Kruger National Park and the Big 5

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The Big 5, The Small 5 and The Ugly 5

Kruger National Park was very high on my bucket list. I know its the major park in South Africa and because of that a few people advised me not to go. They suggested that it was over developed and my chances of seeing any animals was slim. Weirdly a few people who told me that hadn’t actually been to the park which was a bit strange I thought, but you always have that element of people who have an opinion based not entirely on fact. As you all know I like to make my own judgement so having Kruger on the itinerary of my Nomad truck adventure was a decent sized draw card.

I did a Nomad tour through South Africa mostly because I only had a month for South Africa and I just didn’t think I could do it on my own in that time frame and see everything I wanted to see. The tour I did was the South Africa Explorer (I did Joburg to Cape town) and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Nomad and its staff. The tour I’ve linked to above is Cape Town to Joburg but its exactly the same trip just in reverse to what I did.

Prepping for our Kruger Safari

Over our camp fire the night before our first game drive, we all went around the group and said what we were hoping to see the next day. I think there was 14 of us and 12 said Lions. Of course – you are coming to Africa you want to see a lion. Zanelli our driver very nicely, but firmly, told us all that our chances of seeing a lion was not good. A month before we arrived Kruger had experienced a very good week of rain, which meant everything was green and the grasses were high and thick. Lions love to settle themselves into the grasses and rest during the daylight hours, so Zanelli was trying to lessen our expectations for the day. There were some disappointed faces around that fire let me tell you.

I said I wanted to see a running giraffe. I love elephants and felt really confident that we would see some. I almost feel that I have a weird connection to elephants and subsequently often feel like we see them because they know that. I’m weird I know, but we always seem to see them everywhere we go and I like to think its because they know how I feel about them.

Wanting to see a running giraffe was mostly because I felt that would make me feel like I really was in Africa. When I was a child I thought that giraffes were spindly and feeble but thanks to Richard Attenborough, I now know Giraffes are incredibly strong, and I wanted to see that for myself. A giraffe in full flight would enable me to see that.

Everyone laughed at my running giraffe comment but it was all very lighthearted and we went to bed dreaming of our safari.


Arriving into the park

We entered into the park through the Numbi Gate & wouldn’t have been in our jeep for 10 minutes when we take a left on to what can only be described as a rutted track. Our driver completely ignores the “No Entry” sign and drives right over the chain. I immediately thought “I like this guy”.

Down the bumpy track we go, all of us scanning, scanning, when the driver brakes hard and then reverses even harder. By the time he gets his binoculars up to his face we realise we are looking for lions. Across the grasses there is a large rocky outcrop and to the naked eye it seems there are two brown rocks on top of the sandstone.

They are however LIONS!

As soon as I get my camera to my eye and into focus its clear they are both males and are settled in for a very busy morning of sunbaking on the rocks. I can see their manes blowing in the breeze and a huge yawn from one of them before he collapses on to the warm rock. 10 mins in and we have seen two lions!

Kruger did not disappoint!

We are all grinning like kids with candy, and after about 10 minutes and what must have been hundreds of photos, we proceed further into the park for more game hunting. Over the course of the morning we saw a few lone male elephants, some very close. One we had to wait on to cross the road. Zebra’s followed, then wildebeast, then buffalo’s and finally Giraffe’s. None running but giraffes none the less.

We spent our lunch hour excitedly chatting about how we had seen not only 3 of the big 5, but the zebra’s and giraffes as well. We were feeling very very lucky and eagerly jumped back into our jeep for round two.

As a side note: The restaurant inside the park is actually not bad. Not cheap of course but the food was decent the coffee good and our meals arrived fairly quickly.

We leave the lunch spot and less than 5 minutes into our second drive for the day our driver is called by another and told of another lion sighting. Its less than a few minutes from where we are so we immediately head for that area. There was maybe 10 jeeps and a few private cars milling around the roadside and even though we knew there was a lion somewhere on our left, it was quite challenging to spot. I managed to spot him under the tree, mostly because I could see his breathing. I was looking in exactly the right spot when he had a big sigh so I saw the movement and then could quite easily make him out. Without that movement though – no chance. He was very close to the road, maybe 2-3 meters away but even then at least half of our group never made him out. I feel very fortunate that I was just looking in the right place at the right time and saw him otherwise I would also have never been able to make him out in the shade of the trees. I wouldn’t like to be an Impala here. You would never know where the next attack might come from.

