Perhaps the most common bucket-list thrill for first-time visitors to Africa is seeing Africa’s legendary Big 5 – lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros and Cape buffalo. The animals that received this moniker are considered the five most dangerous to hunt on foot.
Nowadays, there is a greater appreciation of the overall diversity of wildlife to be seen in Africa. However, the mystique remains, even if telephoto zoom lenses have largely replaced firearms. In fact, when meeting new guests, safari guides are often asked whether the Big Five are likely to be seen – and lately, requests for the Magnificent Seven (which adds highly endangered African wild dogs and cheetahs to the list). Indeed, the term’s association with Africa is so successful that we now hear of the Little Five, the Ugly Five and even the Marine Five.
However, for the visitor with limited vacation time and a determination to check off the Big Five, check out where to find these iconic species across Africa’s Eden – Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Vast, arid and sparsely populated, visitors to Namibia won’t find the Big 5 concentrated in one particular area. However, lions, leopards, elephants and black rhinos can all be seen at Namibia’s most famous national park – Etosha. Unfortunately, the habitat is not favourable for Cape buffalo, which need abundant grassy plains for survival.
Etosha is well-known for sightings of black rhinos, often seen at the spotlit water holes adjacent to the camps inside the park. Consider a stay at Etosha Mountain Lodge or Mokuti Etosha Lodge. If you’re travelling by road, you’ll need to travel northeast to the Caprivi Strip, some 644 km (400 mi) away, include time for some pampering at the Divava Okavango Resort & Spa, before setting off in search of Cape buffalo.
Also worth mentioning is that in the Damaraland/Kaokoveld region of the remote northwest, you can view unique desert-adapted lions, elephants and black rhinos. The aptly named Desert Rhino Camp is the ideal base for your quest.
The Okavango Delta of northern Botswana is the place to go for the best chance of seeing all Big Five members within one area. Lions, leopards, elephants and buffalos are frequently seen. In addition, the central Moremi Game Reserve, which is possibly the most accessible area to visit, boasts the best chance of seeing both black and white rhinos. Within Moremi, consider a stay at Camp Moremi or ramp up the adventure at Mankwe Camping.
Beyond the Moremi Game Reserve but still in the delta region, look at Nxabega Okavango Tented Camp or elevate the experience (quite literally) at Sky Beds. In southeastern Botswana, there is also a good chance of seeing the Big Five within the Tuli Game Reserve, with the option of staying at Tuli Safari Lodge Mashatu.
Despite its size and wealth of exceptional national parks, the only place in Zambia home to all of the Big Five species, is the remote North Luangwa National Park in the east of the country. However, due to the ever-present threat of poaching, its rhinos are kept in a no-go area for tourists.
The more accessible South Luangwa National Park is best known for walking safaris taking place in the vast and unspoilt wilderness. A visit offers adventure-seekers the opportunity to meet a myriad of wildlife on foot – under the expert care of the park’s experienced guides and armed game scouts.
The Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park near Livingstone in southwest Zambia should be next on your itinerary if you’re still determined to see rhinos. While it is not home to lions or leopards, it has a healthy population of elephants and buffalo – and you’ll be able to notch your fifth on-foot encounter with the Big Five by joining the specialist rhino tracking walks on offer in this small park. To celebrate the achievement, you could spoil yourself with a stay at Sindabezi Island Camp or get the party started at Jollyboys Backpackers.Zimbabwe
For the best chance of seeing all members of the Big Five within one national park in Zimbabwe, you’ll need to visit either Matusadona or Hwange National Parks. Visitors to Matusadona should check out Rhino Safari Camp or Bumi Hills, which offer various water-based activities on Lake Kariba.
The beautiful Hwange National Park is renowned for its magnificent riverine scenery, with many of the lodges also taking advantage of panoramic views of the surrounding landscape. So why not take a peek at Somalisa Camp or the remote Bomani Tented Lodge in the east of the park to whet your appetite?
Victoria Falls town is well-known as an adventure destination; however, Victoria Falls Private Nature Reservation is home to rhinos and only a short hop, skip and jump from the action of town. Alternatively, treat yourself to a stay at the prestigious Stanley & Livingstone Boutique Hotel, which is within the park’s boundaries.
On the far eastern side of Zimbabwe, the vast tracts of the Gonarezhou National Park are undergoing a miraculous rewilding program, including the reintroduction of rhinos to complete its boast of being home to the Big Five. Yet, despite the fantastic game view opportunities and sweeping landscapes, Gonarezhou is still relatively untapped, so get in before the crowds discover the secret.