Leopard in Kruger National Park, South Africa

Spotting the Big 5 in South Africa

Safari in South Africa

Cruising along in our 4×4

When going on safari, the thing that everyone is itching to see is the big 5.

These are:

  1. Lions
  2. Leopards
  3. Elephants
  4. Buffalos
  5. Rhinos

They’re named ‘the big five’ because early hunters regarded them as the most dangerous animals to hunt.

While I was in South Africa I spent three days staying at Thornhill Safari Lodge in the heart of Central Limpopo Lowveld, Hoedspruit. The lodge is part of the Greater Kruger National Park and within two hours of arriving here we’d seen four out of the big five as well as zebras, giraffe, springbok and heaps more.

As soon as we arrived we jumped in an open top 4×4 and headed off into Thornybush Private Game Reserve. The reserve is home to 147 mammals, 114 reptiles, 507 birds, 49 fish and 34 amphibians so I felt like I’d just stepped inside a David Attenborough documentary.

Water Buffalo

Buffalo in Kruger National Park, South Africa

Within minutes of starting the game drive we were watching buffalos cooling off in a watering hole after a hot day in the park. They jumped up when we arrived but didn’t run away and stood watching us inquisitively. The two males slowly moved forward to shield and protect the females as we watched in silent awe.


Rhinos in Kruger National Park, South Africa

Rhinos are so dangerous because of their size and power but also because they will cleverly circle their prey before attacking from behind as they gorge the unlucky victim through the back.

Unfortunately, poachers are a real problem for rhinos. Their horns are incredibly valuable in the Middle East where they are carved into ornaments and sword or dagger handles. As poaching slowly decreases, their horns simply become more and more valuable for the rich Sikhs who will pay any amount for the products. Our guide and tracker were keen to point out that the buyers of the products weren’t 100% to blame for the poaching as they were just at the end of a violent and illegal cycle. It’s the poachers that need to be stopped and we saw posters and stickers everywhere in a bid to educate people about poaching.

In some parks, the horns are removed in the hope that poachers won’t attack the rhinos but the most valuable part of the horn is the thick base, which is below the surface, and the rhino is inevitably killed when the horn is removed. Our guide told us that poachers will kill a rhino just for this small but valuable stump of horn.


elephant in kruger national park

The majestic elephants were difficult to find despite their size and the destruction they leave in their wake. We eventually came across a small family of elephants who were munching their way through the trees and a baby was playfully frolicking with its older sister.

Elephant families are incredibly close and all the females will work together to look after the young.  The females stick together with just one dominant male and the younger boys will be pushed out of the group when they’re around 12. Just like human boys, it often takes a lot of encouragement to get them to ‘leave home’ and their mother’s side.

Our guide told us that he knew each and every elephant in the park and they even recognised his voice. Although he didn’t name them like pets, he recognised them through their size, colouring and features. Many elephants will have different sized tusks and this is because they can be right or left tusked, just like we’re right or left handed. Their dominant tusk will wear down over the years as they use it to break branches and push their way through the trees.


Lions in South Africa, Kruger National Park

Just as our game drive was coming to an end, our eagle-eyed tracker spotted some paw prints in the ground that we eagerly followed until we came to this trio who are three-year-old siblings.

There is a fence around the reserve and on the other side stood a confused (and slightly stupid) zebra. If the lions were hungry they could have easily got through the fence but the zebra was lucky and they did little more than growl and stare.

It’s unusual for a 3-year-old male to still be with his sisters but as there isn’t a dominant male in the reserve he is free to do as he pleases. We were told that he often tries to mate with his sisters but the ladies will have none of it and swiftly swat him away.


Leopard in Kruger National Park, South Africa

It wasn’t until the following day when we entered Kruger National Park that we finally managed to see the elusive leopard. We were sat in our truck for at least 20 minutes trying to decide if we were staring at a spotted rock or an animal, but it finally got up to stretch and we strained our eyes to see it in all it’s beautiful glory.

Unfortunately, my camera wasn’t good enough to pick up more than a spotty blur and the photo above was taken in Moholoholo Animal Rehabilitation Centre where injured, orphaned and poisoned animals are cared for and reintroduced into the wild whenever possible.


If you’d like to see more of my photos from my three days in Kruger National Park, check them out on my Facebook page. Seeing zebras and giraffe was equally amazing as seeing the big five so you have to see those photos!

I flew to South Africa with South Africa Airways and stayed at Thornhill Safari Lodge for three nights which was part of an Intrepid Travel trip.

Monica is the founder and editor of The Travel Hack. She began the blog in 2009 when she left the UK to travel around Asia and Australia for two years. She's now a full time blogger and has travelled around the world in search of the best holidays. Monica lives in Wales with her growing family and now also blogs about travelling with young children!


  • January 27, 2013

    You’ve got us drooling over our upcoming African safari trip. We too hope to spot the Big 5 in the Thornybush Private Game Reserve (and also Sabi Sand Game Reserve and then Zambia). Sounds like you had a great trip!

  • January 27, 2013

    Fantastic that you saw all of the Big 5 and such a variety of other animals! I am just dying to go on a safari in Africa.

  • January 28, 2013

    Wow!! I’m so jealous! It looks like you had a fab time, and your photos are amazing!! I’m longing for the day when I get to see a lion.

  • January 28, 2013

    Looks like you had a great time on your South African safari! I’m really jealous you got a good look at leopards, both times I happened to be looking in the wrong direction and only caught a brief glimpse – but I was lucky enough to spend a long time watching a pack of wild dogs, so that made up for it!

    I followed quite a few organisations on Twitter and Facebook and was so saddened to see the daily reports of poaching, it’s a huge problem unfortunately, and I just hope it can be controlled.

  • January 28, 2013

    This is AMAZING!!! I want to be there now! I love how the male lion is looking right into the lens of the camera xxx

  • February 2, 2013

    Ah, loved reading this – it has got me so excited about my trip to South Africa in April! Better start practising those photography skills:)

    • February 17, 2013

      You’re going to love it Emily-Ann, I had such an amazing time. If I have one regret though it’s not buying a bigger lens for my camera. There were so many amazing things that I just couldn’t capture.

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      April 7, 2013

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  • February 5, 2013

    Lucky you, getting to spot all 5 of the Big Five! Which one were you most excited about?

    I really need to get to South Africa, and soon!

  • February 8, 2013

    Ah, my kids are dying to go on safari. You got very close to the animals, too – so lucky.

    I was in South Africa a few weeks ago, at a conservation reserve – and learned a lot about poaching and canned lion hunting. Horrible!

  • July 31, 2013

    This looks like a great deal of fun. In order to keep safari’s like these open, we need to support stop poaching campaigns. Thanks for sharing, great shots!

  • December 30, 2013

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