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Tracking the Big Five on a self-drive safari

Forrest Gump said “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you are going to get.” You don’t have to be a character in a movie for this to be true. If the wide open spaces of Africa and the bush are calling, tracking the Big Five while on a self-drive safari can be much of the same.

Tracking the Big Five - elephants

Above: Tracking the Big Five's elephants on a self-drive safari

Each day and drive can spring the unexpected as nature marches to its own beat. This is for a variety of reasons – like the individual characteristics and traits of each species (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, buffalo), the habitat (where you are) and time of year and day (summer or winter as well as dusk or dawn).


Rules to tracking the Big Five


In South Africa we are very fortunate that there are a great number of national parks as well as private game reserves where self-drive safaris are possible and where the lure of the wild can be satisfied. The Big Five occur in most of them, and whilst they are scattered across the country, tracking wildlife and then marvelling at them in their natural habitat, is a thrilling experience.

In nature there’s only one rule – there are no rules. But if there should be a second one, and more so as you start on your quest of tracking the Big Five, it should be that you are patient.

Tracking lions and leopards

Being patient is especially true where the cats; lions and leopards are concerned. Lions are inactive for up to 20 hours a day, hence the term ‘flat cats’ which could make spotting them difficult. The same goes for leopards, being solitary and nocturnal animals. 

Tracking elephants and buffalos

For tracking bigger animals, like elephants and buffalos, being patient does not necessarily have to apply as they usually congregate in large numbers. You should be able to spot these big grey and black beasts fairly easily.

Tracking rhinos

Rhinos (black and white) may be a bit trickier as they are not per say herd animals, but if you keep on scanning the bush, you should be able to spot them on your safari self-drive, they are big.

Tracking the big five on a safari self-drive

Above: Finding the king of the jungle while tracking wildlife on a self-drive safari


Tracking wildlife at a watering hole


Most animals have to drink daily, so sitting still and being quiet at a waterhole for a whole day, is a sure way of spotting members of the Big Five. To observe the playful antics of a herd of elephants in and around the water is something to behold. When some 300 buffalo or more arrive, it’s even more spectacular.

You can also return to camp after tracking animals on your morning drive if the day time temperatures start to sizzle (mostly in summer). On your return, you’ll probably spot more elephants and buffalo, both grazers.


Big Five tracking at dawn and dusk


To give yourself the best chance of tracking wildlife, get up early and hit the road (at a slow speed, of course) at first light. This is the time (as well as in the late afternoon) when lions are most active, returning from their nightly excursions and activities. If you tilt your eyes upwards and scan the branches of big trees, you may spot a leopard making itself comfortable for the rest of the day.

You can then either make yourself comfortable with a nice picnic basket at a waterhole or give yourself a couple of hours of shut-eye (a ‘reward’ for getting up with the dawn chorus) before heading out again in the late afternoon to track the Big Five  This will be the time for the activities of the lions and leopards to start up again as they are most active at dawn and dusk.

Tracking leopards on a self-drive safari

Above: Tracking leopards on a self-drive safari


Locations on a self-drive safari


Where you are and when you are there, are two factors most people tend to forget when they are tracking the Big Five on a safari self-drive.

In an open grassland habitat, spotting members of this elite group while scanning the landscape should be fairly easy. Moving over to woodlands savannah, forest and riverine areas, keeping your eyes peeled will most certainly be harder.

The same applies to the different seasons – in summer more patience is needed in the thicker vegetation; in winter the bush is thinning out and there are not as many hiding places.


Some final Big Five tracking tips


Remember the following and after a couple of days, you should be successful in tracking the Big Five:

  • A good pair of binoculars is essential
  • Remember a camera to capture your wildlife tracking successes
  • Remember to check out the notice and sighting boards in the camps
  • Talk to other self-drivers, to hear about the best sighting spots
  • Gather supplies for a camp fire, to reminisce about the day that was

After reading these more than useful tips, now tracking the Big Five doesn't need to be such a challenging task. If you're planning a self-drive safari into Africa, and learning about important elements of enjoying a safari, then maybe doing a Field Guide course is something you'd be interested in. 

Dalene Ingham-Brown

Dalene Ingham-Brown Title: Blog Contributor
Affiliation: Drive South Africa Blog

Passionate about travel, social media and making lists, Dalene is on a mission to nurture her love for camping in South Africa.


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