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South Africa: Our Quest to Find the Big 5

After our harrowing experience of crossing the border to Zimbabwe, we were ready to take on the wild animals of Africa.

Kruger Park
The Gate to Kruger Park

When the Fighting Couple decided to go to Africa, our primary interest was seeing the animals, specifically the Big 5. It’s the ultimate African adventure!  For two kids who grew up in the American West, nothing sounded more exotic than ridding in a Land Rover scouting lions and witness them gobble up a wildebeest just like you see on the Discovery Channel. But affording that kind of safari is more fiction than reality. Just Google “African Safari” or “Big 5 Safari” (lion, African elephant, African buffalo, leopard, and rhinoceros) and you will get price points from $100 per day per person tours to $30,000 for all-inclusive private game reserve tours including lodging with swimming pools, private guides, cool towels and tea in the afternoon!  Neither one seemed like a good fit for our style or our pocketbook. We decided  to do more research. We asked ourselves, how do South Africans see the animals?  Surely there is a better way? There is.

Safari Rhino

Huge African Rhino

South Africans see their national treasures the same way Americans do: through the National Park system. 1000 Fights grew up a few hours from Yellowstone National Park where thousands of visitors drive through hoping for a glimpse of a grizzly bear and several hundred buffalo. A world away in South Africa, there is the same idea. But it’s called Kruger National Park and instead of seeing buffalo and elk, you take in zebras, elephants and giraffes.

When we told our friends we were going on a self-serve safari, they thought we were crazy. Our co-workers thought we would surely be lion food. But we contend a self-serve safari is the best way and the most affordable way to see the Big 5. Plus, for independent people like us, it gives you control as to what to see, when, and how long you linger.

Giraffes cross the road while humans look on.

Giraffes cross the road while humans look on.

As we mentioned in our previous post, we stayed at the Shiluvari Lakeside Lodge on our way to Kruger, which put us about an hour from the northern gate.  Our plan was to spend three nights and four days in the park, starting from the north and going south. We would stay in the park at various camps as we made our way south. A word to the wise: get reservations early. The most intimate camps with the best facilities book fastest. Some of the camps house 10-15 families and others have facilities for over 600. They are literally mini-cities in the middle of the reserves, with restaurants, grocery stores, and rondavels all sealed at 6 p.m. so animals stay out and humans stay in.

We began our self-serve safari by entering through Punda Maria Gate.  Here you will pay the conservation fee, which at the time that we went was $23 USD per person per day in the park.  Not bad? Huh!

Candidly, we were not really sure what to expect from our self guided safari.  Would we be able to see the animals?  Should we have hired a guide?  We had visions of coming home with micro disks full of amazing wildlife photos.  Some of the best advice we ever received was from our Amazon guide, Javier. He said, “If you expect to see something and you don’t, you’ll be disappointed, but if you view it as an adventure, then everything you see will be magical.” We had no idea how magical our trip would be…

We went through the Park in September, the dry season. This is a good time to go because animals have to migrate for water and the habitat isn’t lush, so it can be easier to see animals. Seeing animals isn’t as easy as you might think. Sometimes you get lucky and get caught in a herd of wild animals (keep reading) and other times you zoom past baby lions and don’t even see them (another Willits experience.) Everything in the savanna is camouflaged. That’s how animals survive, so seeing them can be challenging, especially from the road.

At the Punda Maria gate, we also picked up something we highly recommend to any self-serve safari adventurer: a map and a list of park animals. It became a game to see what animals we had seen and what we’re missing. We also bought some groceries before we reached the gate including meat for dinner, snacks for the road trip, and drinks.

South Africa Safari

Welcome to Kruger Park

As we drove through, we wondered if it would be like that scene from Jurassic Park, where the giant gate opens and then it shuts and you are trapped with 30 feet electric fence. It’s not nearly that thematic.  Instead, you drive through and while there is an electric fence, it’s not menacing. The point of the park is to let animals roam free and enjoy their natural habitat. Here, humans are the spectators not the other way around. But it’s also important to remember that it’s not a zoo. There is nothing between you and an animal that could kill you.

There are four types of roads within the park to get you from point A to point B.  The first is a highway which runs the center spine of the park.  The second type is the arterial roads which are paved and take you to the rest camps and small villages within the park.  The third are dirt/gravel roads.  Most are navigable, some are not.  When it rains (rare) these become difficult at best.  The fourth is our favorite; they may or may not appear on a map.  Unpaved and mostly untraveled…and for good reason.  Stay tuned.

We started driving.

Mike focused on the road. Luci focused on looking for animals. This turned into Luci screaming, “Stop, I see something!” Mike swerved to the side of the road. Pulled out binoculars. And it was nothing. Mike got tired of Luci’s false alarms. She got tired of his erratic driving. The first “real” thing we saw was two giraffes. It was indeed magical. They were running in the distance. We couldn’t believe we were seeing them. And then we saw nothing. For hours, we saw nothing. We drove and drove.

