Spotting the Big 5 in Kruger National Park!

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The Big Five - Kruger National Park

Yes, you read correctly! I just returned from my first African Safari experience and I was lucky enough to see the Big 5 in the wild of one of the most incredible national parks in the world, Kruger National Park. If you don’t know much about safaris, you’re probably asking yourself one or both of the following questions.

What the heck is the Big 5?

The Big Five was a phrase coined by big game hunters and it refers to the five most difficult animals to hunt on foot. The BIG FIVE consists of the following animals:

  • Lion
  • Leopard
  • African Elephant
  • Cape Buffalo
  • Rhinoceros

Is it really that hard to spot the Big 5 on a safari?

Well, according to our ranger, Brian, we are extremely fortunate to have been able to see ALL 5 of the Big Five on our safari. I also confirmed this on multiple occasions after telling people that I met along the way that I witnessed the Big Five in Kruger National Park and they all were completely awestruck. Some of the people I talked to had been on multiple safaris in the past and had never witnessed all five of the Big 5.

Our ranger Brian told us that the leopard is usually one of the hardest animals to spot because they are such elusive creatures. Supposedly there are people that have been cruising around Kruger on safaris for 10-20 years and still have yet to see a leopard in the wild.

The Game Drives

During our stay at Singita Lebombo, we were scheduled to go on four game drives. For those who are not familiar with the terminology, a game drive is another word for a safari here in South Africa. Of course, since us bloggers are rolling with South Africa Tourism, we had our own private vehicle for all four of our game drives.

Since it gets so hot during midday at Kruger, the animals usually get out from underneath the blistering sun and hide out in the shade for most of the afternoon. Our game drives were strategically scheduled in the early morning, and late evening in order to maximize our chances to spot the most amount of animals.

Our Ranger and Tracker

After meeting our ranger, Brian,  for the first time, we felt as if he was one of us. Each time we hit the road for a game drive we knew we were in the right hands.

Exon, Brian and I - Kruger National Park

Myself, Exon and Brian

Exon is a very well known tracker here in South Africa. Brian tells us that Exon is one of the best animal trackers in the country and possibly the entire continent of Africa. He was recently sent to a trackers conference in the U.S. to teach fellow trackers how to track mountain lions in dry climates. Exon showed off his tracking skills on numerous occasions throughout our trip and we got the opportunity to see a lot of animals we probably wouldn’t have if we hadn’t been cruising around with him. The guy is seriously that top notch.

Game Drive Highlights:

Since we took four game drives over the course of three days, I’m simply going to give you a game drive wrap up of sorts rather than explain each and every one. Here are some of the best game drive highlights of our trip.

Kruger National Park

Getting ready for our first game drive!

Although we were feeling a little tired from traveling, we were all running on pure adrenaline after landing in our chartered plane on Singita’s dirt airstrip in the middle of the bush. By the time we checked into Singita Lebombo and dropped our bags it was time for our first game drive of the trip. This was also the first ever safari I had ever been on so I was beyond excited.

Within the first ten minutes or so we came across some impala and zebra in the road ahead of us.

Zebra and Impala - Kruger National Park

During our drive, Brian gave us a whole lot of insight and facts about all the animals found in Kruger National Park. He also informed us about the rapidly growing problem of poaching of Rhino in Kruger.

White Rhino - Kruger National Park

Unfortunately, poachers have been increasingly targeting rhinos for their horns. As a matter of fact, approximately 55 rhino have been killed since Jan 1, 2012. That’s nearly one per day.

So why poach Rhino, you might ask?

Well, rhino horns are used widely as an aphrodisiac in the east. They are also used to treat breast cancer in Thailand. Because of this, the demand for the horns of Rhinos is sky high at the moment. Rhino horn has never been proven to cure cancer or work as an aphrodisiac although people in the East believes it does both.

Just how lucrative is the rhino horn business for poachers? 

Poachers receive about $65,000 USD per 2.2lbs of Rhino horn. The average weight of a Rhino horn is around 7.71 lbs. Do the math and you’ll realize that these poachers are pulling in over $200,000 USD.

The sad part about the whole rhino poaching situation is that they don’t need to be killed to have the horn removed but the poachers kill them anyways. It’s easier to kill them and then cut the horn off rather than tranquilize them and cut it off. They go in fast, and get out fast. All for the cash.

Note: Removing the horn from a rhino does not hurt them. The horn will actually grow back over time. The fact that the poachers kill the animals before chopping their horns just makes it that much more of an atrocity.

