Our Big 5 Safari in South Africa

leopard sitting in the shade

When we started planning a January getaway just two short months ago, we knew we wanted to go back to South Africa.  We had already spent a week in Cape Town two years ago and we wanted more.  Maybe it was Planet Earth II.  Maybe it was because I just finished reading An African Love Story: Love, Life and Elephants.  But either way, the idea of going on safari popped into our heads.  It would be a first for both of us.  Everyone we knew who had been on a big 5 safari before all said, “Do it!”  It would be the trip of a lifetime, the chance to see the big 5 on safari and more, so we went for it.

And we couldn’t be happier.

In order to keep the loading time of this page low, only a few of the photos have been included.  A complete album can be found on our Facebook page, The Smalls Abroad.  Plus, stay tuned for more posts about about all the other animals we saw, where we stayed and advice if you are considering going on safari.

What is a “Big 5 Safari”?

The term for the big five originally came from hunters who identified the 5 African animals considered to be the most dangerous and most elusive to hunt.  Of course, instead of guns, we were hunting the big 5 with our cameras: Lion, Elephant, Rhino, Buffalo and Leopard.  During our four-night stay at Makanyane Game Lodge in the Madikwe Game Reserve, we were lucky to see all big 5 two or more times.

Lions: The Kings of the Jungle

Makanyane Game Lodge had a pride of lions that hung around their private lands within Madikwe Reserve.  The pride consisted of two lioness mothers and their four cubs.  We generally saw them about once a day and sometimes twice, on each game drive.  We’d check in to see if they had eaten.  Our guide said it’d been days since they had a good meal.

When we first caught up to them, we saw them chowing down on a baby wildebeest.  The cracking of bones. The low growls.  The lions shared happily.  But then came the two males who had been hanging around, and were unwanted.  They charged in scattering the mothers and their cubs, the younger feisty male stole the carcass and went off under a tree to finish it off.  We saw the whole fight.  Our guide gave them their space to fight it out.  It was our first unforgettable safari experience and we were the only ones there to see it.

lioness licking cubmale lion resting

A few days later we were looking for them as they had moved from their most recent spot.  In the distance we saw a springbok and an impala looking in fear toward the hillside.  They took off up the hills.  They were getting away from something.  And just as we were about to turn around and continue our drive in search for another big 5 animal, one of the lionesses came out through the bushes.  Followed by her sister and the cubs.  Then the males.  It looked like they were all one big happy family.  Bones poking through their sagging skin, they still hadn’t eaten a good meal.  We quietly drove along with them as they crossed the plains, stopping for water and some playtime.

lions walking in single file male lion yawning two female lioness

We also found more lions, a mother/son duo.  That lioness is thought to be the grandmother of the cubs we were following.  And her son should have been out on his own by now as he was an adult.  However, our guide suspected they helped each other hunt and kept each other company.  They had obviously eaten recently when we saw them taking a catnap under the trees.  The male was flat on his back, paws up in the air, probably dreaming of a kudu dinner.  They weren’t bothered by us in the slightest.  It was incredible to see these Kings of Jungle up close just a few meters from our vehicle.

lion sleeping on his back

African Elephants: The grey giants

The quiet giants were everywhere.  We even saw them from our lodge.  They traveled in herds but we also came across some loners.  The babies were the cutest.  They were constantly grazing, taking down shrubs and stomping effortlessly through the park.  Red mud covered their grey skin.  There was never any traffic on the reserve’s roads but when elephants were crossing, we’d have to stop and wait.  Our guide was careful to keep our distance.  If something were to frighten or threaten them, we’d be no match if they charged at the vehicle.  And when they weren’t eating, drinking or cooling off with a shower, some were mating.  We had the pleasure of seeing it.

up close african elephant

herd of african elephants


White Rhinoceros: Our modern day dinosaur

Both white and black rhinos exist in Madikwe but in our time there, we only saw a small ‘crash’ of white rhinos.  And in reality they aren’t white, both species are grey.  The name comes from the Dutch “widj” which means ‘wide’ and refers to the shape of their mouth.  They were the most skittish of the big 5.  As we approached to watch them eat, they would turn their back to us and move away.  That was a good thing because you wouldn’t want to be charged by one of them.

mother and baby white rhino up close rhino rhino staring back

Cape Buffalo:  The bad-tempered bush cow

We were nearing the end of our safari without a buffalo sighting.  And frankly we were keen to see more of the big cats anyway.  But a call on the radio from another park guide, and we were off to see the herd.  They crossed the street, and grazed.  At first we saw a few, but then seemingly out of nowhere the entire herd appeared.  They just watched us with cautious curiosity.  The one grazing by the side of the road didn’t care for us at all.  And then some exhibitionist among the bushes, put on another mating show for us.

cape buffalo staring back

Leopard: The Elusive Beauty

I’ve saved the best for last.  We didn’t have any expectations going into our safari and we were happy to see any animal we could.  But once we heard there was the possibility of seeing the elusive leopard, we couldn’t contain our excitement.   Our guide drove us to the other side of the park, about 1.5 hr drive in the hopes of seeing the leopard.  The guides in the park work together and communicate the  whereabouts of the animals they see.  Once the leopard (and other sensitive animals) are found, they take turns approaching them for the sighting.  In the case of the leopard, only two vehicles were allowed.  When we got into the vicinity, we waited at a distance on standby until a spot opened up and we were called in.