As we crept past our guide spotted his kill on the right hand side. A full grown giraffe. They had brought it down overnight or in the early hours of the morning most likely, and she was just sitting, close to her kill, resting after the exertion of the hunt. A few of my truck mates were horrified but I felt and still feel very privileged to have seen something so uniquely African. A lioness and her kill within a few meters of me.

Kruger did not disappoint.

We drove off from the lioness and were slowly cruising the dirt track scanning both sides as you learn to do when BAM! – A leopard just steps out in front of us and saunters down the road, tail swishing seemingly unconcerned we were even there.

OMG – a leopard is so hard to see and here was one a few meters in front of us wandering along like its out for its midday stroll. He only walked a few hundred meters and then turned back into the bush but that few hundred meters was pure bliss for us.

Our driver was so excited. To see someone who does this every day be so impressed makes you feel even more fortunate.

Kruger did not disappoint!

3pm rolled around and we had yet to see any Rhino’s. The poaching is horrific inside the park which is heartbreaking, however when someone pays you something it would take you 5 years to earn just to tell them where the last sighting was, I guess that’s a decision you make for your family. It’s hard to explain to someone who earns so little that without the Rhino, the park doesn’t have such a high draw card and they will be unemployed, as will their wife, their cousins and their neighbours. It can’t be easy to correlate for everyone working within the park, the exorbitant amount (which to these people it is) you get for doing something that seems relatively innocent.

The poaching is relentless and brutal, so much so that Rhino spottings are not reported anywhere in the park (all other sightings are frequently posted), rangers aren’t allowed to talk about Rhino over the radio and even our drivers use code that is changed regularly to communicate between themselves to enable other groups to see Rhino’s if they are spotted. It’s not even a “I saw a frog” type of code, the day we were there it was something about calling their cousin. They change it regularly and it never sounds like anything to do with the spotting anything.

Our driver saw a few in the distance but even at the extent of my zoom they seem like big grey rocks. We did see them though so were feeling pretty special. We managed to spot a family of wild dogs, hyena’s, some beautiful birds, an eagle having lunch, some tortoises, more elephants (see I told you!), more Zebra’s and Giraffes, some very close buffalo’s and even a crocodile. We were so impressed that we had ticked off the big 5, most of the small 5 and a good chunk of the ugly 5. We all went home feeling very impressed with Kruger. The big 5. We saw them all. Incredible. Truely incredible.

Kruger did not disappoint.

An Evening Game Drive

Our final game drive was in the evening of the next day. Sadly we didn’t see too much once the sun went down but we spent the sunset on a causeway overlooking a waterhole with about 10 hippo’s. They are so cute, its so hard to imagine they are so dangerous.

Like the Rhino, they can reach speeds of 40km per hour which has to be hard to stop! They stay in the water all day and then at dusk start to get really playful and chatty among themselves before leaving the water to walk up to 20-30 kms for food. That is why they are responsible for so many deaths. They leave the water (which is their safe place) at dusk when the villagers are heading to get water from the same source. If you get between a hippo and the water that is bad news. If they get frightened they want to get back into the water as quickly as possible and if you are between them and their destination – you are a threat. A big one. One they will kill.

Watching the sun set to the sounds of hippo’s calling was one of the best things I’ve ever experienced. Sadly photos are hard because of the fading light, and the fact that you don’t want to be too close, but just having them there for the stunning African sunset was amazing.

Kruger did not disappoint.

What are the big 5?

  • Lion
  • Leopard
  • Elephant
  • Buffalo
  • Rhino

What are the small 5?

  • Ant lion,
  • Leopard tortoise,
  • Elephant shrew,
  • Rhino beetle &
  • Buffalo weaver

What are the ugly 5?

  • Hyena,
  • Wildebeest,
  • Vulture,
  • Warthog &
  • Marabou Stork

We stayed: Nkambeni Safari Lodge which was great. The accommodation huts were clean and had their own little ensuite and the property even had a pool!

We sat in the pool one evening and watched the hippo’s. Pretty cool!


Read On For A Great Rhino Story!

Unbeknown to me, this wasn’t to be our last incredible experience in Kruger National Park. The next day as we were driving out of the park we had what will be one of the most memorable experiences I ended up having in Africa. Check out this post about Rhino V Truck .

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