August 12, 2013

Wild hunt for Africa's big five

David Ellis

MOST who head off to Southern Africa armed with bravado and binoculars, do so in the hope of bagging in their cameras the Big Five – lion, leopard, elephant, Cape buffalo and rhino.

Not all achieve their goal. For those whose holiday packages see them contained to the safely beaten track of the national parks, up-close sightings of beasts large and small can be the electrifying moments of a lifetime, but seeing all Big Five in limited time in these places is never assured.

For those who've booked themselves into private game reserves, however, sightings can be more up-close, more productive in terms of animal sightings, are more likely to include coming upon those Big Five.

In fact some private reserves even boast a money-back guarantee you will see their Big Five.

Elephants abound irrespective, and it's not unusual to be stopped on the road in a national park or private reserve by several score of these lumbering beasts, that never appear to be in any kind of a hurry.

Buffalo sightings are also frequent, and eagle-eyed rangers and guides will invariably reward you with a good few rhino sightings, and a lion or three to rack-up the pulse-thumping gasp-factor. Plus abundant giraffe, zebra, kudu, hippo, warthog and, well, you name it… South Africa's Kruger National Park, alone has an extraordinary 851 species of mammals, reptiles, birds, amphibians and fish in its near 2-million hectares.

Which should be enough to sate the lust of the keenest of game-spotters.

But what of leopards? Leopards are the hardest to complete your Big Five slide-show, the more-so in national parks where tourist vehicles cannot venture off-road to access the deeper bush areas where these beasts prefer to seek shade by day to sleep off a previous night's hunt.

In fact we've a mate in the travel industry who says that in an astonishing near-20 visits to Kruger National Park, he's never spotted all Big Five during 2-day forays into the park.

In the private reserves, however, it's the operator's land and they can do what they like with it, bushwhacking their way off roads and tracks in their 4WDs in search of the most elusive of creatures – leopards included.

On a visit to Southern Africa earlier this year we had three days in Kruger National Park followed by a couple in Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve, and while we had sighted four of the Big Five in Kruger on numerous occasions, those elusive leopards had remained true to their reputation.

But on a late afternoon's game drive of our first day at Sabi Sabi we had sighted lion, elephant, buffalo and rhino within an hour of setting out from our lodge in an open LandRover, and those four plus many more species several times over the next couple of hours as day-feeding animals began to settle for the night, and nocturnal predators started stirring for their hunts.

And a 6am start next morning rewarded almost instantly again, with elephants and rhinos, giraffes, warthogs, wild dogs, buffalo and countless screeching birds sighted within virtually minutes of leaving the lodge… Sabi Sabi is home to some 200 animal species indigenous to its area on the edge of Kruger National Park, and over 350 bird species.

Our Game Ranger at the wheel and Tracker perched on the front of the LandRover constantly chatted back and forth about tracks and spoor sightings, and radio messages flooded in from other early morning vehicles of sightings and leads… including one that had our Ranger quickly gunning the LandRover in the direction of deeper bush.

And there we came across the last of our Big Five – a magnificent leopard sleeping in the morning shade of a thorn bush, having we learned from another vehicle, killed a 4m rock python the night before, devouring a third of it and leaving the remainder draped high over a branch of a nearby tree for us to marvel at.

We'd achieved seeing our Big Five on one game drive less than 24 hours after arriving at Sabi Sabi.

And as exciting as the remainder of that 3hr morning drive would be, sighting that leopard would be a certainly hard act to follow.

NEXT WEEK: Sabi Sabi – out there at the front of the pack.



[] GETTING upclose with a lion in Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve.
[] MOST elusive of the Big Five: a leopard in Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve.
[] GRAND herd of elephants in Kruger National Park.
[] GIRAFFE continue feeding Kruger National Park, oblivious to tourists around them.
[] THIS elephant takes precedence on the road in Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve.
[] MAGNIFICENT fish eagle takes-in his surrounds in Kruger National Park.

(All photos: David Ellis)

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