immediately went into stalking mode, and slowly crouched towards the hare. Another car came towards us though and distracted the leopard; it was one of the park employees, who had just entered. One of our Spanish tourists had some unfriendly words for him, for distracting this potential leopard hunt!

The leopard moved around and laid back in the grass. We stayed a bit longer and then drove on to the bridge, about 200 meters away, where we would turn around. Off course we were hoping that she would still be there when we backtracked. As we turned on the bridge, our spotlight illuminated the massive Crocodile River below and its bank, filled with Hippo and crocodiles, lying in the water and on the bank. One could clearly see the red reptile eyes reflecting from the river surface, as the spotlight panned over the area.

Suddenly, we saw a group fish jumping, and a large crocodile leap out of the water! Wow, another amazing sighting. Nile crocodiles, depend on ambush techniques, and will lunge at any prey opportunity.

At this point, we simply could not believe our luck. Ad we drove back through the gate, we stopped again for the leopard, which had now lain down further in the grass.

What a night!

As me and my lovely wife had a few sips of red wine, enjoying the site of this highly elusive predator, we slowly started driving back.

On the road back to the camp, we encountered the same group of lions, walking down the road in single file, about 50 meters apart each. Then as we drove forward, we saw a strange site in the middle of the road, and where not able to make out what it was at first… We could see it was some type of small animal. Then it became clear, it was an African porcupine, walking amongst the lions, with not a care in the world.

Lions are known to feed on porcupines at times, but tend to avoid if possible, due the sharp quills.

The porcupine slowly wandered of the road and disappeared into the thick bush.

We spent a little time with the lions, and then headed back to camp.

What an incredible night drive, I have been on a number of drives, but never had an experience like that.

As we got back, we settled in the bar area, overlooking the waterhole, and savored the incredible evening with a lovely glass of red wine, while listening to all the noises of the African night.

The next morning, after a hearty breakfast, we headed out of camp and started driving towards crocodile bridge gate, where we would exit the park and head back home. We where exited, yet sad that we only had such a short time to spend in the beautiful place.

As we left the camp, we saw a row of cars standing by the side of the road that generally means something has been spotted. As we looked, we saw the male lion from the night before, lying; fast asleep under a bush about 30 meters in from the road. He must have been exhausted after entertaining us the night before.

About 2 kilometers further, we “bumped “into an elephant, a large male, probably about 40 years old, peacefully grazing on the side of the road. Male elephants are generally always alone once they reach about 10 years of age. Herds consist only of females and males younger than 10 years. After that, males are pushed out of the herd to become solitary bulls, or form bachelor herds. The only time they will interact with a herd, is when a female becomes pregnant, and a male is in musk… mating season.

Shortly after the elephant, we spotted a herd of buffalo, about 300 metres into the bush. They where quite well hidden amongst some thorn trees, but my wife’s keen eye spotted them. They did look quite skittish and nervous, not surprising with the group of lions in the area. Although a buffalo is a formidable animal, and quite dangerous, they are a favourite target of lions. A group lionesses can easily bring down a large male buffalo, a large male lion has the ability to bring down a buffalo on his own.

And there it was….. our big 5 complete, in less than 24 hours! And an amazing time had by all.

If one goes into the African bush, and appreciates all the magical experiences, from the atmosphere, the peace, the danger, the small and large creatures and everything else that comes with it, sometimes… one will be blessed with a big 5 experience like this one.

Marc, M M.
An avid traveller and resident of Southern Africa. A region of the world that is full of amazing destinations, with a wide variety of options for your Africa vacations.

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