Our first sighting of the leopard, didn’t hold much promise.  He was perfectly camouflaged within the tall grass.  How the first guide or tracker was even able to spot him speaks to the immense knowledge and know-how that they have.  We sat and waited, hoping the leopard would do something.  And for the hundredth time on our safari, luck was on our side as we saw him get up and move to another spot.

leopard staring at camera full length side view of leopard

We were were pretty happy with our one sighting when two days later, a call on the radio came through.  Another leopard, a young female was spotted.  The guide said she is super chill cat who always seems to give safari-goers incredible sightings.  We were able to approach quite close and she was undisturbed.  Her prey slung half eaten in a tree nearby.  My only wish is that we could have seen her eating up in the tree.  But after all the sightings we’d had, we really had no reason to complain or wish for more.

leopard sitting in the shade

There is more on the way…

We followed a pack of wild dogs and saw a kill.  The highlight of our safari trip.  We also saw plenty of giraffes, impalas, zebras and more creatures of the African continent.  I’ll also go in depth into our stay at Makanyane Game Lodge and what to expect from a big 5 safari in a later post.

Hope you enjoyed the first installment and leave a comment below.  

Which big 5 animal would you most want to see in the wild?

And hey, thanks again for reading!  I’m linking up with #WanderfulWednesday with Lauren of Lauren on Location, Van of Snow in Tromso, Isabel of The Sunny Side of This and Marcella of What a Wonderful World. Go check out other great travel posts to fill you with inspiration.


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  • Woweeee! What an experience. And I must say, these photos are seriously INCREDIBLE!! Beyond stunning 🙂

  • Taste of France

    Wonderful photos. Another blogger, Vicki Archer, is in Madikwe right now.
    Years ago, I saw white rhinos in Kenya (before poachers machine-gunned them all, along with their guards). It was possible to approach them as long as one walked up from behind. They are near-sighted, evidently. I have photo of my dad and my then-husband petting a rhino’s rump; my mom and I were too afraid to get that close.
    Seeing animals in the wild is a treasure, but the thing I appreciated most in the African countries I’ve visited (Kenya, Zimbabwe, Mali, Morocco, Tunisia) are the people.

    • Oh really! I’ll have to google her and see if she shares her experience. The poaching is so sad. We weren’t allowed to get out of the vehicle, not even stand up. I might have been to scared to approach any of those animals! We unfortunately didn’t get to interact too much with the local people on this trip (except our guide and he was amazing!) but that was the best part of our trip to Morocco at Christmas in 2015. It is such a treasure and so precious, something that should be protected and preserved. Thanks for commenting 🙂

  • Wow! How lucky to see the Big 5! And beautiful photos!! I remember going on a one day safari when I was in South Africa and the rhinos were truly the most beautiful creatures I’ve ever seen! They are majestic!

    • I have a much greater respect and admiration for these beautiful creatures now. I wish we had stayed longer!

  • AMAZING photos, Lillian! You’re leopard pics are the best I’ve seen. I’m spending March and April in South Africa, so I’m pinning this for future reference. #wanderlustwednesday

    • Thank you! Let me know if you have any questions about it. I’ll be sharing more posts about our trip. 🙂

  • Just WOW. These pictures are priceless! Love this post!

  • Tracy McConnachie Collins

    Wonderful photographs! I lived in Gaborone in Botswana for a while and as Madikwe is close used to visit a lot. I grew up in southern Africa and although I don’t live there now (Cape Town will feature again at some point – isn’t it fantastic) I visit as often as possible. Africa will keep calling you back! #wanderfulwednesday

    • We looked into doing a day trip to Gaborone that the lodge offered through a local tour guide. but it meant we would have missed a game drive which we didn’t want to sacrifice. Africe does keep calling us back!

      • Tracy McConnachie Collins

        Right choice! Gaborone is another now big city -it was tiny when I lived there 20 years ago!

  • I still can’t believe that you got so lucky on your safari and got to see all of these incredibly beautiful animals! I’m glad that the leopard ended up getting up so you could get some even more amazing shots of him!

  • Wow your pictures are AMAZING!!! I still need a telezoom lens for my new DSLR and I’m hoping to find one that can take pics like these 😉

    • We rented it because they are expensive and didn’t think I would get the value out of it day to day. WE rented a Canon 70-200mm f2.8 and it was amazing.. but big and heavy. But worth it!

  • In Africa N Beyond

    Great sightings especially the leopard. i live in South Africa and Madikwe is one of my favourite places to visit for awesome game-viewing.