South Africa – The big five in four days

For those Mondisti looking to experience the ‘Big Five‘ in the least amount of time, South Africa should be at the top of your list. See our posts on Botwana, Zimbabwe, and Zambia for nearby destinations, but in terms of Big Five sightings, a better comparison would be Kenya and Tanzania.

The so-called Big Five are lions, leopards, elephants, African buffalo, and rhinoceroses. On this trip, we spotted them on our visits to the Sabi Sands and the Ngala game reserves, both of which are described below.

Until the lions have their historians, tales of hunting will always glorify the hunter.
South African proverb

South Africa – Sabi Sands

Sabi Sands is considered one of South Africa’s most prestigious private reserves, (see post on planning a safari), and it shares an unfenced boundary of 50km with Kruger National Park.

South Africa, Sabi Sand, Mondisti Author in jeep

The area is 65,000 hectares and was originally owned and used by local landowners as agricultural or hunting land. This meant that reliable sources of water was needed, so boreholes were dug in order to provide a steady flow of water to the cattle and crops. After the creation of the Kruger National Park (1926) the landowners formed the Sabie Reserve (1934) (later Sabi Wildtuin Reserve), as private and separate from Kruger. Years later and with the birth of the safari, much of the land used for agriculture disappeared and hunting was no longer allowed.

Using the land for game viewing became very profitable. The old family histories were maintained in the decor of the individual lodges, many of which are still owned by the original families. Kirkman’s Lodge, for instance was an old hunting lodge and its decor has been maintained to look as such.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the concept of a “luxury” safari was born at Sabi Sands. It became so successful that safaris are now rated based on level of luxury (see our post on planning a safari budget). It is considered one of the best places in the world where you can see the ‘Big Five’ in the least amount of time.

South Africa, Ngala, Mondisti author with camera shooting buffalo

The “Big Five” game viewing originated with an old hunting concept, the five animals that hunters considered the most dangerous to hunt. It became a very successful marketing term, as the ultimate success in safari game sightings.

South Africa, Ngala elephants

Today, there are common rules and regulations within the Sabi Sands Reserve. Although owners are allowed to maintain their water supply, they are not allowed to set up any sort of feeding station as “feeding animals makes them dangerously unattractive and tame”. Other rules include the number of jeeps that each resort can have and the number of safari tours per day. The resorts help each other with sightings, using radios to signal a ‘big five’ sighting.

Minutes after we told our guide we wanted to see African wild dogs, he radioed the other guides to ask if anyone had spotted any. We were soon brought to a location with a pack of babies. We waited for the mothers to return and followed them. The dogs sighted a leopard that had just made a kill and lunged to fight him for it, the leopard soon retreated, scrambling to a tree top, watching in anguish as the wild dogs below devoured its prey. Amazing to watch.

The Southern white rhino with calf above – the population of Southern white rhinos was nearly extinct in the early 20th century. It recovered somewhat but is still considered near threatened, mostly by habitat loss and illegal poaching, due to the high demand from China. The Northern white rhino and the Western black rhino have become virtually extinct. In 2018 there were only two Northern white rhinos left, both in Kenya and both female. The Western black rhino was declared extinct in 2011. However, we did see some at the Stanley Livingstone Reserve in Victoria Falls, they have 11 of them.

We caught the mother and baby elephant above, walking about, not showing any signs of stress. The mother is scratching her ear. Many elephants actually use a stick to get deeper into the ear cavity to resolve an itch. We could not tell if she had a stick.

South Africa- Ngala Reserve

The Ngala game reserve is north of Sabi Sands between the Timbavati Reserve and Kruger National Park. It is a private unfenced game reserve with exclusive access to a pristine wilderness area.

Before arriving to the Ngala Lodge, we had been tipped off to the fact that there were two rare white lions somewhere in the reserve area. We eagerly asked our guide to take us to see them. Although these are extremely rare, the reserve was not overrun with jeeps trying to catch a glimpse. In fact, we were the only vehicle there. Had this been a public park, we would not even have gotten close (see post on planning a safari).

