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Where to see the big 5 on safari in Southern Africa (and why leopards don’t exist)

There are so many reasons to visit Africa, from dramatic mountain ranges to vast plains and prestine beaches. But one of the ultimate African experiences is seeing the wildlife up close it their natural habit. It’s a dream of many to head out on a safari in southern Africa, and see that incredible spectrum of species that live there.

When I travelled to Africa this was the one thing I desperately wanted to see. 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.

Elephant, water buffalo and ostriches on safari
One of Kruger’s many elephants (top left); a close encounter with a water buffalo in Kgalagadi (top right); and a trio of ostriches in Namibia’s Etosha National Park (bottom)

Africa’s Big 5

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

Herds of antelope in Etosha National Park, Namibia
Such a mix of different species and there is no shortage in Namibia’s 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

Landscape of Kgalagadi National Park, South Africa
It’s a different kind of scenery in the transfrontier park of Kgalagadi, but no less spectacular

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

Two rhinos drinking, iMfolozi National Park on safari in South Africa
A couple of rhino enjoy an afternoon drink surrounded by the green vegetation of Hluhlewe National 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

Hyena looking through the campsite fence, Kruger National Park
A curious hyena watches me carefully in my compound. I don’t think he’s too happy about the sign

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. However, despite yet more false hopes I failed to find the big cats I longed to see. Particularly that ever elusive leopard. There were lots of other animals around the park though and, despite not achieving what I’d hoped, it was yet another memorable experience.

Alternative options

Zebras eating by the side of the road on safari in southern Africa
A herd of zebras grazing by the side of the road

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.

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  1. NN

    I saw a leopard in Kruger national park on our very last morning there, but still haven’t seen a cheetah! Have a post on it and some photos in case you are interested (you can find it in the Africa section of my blog). Love that you were driving around in your pajamas! 😀

    1. stufahy

      Thanks! I like to do things a little differently.

      I’ll be sure to check out your photos. One day I’ll see a leopard in the wild and I’m sure it’s worth the wait. As it will be for you with a cheetah. The places I saw them (Kgalagadi and Hluhluwe) I think might be better areas.

      1. NN

        Yes, maybe it’s good not to see everything at once and save some surprises for the next time. We were in Hluhluwe too but didn’t come across any big cats, apart from a lion that sat outside our safari tent at night! One of the things I like about safaris is that you never know what you’re going to see each day.

        1. stufahy

          Wow! That’s a really cool safari experience and I imagine as big a surprise as you can get while camping in Africa. How did you feel when you saw the lion so close?

          1. NN

            We had literally just gone inside our tent and zipped it up after eating outside when we heard the lion, so it was terrifying. I felt a kind of primal fear! We tried to be quiet and didn’t dare look outside the tent, so we only heard it, didn’t see it. Our neighbors saw it as some of them had been planning to walk back to their own tent from their friends’ tent and saw it lying in between their two tents before it walked off in the direction of our tent. It stayed outside most of the night and I had dreams about lions chasing me all night as probably I could hear it in my sleep. So after that I didn’t really mind not seeing any more big cats for the rest of our trip! I felt very paranoid in the camp after that (it was an ungated camp) and now I understand why buck are so skittish!

          2. stufahy

            That’s quite an experience! And more than a little terrifying. I heard lions roaring a few times while I was camping but at least there was something of a fence between us. At least now it leaves with you with a great story.

  2. Stuart Forster

    Etosha is a place I’d love to visit. I’ve been on dozens of safaris and have never yet seen a leopard. They really are elusive.

    1. stufahy

      Etosha was always on my list and it ended up being the first of my safari experiences. I can highly recommend it. It’s such an easy park to access and the animals are around in abundance. Leopards are still not so easy to find unfortunately, but that’s part of the intrigue.

  3. Helga

    This is so great! My new bucket list item is to visit the rhino I’ve adopted through WWF. He lives in the national park near Nairobi in Kenya. I’ve been thinking to expand my plan and visit more parks in Africa at the same time, so thank you for this article, as it was really helpful. 🙂

    1. stufahy

      Wow! That sounds like a great reason to visit. Seeing the animals in the wild is an unbelievable experience and worth it wherever you end up.

  4. the Curious Pixie

    When we did our first safari in South Africa we saw the Big Four but the leopard – no chance!

    1. stufahy

      From many people I spoke to while I was in Africa it was the same. Very few were lucky enough to spot one. At least it’s not just me.

  5. Janis

    Your post brought back some wonderful memories, we spent three weeks in Namibia in 2012, it is a beautiful country and like you say so much wildlife in Etosha. Earlier this year we visited Zimbabwe and although it has a few internal issues it is a country I’d highly recommend. Scenery and the wildlife are stunning.

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