When I travelled to Africa last year the one thing I desperately wanted to see was the wildlife. So much so that the only real planning I did was to Google search ‘best places to see lions in southern Africa’. In my three months in and around South Africa I visited several national parks, including four incredible safari experiences.
Namibia’s wildlife heavy Etosha, the transfrontier park of Kgalagadi between Botswana and South Africa, Hluhluwe iMfolozi park in the KwaZulu Natal region and the popular Kruger National Park in South Africa. Each of them offered something different and I saw everything I went there to see. Well, almost everything.
Seeing the Big 5 is a challenge most tourists who visit Africa set themselves. Based on an old list of the most dangerous wildlife to hunt, the five animals are now sought after by visitors to the continent in a much better way. Where the only ‘shooting’ is done with a camera. Lions, elephants, water buffalo, rhinos and leopards are the targeted wildlife, and many people focus their trips around seeing them in their natural environment.
Unfortunately for myself, and many others, the most difficult one is the leopard due to its more reclusive nature. I missed out on seeing one in the wild, although I did eventually get to meet one when I worked as a volunteer at Panthera Big Cat Sanctuary. Even then it took a few days before the shy cat showed himself.
Etosha National Park
My first African safari experience happened in Namibia as part of my week-long tour of the country’s highlights. Etosha is probably the most heavily populated wildlife area in this part of the world. You’d have to have some serious bad luck not to see anything other than the typical herds of antelope. You may need a little more patience to see lions or even a rhino, but the animals are everywhere.
Elephants, zebra, giraffe, kudu, birds of prey and more were all spotted on my first drive around the park. During a night time safari, we passed a lion and cub (which were too far away for me to see in the dark), as well as three hyenas that looked suspiciously similar to the trio in the Lion King. My second day gave me my first rhino sighting as well as a family of ostriches going for a drink.
However, the highlight for me was on my early morning drive on the third day. Two brothers laid in the grass keeping an eye on their kingdom in the warming light of the new day. As they confidently approached I had an amazing view of my first wild lions. I took a couple of pictures before just sitting and watching them closely. Enthralled by their magnificence. It was one of my favourite memories from my three months in Africa and I made sure to enjoy it with my own eyes, rather than through a mobile phone screen.
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
Kgalagadi Transfrontier park sits on the border between South Africa and Botswana. I visited for the day from Upington, around a two-hour drive, along with a friend I was travelling with. Whilst the animal sightings were much sparser than Etosha, the scenery was more striking. So many different colours from reds, yellows and greens, all mixing with the wide blue sky.
Staying for several days would give you a much greater chance of seeing more animals with time to wait for a perfect sighting. However, I also had one of my best animal sightings in Kgalagadi. We spotted a trio of cheetahs stalking a lone antelope. It would have been amazing to see the cheetahs at full speed, but unfortunately the antelope caught sight of them early and called in the protection of a small herd of water buffalo for assistance. It was still an unforgettable experience and, whilst not one of the Big Five, another real highlight.
Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park
My third safari was another day trip, but this time in the back of a safari truck as part of a tour. Unlike the self-drive experience around Kgalagadi, we were at the mercy of our guide for where to go. Which gave us a much greater chance of seeing something exciting as he obviously knew much better what he was doing.
Unfortunately, I missed out again on seeing a wild leopard, despite chasing a number of ultimately fruitless leads. However, we did see another cheetah and several rhino. The scenery was different again, very green with trees and other thick vegetation covering the park. It made it more difficult for us to see the wildlife (we needed a pair of binoculars and a perfect angle to spot the cheetah), but that’s just part of the experience. If I just wanted to see animals I could go to a zoo.
Kruger National Park
My final big animal experience was in the tourist destination of Kruger National Park in the North-East of South Africa. Whilst not as easy as seeing wildlife in Etosha, Kruger is one of the more popular destinations for good reason. The park is well catered to visitors with good accommodation options and plenty of information to assist animal sightings.
Where Kruger differs from Etosha is the campsites are in a separate site to the lodges. This meant checking in and then driving a few minutes to where I had to set up my tent for the night. The actual campsite was a small compound with cooking facilities and toilets, surrounded by a metal fence. Moments after arriving I had another memorable animal encounter as I walked around the enclosure.
A wild hyena approached the fence, no doubt looking for scraps of food, and I watched him from the safety of the compound. A reverse of typical roles when viewing animals in zoos as now I was the one locked in the cage. I had only just arrived at the campsite a few minutes before and had to leave my car to open the gate. So, the hyena and his two friends who showed up later were likely watching me.
The next day I had my first experience driving myself around a safari park. I left the safety of the compound early in the hope of seeing more lions and possibly a leopard before they began their long day’s snooze. I didn’t even get dressed and drove around the park in my pyjamas. Another first for me and probably not the way people usually see wild animals. Almost immediately I found three elephants by the side of the road and sat watching them from my rental car as they enjoyed their breakfast.
A little further along I found a group of vehicles stopped at the side of the road, including a couple of safari tour trucks. This usually means there’s something interesting and typically a big cat. I asked one of the drivers of the tour vehicles and was told a leopard had been spotted in the area. This got my hopes up. Maybe I could finally complete my Big Five checklist. However, despite driving around and waiting patiently for the next couple of hours (still in my pyjamas) I saw no sign of a leopard. I did see a lot of other animals though and, despite my failure in finding any of the big cats, it was yet another memorable experience.
Seeing wildlife in Africa is a huge part of travelling to that part of the world. There are so many incredible native creatures and it doesn’t get better than seeing them in their natural habitat. Etosha, Kgalagadi, Hluhluwe iMfolozi and Kruger are some of the best parks in that part of Africa.
Aside from those, Addo Elephant Park near Port Elizabeth in the centre of the south coast is another good option. To give yourself a greater chance of finding things like lions, rhino or leopards you can visit a game reserve. These are private areas which allow you to get closer to the animals as there are less restrictions compared to the national parks. Of course, visiting the game reserves are more expensive, so it’s a personal decision as to which you’d prefer to do. Either way, the moment you see a wild lion in his natural environment is one you will never forget.