According to Lyle Bruce McCabe a field guide at the Ngala Private Game Reserve, he was watching a male lion sleeping in the Timbavati river bed when he heard the call of a young cub squeak out of a thicket nearby. It was then that he saw the white head emerge. It was the first white lion he and his partner had ever seen and his partner had been a tracker for 26 years. The white lion is rare because in order to be white, both parents have to have the recessive gene. It is not albino since it has some color, but leucistic.

Ngala was the first private game reserve to be incorporated into the Kruger National Park and has exclusive traversing rights over 14 700 hectares of game-rich wilderness, it can access the Kruger Park, although the reverse is not the case.

The Ngala Reserve is part of the Timbavati Reserve, which was established in 1956 by like-minded game farmers with the creation of Timbavati Association. The association has 50 members and covers 53,392 hectares. Timbavati is part of an associated reserve and the fences separating Timbavati from the other member reserves and from the Kruger National Park have been removed.

The entire area is full of lodging of various budget categories, from thatched cottages to tented camps to modern building structures.

While some would say the food is the most important aspect of the lodge experience, we would say that it is the safari guide. The guides do not disappoint in South Africa. We did not have one guide that was not professionally trained and top notch.

Walking safaris are not provided by all camps/lodges. The guides carry rifles and need to have been trained with particular emphasis on defending against wild animals. Although we have not had any notable experiences on walking safaris, we have heard many stories where the guide was called upon to avert a disaster. Although we love walking safaris, there is generally not much game viewing, with more emphasis on the flora rather than fauna.

What makes Sabi Sands and Ngala Reserves ideal places to view the big five in the least amount of time?

 A very diverse terrain, herds that are resting or avoiding the sun are more apt to be located here than in flatter areas with less trees and grasses.

Because of the availability of water from the boreholes, the animals can survive year round without leaving the area.

The reserve has strict rules on the number of safari vehicles that can view a particular animal or group of animals at once. This is easy to enforce because all vehicles belong to lodges within the reserve and all lodges must follow reserve rules.

The guides communicate over two-way radio with other lodge guides to locate game.

The number of vehicles that can be out at the same time are strictly limited. There is no crowd whatsoever at Sabi Sands or Ngala. You are not fighting for a position at the best viewing spot.

While some would disagree to having fences as they halt the natural migration of animals, they do afford safari-goers the opportunity of seeing animals in a shorter period of time, they are easier to find in relatively contained areas. Sabi Sands is fenced on three sides, although there are no fences within the Sabi Sands area itself. Ngala reserve is not fenced but animals can walk in freely from Kruger National Park, with Kruger having many more vehicles driving around.

There is a guide who is trained as a naturalist and a tracker who is trained strictly to track animals. Many sole driver-trackers are excellent, but having a separate tracker does have its advantages.

Using Johannesburg or Cape Town in South Africa as international entry points, the top destinations in Southern Africa are easier and faster to reach than many places in East or West Africa.

Once at Sabi Sands and Ngala reserves, the distances to game viewing are very short. In a matter of minutes you can be viewing a prized kill. This is due to the sheer number of animals within the immediate area as well as the guide’s expertise and coordination with other guides.

Our guide at Ngala told us the story of one of the camp owners who brought a friend with him and insisted that his friend needed to see the big five in two hours, as he had a flight to catch. Tall order but our guide managed (he did rupture two of the jeep’s tires).


Mondisti’s South Africa Safari Trip Tips

  1. South Africa is a premier safari destination for all budget types.
  2. Sabi Sands and Ngala Reseves both offer excellent safari experiences.
  3. If you want to be guaranteed that you will see the ‘big five’, make time for both places.
  4. Although you will probably see the ‘big five’ in a day or two, leave as much time as possible for everything else.
  5. Two to three days is too short to get an overall experience. A week is best.