The government of South Africa is currently trying to figure out a solution to the poaching but it’s incredibly hard to police as Kruger National Park is about the same size as the state of New Jersey. That is one big national park!

Hippos, Rhinos and African Elephants

About an hour into our first game drive we came across some Hippos bathing in a pond,  some White Rhino and a herd of African Elephants grazing in the plains.

Hippopotamus

Hippopotamus - Kruger National Park

Hungry Hungry Hippos!

These hippos are too cool! It’s tough to catch these big guys out of the water on a hot day in Kruger. We never actually saw a hippo roaming around on land due to the heat and the times of day that we spotted them. Although, on our final game drive we got to see what Brian called a “hippo yawn”. Of course, it’s not a yawn, it’s actually the hippo saying “Hey you, don’t think I won’t use these giant teeth of mine to hurt you!”

Hippos - Kruger National Park

Yawn...

[box type="info"] Hippos can hold their breath for 5-7 minutes at a time. They also secrete their own version of sunscreen which gives their skin that pinkish color.[/box]

African Elephants (1 of Big 5)

Next up we spotted some African Elephants! As you know, I love elephants so it was really cool to see a herd of elephants grazing in a field just twenty five feet away from our truck.

African Elephants - Kruger National Park

African Elephant

African Elephants - Kruger National Park

Baby African Elephant

[box type="info"] Elephants can be right or left handed and they will favor one tusk or another.[/box]

White Rhino (2 of 5)

Seeing a White Rhino in the wild for the first time was really cool. I didn’t realize how humongous these guys were until I saw one up close and personal. Can you believe poachers kill these guys over a horn or two?

White Rhino - Kruger National Park

White Rhino

Leopard (3 of 5)

Hands down, the most incredible part of our first game drive was when our crew spotted a Leopard nick named Mangela up in a tree that hangs over a river bed.

Leopard - Kruger National Park

Brian pulled our jeep up as far as he could to the edge of the river bed so that we could get a closer look. Once we got close we realized that Mangela had just killed a baby waterbuck and dragged it up into the tree with him. It was time for a feast!

This photo of Mangela shown above is one of the only photos I was able to shoot of him that wasn’t extremely graphic. I won’t be showing you the graphic photos of Mangela tearing the face off of a waterbuck in this post but I will definitely be doing a follow up to this post with photos of Mangela chowing down so please be sure to stay tuned!

Morning Game Drive Day 2:

The morning game drives leave Singita Lebombo at around 6AM and usually last until 9:30-10AM depending on how good the game is that day.

Normally, I wouldn’t have any interest in getting up at 5AM to do much of anything but to wake up for a South African safari at 5AM is no problem. Once you step foot inside of the truck, you’re in one of those LET’S DO THIS type of moods and you instantly forget about being tired in the first place.

Cape Buffalo (4 of 5)

Exon spotted a whole bunch of Cape Buffalo in the brush ahead of us and insisted that we head their way. Brian took our jeep off road and brought us straight to the Buffalo.

Cape Buffalo - Kruger National Park

Curious Cape Buffalo

This photo was taken from about 20 ft away. These angry looking animals always seem to be so calm and relaxed even though they can be the exact opposite when necessary.

[box type="info"] A buffalo has four times the strength of an ox.[/box]

Lion (5 of 5)

The only reason we were able to see lions during our trip to Kruger was due to the insane tracking skills of Exon. Exon was sitting on the front of the vehicle scanning the ground ahead looking for lion paw prints. At one point he told Brian to stop the vehicle while he tried to follow the tracks of the lions into the bush.

Exon the animal tracker - Kruger National Park

Exon doing what he does best... track animals!

We spun off and left Exon there to do his dirty work and within 15 minutes he was on the radio calling for Brian to come back. Exon had found the pride of lions. Nine of them to be exact!

Lions - Kruger National Park

Licking his lips...

Lions - Kruger National Park

Relaxing in the high grass

According to Brian, the lions had eaten about 3 days prior so they were due to eat again within the next twenty four hours. The photo below shows one of the lions yawning although, it’s quite a scary yawn! When lions yawn repeatedly, it usually means that they are just about ready to wake up and start preparing to spend the evening hunting.

Lions - Kruger National Park

Scary looking yawn!

Later on in the evening we swung back by to see what the lions were up to and if they had started to wake up and prepare for their hunt. By the time we arrived a few of the lions were up and walking around.

Lions - Kruger National Park

Time to eat!