Elephant Safari

Baby Elephant

The northern part of the park doesn’t have as many animals as the southern part. Therefore, there isn’t as much traffic and when you do see something, you aren’t crowded with hundreds of other vehicles jockeying to get a glimpse. This can be good and bad. It’s great when you see something, but you won’t see the magnitude of animals you will see in the south.

It was getting dusk. Then we saw them kicking up dust. On both sides of the road there were hundreds of elephants, walking. It was a site to behold! After hours of nothing, it was a payday. There were elephants of all sizes including baby elephants marching. We just sat in our car, rolled down the window and enjoyed. That’s one of the benefits of doing a safari on your own. We stayed and looked as long as we wanted. We didn’t have anyone annoying sitting next to us (except for each other) blithering on and on. Just us, the elephants and the sunset.

It was getting dark, time to get to our lodging. The park offers a number of lodging options within the park:

Private Game Lodges:  These are privately and exclusive resort type accommodations.  The pinnacle of comforts. Private game trackers, typically all inclusive. Major $$$$

Rest Camps:  Fenced, self-catered, have places for caravans and tent camping, usually have a small restaurant, and a convenience store.  For a small fee guides will take groups on different hikes and drives in the early morning and at night.

Bushveld Camps: Fenced, usually included 10-20 accommodations per location. Limited support.

Our first night we elected to say in the SirHeni Bushveld camp.  It is located on a watering hole favored by large African elephants.  There were 10 or so small one to two roomed huts.   Our hut was on the north side of the enclosure and had a wonderful view of the water. It was bigger than our first apartment! There were two bedrooms, kitchen, dining room, and living room. We heard some rustling by the water and went to explore. There were three elephants bathing. We climbed into one of the raised wildlife blinds to get a better look. There we saw an elephant walk past within a few feet (there was an electric fence between us.) Luci snapped a picture and was so close the elephant stopped, blinded from the flash. It wasn’t the smartest thing she has ever done. He could have charged us.

Luci took this picture so close the flash blinded the elephant.

Luci took this picture so close the flash blinded the elephant.

We grilled our steak, and watched the elephants and then a hippopotamus bathe from the back porch.  This was the first time that either of us had seen them in their natural habitat.  As we drifted off to sleep our tummies were full and our ears full of the sounds of the savanna.

There are two optimal times to view animals: early morning and dusk. We began to hear cars start to leave the camp at 5 a.m. We got up and left too. We aren’t the kind of animal people who ooh and awe at every living thing. But there is adrenaline rush about seeing animals in their natural state. We couldn’t wait. No make up for Luci (that’s huge), let’s get on the road.

We kept to the main highway and saw hundreds of zebras and gazelles grazing. We turned onto a dirt road and saw a couple of baboons running. As we cross rivers, we would see crocodiles sunning themselves.  In the distance we saw a tall animal on the road….as we came closer, it was a giraffe!  We were stunned at just how tall they are in person!  Watching them awkwardly spread their front legs to drink was fascinating.  Two giraffes walked across the road right in front of us. As we drove we would constantly be looking out for what was next!  As we drove on, we came across a sign that said: Tropic of Capricorn.  This was the first time that anyone from either of our families crossed the median.

Giraffe Safari

Giraffe at one of the roadside water holes.

We stopped for lunch at the Mopani Rest Camp.  The food was adequate. We never had a spectacular meal at any of the camps.  Both of us ate as fast as we could to get back out and see more animals! At each camp is a board with daily sightings of animals. This is a good way to see what you’ve been missing and what areas others are seeing animals. A woman told us that she heard lions roaring all night at her camp. We were miffed. We wanted to see and hear a lion.

There’s camaraderie in the park that makes the trip fun. People are naturally friendly and often a car would slow down, flash its lights, and the driver would tell us what they saw around the bend. By the end of our stay in Kruger, we did the same thing: flash our lights and tell them what to look out for.

We were armed with a booklet that identified some of the animals, but at every turn we saw something new!  Look over there!  What is that?  Usually our long car drives are filled with “heated discussions” on whatever is annoying us about the other.  This trip was different.  We constantly were working together to identify another find.

Each camp has a main gate and is surrounded by a high fence.  You are required to be inside the camp by a specific hour (usually 6 p.m.) or face a night out on your own.  Well, we might have been a little carried away in looking at animals and not focused on the time.  At one point Luci asked…what time do we need to be in camp?  We had 30 mins to get to the camp which was 45 mins away!  Mike drove like a wildebeest!  Luci kept saying, “We are not going to make it…we are going to have to camp in the car!”  Enter fight  #259 of the Africa trip.  As we pulled up to Oliphants camp, they were shutting the gate.  We made it!

