TRIP REPORT: Spotting the Big Five in Kruger National Park!
A BIG 5 SAFARI IN KRUGER NATIONAL PARK
I just returned from my first South African Safari and I’m proud to report to you guys that I was fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of each and every animal considered to be a part of the “Big 5″.
Not only did I get to see the Big Five in the wild, but I also got to experience a luxury style South African safari in Kruger National Park, one of the largest game reserves in Africa and one of the most incredible national parks in the world.
To say that I’m blessed would be an understatement.
If you don’t know much about safaris, you’re probably asking yourself one of the following questions.
What 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:
- African Elephant
- Cape Buffalo
Is it uncommon to spot the entire Big Five on a safari?
Well, according to our ranger, we were extremely fortunate to have been able to see all of the Big Five on safari. I confirmed this by speaking to both professionals and visitors and when I told them that I had witnessed the Big Five in Kruger National Park they were all seriously impressed. Some travelers I spoke to had been on multiple safaris in the past and had never witnessed all five of the Big 5 in one trip.
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 NP on safaris over the course of the last ten to twenty years and still have yet to see a leopard in the wild.
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 trip into the bush. Game drives can last anywhere from 2 to 4 hours, sometimes longer. Of course, since we’re being hosted by 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 for the early morning, and late evening in order to maximize our chances to spot the most amount of wildlife.
Meet Our Personal 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 good hands. This guy was as professional as you can get and he was known to be one of the best in Kruger.
Exon, our tracker, is very well known in South Africa. Brian told 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 was seriously top notch.
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 highlights from my first South African safari.
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 already 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.
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.
Unfortunately, poachers have been increasingly targeting rhinos for their horns. As a matter of fact, at the time of writing this (2/26/12) approximately 55 rhino have been killed since the first of the year. That’s nearly one per day.
Why are poachers targeting rhinos?
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. Rhino horn has never been proven to cure cancer or work as an aphrodisiac although people in the east believe it does.
How lucrative is the rhino horn trade?
Poachers receive about $65,000 USD per 2.2lbs (1kg) 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 that cash money.
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.
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.
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 reminding you that he won’t hesitate to use those big old teeth on you.
Fun Fact: 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.
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.
Fun Fact: Elephants can be right or left handed and they will favor one tusk or another.
Seeing a White Rhino in the wild for the first time was really cool. I didn’t realize how humongous these beasts were until I saw one up close and personal. Can you believe poachers kill these beautiful animals for their horn?
Hands down, the most incredible part of our first game drive was when our crew spotted a leopard up in a tree that hung over a river bed.
We pulled our jeep up as far as we could to the edge of the river bed so that we could get a closer look. Once we got close we realized that the leopard had just killed a baby waterbuck and dragged it up into the tree with him. It was time for a feast!
This photo of the leopard 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 the leopard tearing the face off of a waterbuck in this post but if you’d like, you can check the graphic photos out here.
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 hungry buffalo.
This photo was taken from about 20 feet away. These angry looking animals always seem to be so calm and relaxed even though they can be the exact opposite when necessary.
Fun Fact: A buffalo has four times the strength of an ox.
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.
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!
According to Brian, the lions had eaten about three days prior so they were due to eat again sometime within the next 24 hours.
The photo below shows one of the lions yawning although, it’s quite a scary yawn!
Fun Fact: When lions yawn repeatedly, it usually means that they are just about ready to wake up and start preparing to spend the evening hunting.
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.
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 Surprise from Singita
During our last evening game drive, the sun was just about to set and Brian mentioned that we should make a pit stop to grab some water and watch the sunset from this viewpoint that was just around the corner.
When we arrived we found a beautiful vista overlooking rolling plains surrounded by mountains in the distance. We not only found the sunset, but we also found a few of the Singita staff members awaiting us with a variety of appetizers, refreshments and even a celebratory glass of champagne to thank us for staying at Singita Lebombo.
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
For more information on Singita Lebombo and the packages they offer, be sure to check out their website.