Once they gathered their pride they headed straight into the thick bush. Brian really wanted to follow them so that we could potentially see them hunt but they went in a direction where our vehicle just couldn’t go. We called it a night and everyone was more than satisfied with our day considering we had officially witnessed all of the Big Five in one day!

A Special Treat from Singita…

During our last evening game drive, the sun was just about to set when Brian mentioned we should stop off, grab some water and watch the sunset from this viewpoint that was just around the corner.

When we arrived we found a vista overlooking this giant plain and the mountains in the distance. We not only found the sunset, but we also found Lucky and a few of the staff members from our lodge awaiting us with a variety of appetizers, soft drinks, and even a celebratory glass of champagne to thank us for staying at Singita Lebombo.

Champagne Toast at Sunset - Kruger National Park

The last thing I thought I would experience out in the wilderness of Kruger National Park was some of our favorite staff members of Singita and this beautiful little spread of food and drinks. What a great way to cap off yet another unbelievable day at the Singita reserve.

To Brian and Exon, thank you. The time that I was able to spend with you guys on the game drives was something special and something that I’ll never forget. Keep up the good work, and I hope to ride along with you guys again in the future. – Ryan

[box type="info"] For more information on Singita Lebombo check out their website, Like them on Facebook, and follow them on Twitter.[/box]

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16 Comments

  1. Rob

    February 26, 2012 at 4:46 PM

    Awesome recap man, feels like I was really there – oh wait I was.

    That said, feels like I’m there all over again.

    • Ryan

      February 26, 2012 at 5:44 PM

      Thanks man. What an incredible tine we had. I’m going to love looking back on this post in a while from now just to refresh my memory…

  2. The Time-Crunched Traveler (Ellen)

    February 26, 2012 at 6:25 PM

    Wow, that really is impressive you were able to see ALL five! My husband grew up in South Africa and went on safaris in Kruger quite a bit — I know he’s seen all five, but not all at once! And, I think he was the only one in his family to spot the Leopard.

    • Ryan

      February 27, 2012 at 12:09 AM

      So I’ve heard! Yeah most people that see all of the Big 5 usually don’t see them in one day, that’s for sure. The leopard is definitely one of the hardest to spot but our guide/trackers were so good that he just couldn’t hide from us!

  3. Mohamed Hawary

    February 27, 2012 at 5:19 AM

    pausethemoment should be the best in the world of knowledge..Thank you Ryan

  4. Bryan @ BudgetYourTrip

    February 28, 2012 at 11:49 AM

    Wow, great photos. It’s really cool that you got to see so much, including the more rare animals. And that food at the end looks really good, too!

    • Ryan

      March 11, 2012 at 6:06 PM

      Thanks Bryan! It was such a great trip…

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  6. Tawny- Captain and Clark

    March 10, 2012 at 1:17 AM

    WOW!!! You got amazing shots of the leopard. We were fortunate enough to see the Big 5 while we were on safari through the Serengeti, but our leopard pictures sucked big time. He was so far up in a tree and we didn’t have the zoom lens we needed. Yours are definitely priceless.

    • Ryan

      March 11, 2012 at 6:03 PM

      Thanks Tawny. Having a zoom lens was key on the safari. I wouldn’t do another safari without a zoom. I was using a 55-250mm and it seemed to work perfectly for the situations that we were in.

  7. Deb

    July 26, 2012 at 4:13 PM

    The Leopard shots you got – incredible (your other post too)! Hopefully we’ll be so lucky to get some good shots and see all of the Big 5 when we’re at Kruger in September :)

  8. Jaimie

    August 9, 2012 at 10:02 AM

    Awesome Pictures! What time of year did you go? I’m looking to plan a trip to South Africa in February 2013 but was just reading online the best time to see the BIG 5 is June-September.
    Thanks!
    Jaimie

    • Ryan

      August 11, 2012 at 9:17 PM

      Hi Jaimie,

      I visited South Africa from Feb 16th through March 1st of this year. I’m not sure if there is a specific time frame to see the Big 5. I would say your more likely to see the Big 5 in certain parks more than anything. If you have any other questions, feel free to send them on over. Also, be sure to follow along with me on Facebook – http://www.facebook.com/pausethemoment

  9. Sammy Senwamadi

    August 11, 2013 at 3:38 AM

    I was at the Park yesterday. I was also very lucky to spot all the BIG5 in one day. I actually spotted a Lion and a Leopard as I was driving to the exit gate. I was such a spectacular sight!!!

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