African Ostrich


Oliphants rest camp is a special place.  It is perched overlooking a wide river with great views of its namesake, elephants.  We really didn’t realize just how beautiful it was until the following morning.  From the elevated perch of the camp you can see miles and miles.  For some dumb reason, we never thought to take an adequate picture.  We must go back.

The next morning we took a group tour with the local conservation ranger.  Our days were numbered in the park, and we had yet to see a lion, leopard or rhino.  Our guide was so patient with the group of 10 or so of us. We met at 5 a.m. Each in the party was looking for animals on their own list.  As with any game search, you never find what you are looking for.  The guide had some great advice.  “Enjoy whatever you see and you will always find what you are looking for.”  Some tours are walking and others are motorized. We chose the motorized version.

On the tour we saw an ostrich and missed seeing a lion by a few minutes. We also saw a hyena, the first and only one we saw. The guide took us on roads off-limits to regular visitors. It was cold in the open air vehicle, but worth it. He pointed out a giraffe that had just died and what scavengers were picking at it as we passed by. After the tour, we loaded up and headed out on our own again.  We came around one bend and there was an entire herd of rhinoceroses.  They looked like dinosaurs or some prehistoric animals.  Massive.  Three of the five down!  Two to go!

As you travel you will notice groups of cars pulled off the road.  This usually is a sign that some difficult to find animal is in view. The animals are usually oblivious to the herd of humans struggling to stay in their auto and snap the pic at the perfect angle.   Sometimes there bunches of cars looking at nothing because the animal is long gone. We found the best animal viewing was off the main arteries so unless we were in a hurry, we turned off the paved roads and drifted on the roads less traveled. We were driving on such a road when a car approached and flashed its lights. We stopped. The man with a thick New Zealand accent leaned out of the window, “If you go past three bridges, on the third bridge there is a lioness and her cubs.” Thanks! We were off!

Lion in Africa

African Lion

Desperate to see a lion, we raced to the location, missing it and then circling back. Finally, we saw a lion. Not just one lion, but an entire pride of lions with their cubs. It was just us and the lions. We literally watched them for an hour. Then we drove off and flashed our lights at the night car so they could have the same experience. From this point on we saw dozens of lions, we even saw a lion having its “way” with a majestic lioness. Wow. That’s something you don’t see in Idaho.

We also got our leopard by pulling off to the side of the road with another car. We leaned out our window and asked the neighboring car what he was looking at, “leopard” he replied in a thick Russian accent. At first we couldn’t see it, but then we saw through the trees, a leopard with its kill high in the trees. It was a rare Kruger site. Thanks to the Russian who helped us check #4 off our Big Five list!

Rafiki has big teeth!

Rafiki has big teeth!

Our last night we stayed in the biggest rest camp: Skukuza. The rest area is so large it has its own golf course and two swimming pools! We opted to stay in a rondavel hut. Each rest camp we stayed had fresh sheets and was clean, but bring shower shoes. It was our last night and we had one more day to see the last of the Big 5: African buffalo.

We started early the next day. The park was getting increasingly crowded as we were now in the south end of the park. We hadn’t seen a cheetah or an African buffalo. It was our fourth and final day on the road and we were getting tired of each other and not seeing some of the elusive animals we wanted to check off our list. We decided to get off the main road. We saw a sign for the Orpen Dam and decided to backtrack a little North. We figured that going to where the animals had water; we had a better chance of seeing a cheetah or even more lions.

What we found was an even bigger (literally) surprise. We drove to the dam and the lookout point. Nothing. It was pretty, but that was it. We were disappointed our safari was ending and without a cheetah or an African buffalo. As we rounded the corner driving down from the dam in our shaky rental car, we were trapped.

African Water Buffalo

African Buffalo

A herd of African buffalo blocked our path.

More than 100 of them stared at us breathing through their giant nostrils.

Luci freaked.

We were alone and at any time they could charge us and puncture us to death. Dramatic, but still Luci was scared.

Mike kept his cool. “They are just giant cows.” He started mooing at them.

“Roll up your window,” Luci yelled.

We honked. We tried to plow through. They just sat there and so did we.

Slowly we inched our car through. Mike and Luci both grew up around cows, but in comparison African buffaloes are gigantic.

African couple

Kruger Park, South Africa

Forty five minutes later we were on the road to recovery and out of the park, checking the last of Big Five off our list and in one piece with no puncture wounds.

Kruger Park is  the perfect option for couples that want to see wildlife in their natural habitat without breaking the bank.

We were very sad as we exited the game park.  We came for the pictures, and we left with great memories.  The adventure for us was just beginning.  Stay tuned to our next post as our trusty rental car breaks down on a mountain pass.