The wildlife up here is surprisingly abundant and diverse, with big cats, endemic antelopes and, perhaps most enticingly of all, thriving communities of Africa’s most precarious endangered animal.
The term Big Five was first used by hunters to label the 5 most dangerous animals during their flights of machismo, which is why the slightly unglamorous buffalo is included while more “popular” safari animals, such as giraffe and cheetah, are not in the mix. We have come up with our own Big 5 of favourite African mammals, and thought hard about where you’ll have the best chance of finding them.
Laikipia Plateau, Kenya: Rhino
Laikipia is very different to the rest of Kenya, and indeed, to the classic image of Africa’s flat plains and savanna teeming with big game. A large plateau running from the foothills of Mount Kenya to the edge of the Great Rift Valley, the scenery is breathtaking and there is no malaria this high, making it ideal for family safaris. The wildlife up here is surprisingly abundant and diverse, with big cats, endemic antelopes and, perhaps most enticingly of all, thriving communities of Africa’s most precarious endangered animal. While Kruger and much of Namibia have (relatively) large populations of both black and white rhino, Laikipia is special because you can see both variations in the same place and possibly even at the same time. There are ambitious and effective conservation projects, based on private reserves where these ancient, majestic animals are encouraged to survive, thrive and, hopefully one day, multiply!
Where to stay: Solio Lodge is not only one of the most luxurious properties in the Laikipia region, but also probably the very best to see both black and white rhino. It’s the only property within the vast, 45,000 hectare private Solio Game Reserve, where rhinos of both the black and white persuasion reside safely and are relatively accessible to guests in a vehicle, on foot or in the saddle.
Linyanti Wetlands, Botswana: Wild Dog
They may be far less attractive than Africa’s big cats and elephants, but wild dogs are amongst the most prized sightings for safari connoisseurs. They are endangered, incredibly (and often randomly) mobile and simply don’t take to certain areas, so it’s important to choose your destination wisely if you’re desperate to catch up with wild dogs. Hunting in packs and teaming up to deliver the quickest but most grizzly kills anywhere in the bush, there are some that might not have the stomach to watch them at work, but their collaborative efforts to stay alive amidst far bigger alpha-predators are undoubtedly impressive. The Linyanti region of northern Botswana, essentially an extension of the legendary Okavango Delta eco-system is a wonderful place to see dogs, and it also offers other fantastic big game and a wide variety of safari activities on land and water.
Where to stay: Kwando Lagoon Camp is renowned for the wild dog pack that has denned nearby for years. These curious animals are notoriously mobile and hyperactive, especially when hungry, but there is no better area for catching them in action than the beautiful wetlands that surround camp.
South Luangwa, Zambia: Leopard
Leopards are shy, solitary and largely nocturnal, making them frequently the most elusive of Africa’s headline big game. There are good numbers in the Luangwa Valley but even then, sightings are far from guaranteed, with these majestic predators often scarpering up the nearest tree at the sound of an approaching vehicle. This is where Zambia’s highly trained guides, among the best on the continent, really come into their own. It’s engaging to watch them use their skills to track these animals, rather than relying on fences, radio contact with other vehicles and a relative tameness to make things much easier. The South Luangwa has other advantages when searching out this beautiful big cat. Night drives and off-road driving are permitted inside the national park, which is not always the norm, meaning that guides can look for the animals when they’re at their most active and follow them further into the bush when they stalk prey.
Where to stay: The elegant Mchenja Camp is small but luxurious, a vintage tented camp on the banks of the Luangwa. In this remote northern sector of the national park, other camps, and vehicles are few and far between, so when you do catch up with a leopard, you are likely to be able to spend a long time with them and not have to share it with others.
Thornybush Game Reserve, South Africa: Elephant
The Greater Kruger region has an astounding volume of elephants, and for some conservationists there are actually too many, which helps to support other less pachyderm-rich African wilderness areas through managed relocations. Never is this more evident than in the Thornybush Private Game Reserve, west of the Kruger National Park and north of the Sabi Sands Reserve. The elephants here are abundant, impressive and relatively relaxed, a testimony to the sensitive guiding and intense anti-poaching efforts that take place within the South African reserve. There are numerous year-round water holes throughout the reserve which attract elephants en masse, and it’s always fascinating to watch their interaction with the other big game that arrives for a drink.
Where to stay: Royal Malewane is not only the most uniquely stylish lodge in the Thornybush Reserve, but also the most exclusive. This is important in game viewing, as your elephant encounters are more likely to be served up for your vehicle alone, and private game viewing can be guaranteed from the lodge’s Africa House safari villa. The guides here all boast the highest possible accreditation in South Africa and know exactly how best to deal with Africa’s largest, most imposing animal of all.
Serengeti, Tanzania: Cheetah
The Serengeti National Park has one of the largest concentrations of cheetah in Africa, with numbers close to 1,500 in total, so it is arguably the finest destination on the planet for spotting these quicksilver predators. The broad, expansive plains and relatively even terrain are ideal for cheetahs, giving them the space to build-up their awe-inspiring running speeds and keep a lookout for other big cats and hyenas, which is especially important when protecting their young. This natural habitat is also ideal for the safari-goer on cheetah lookout, as the highly attuned guides in Tanzania are able to spot big game from miles away and track it relatively easy, especially towards the end of the dry season when the grasses are low. Visitors during the Great Migration can also benefit from the general chaos and intense animal traffic that attracts predators of all shapes and sizes to opportunistically seize on the relatively easy pickings it brings.
Where to stay: Nomad Safaris’ Serengeti Safari Camp is a classic “semi nomadic” tented camp that moves to follow the course of the migration. As well as providing unique access to arguably the world’s greatest wildlife spectacle, there is also great flexibility on offer here. A private guide and vehicle is reasonably priced, so if cheetahs are your thing, your guide will do everything possible to make sure you see them.