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The lions are bullet-fast.
“Hang on!” yells our safari guide, Pierre Mouton. Veering off-road, we crash after them through the bush.
We’re on a “Big 5” safari in South Africa.
Killer lions on our Big 5 safari
Just moments before, the pride of lions had been sauntering slowly across a grassy plain – out for a stroll, we thought.
But no, these lions were hunting.
And now, as we screech to a halt in front of them, we see that, in an instant, they have already taken down their kill. Sitting fanned out like spokes in a wheel – their furry faces smeared with blood – the lions tear at the impala.
One lion rips off the antelope’s head, complete with lyre-shaped horns, and wanders off to savor its prize alone.
It’s a macabre scene, a spectacle of nature at its wildest.
That the lions are unfazed by our presence – and we can safely witness it from ten feet away, seated in an open Land Cruiser without high sides or roof – makes it even more surreal.
“But if you get out of the vehicle, things would end very badly for you,” warns Pierre.
The Big 5 safari animals
Originally, the Big 5 referred to the five animals that were the hardest and most dangerous to hunt in Africa on foot – lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant and rhino.
The Big Five animals were thus the most sought-after prizes for big game hunters.
Today, these Big 5 animals are the creatures people most want to see on safari in Africa.
Sabi Sands Game Reserve
The Sabi Sands Game Reserve, which dates back to the late 1920s, pioneered wildlife viewing by game drives in South Africa.
The animals are habituated to the engine sounds and people seated (but not standing up) in open game-viewing vehicles, and they go about their business undisturbed.
Today, the 153,000-acre sanctuary (a little bigger than Barbados) shares a 31-mile open (unfenced) border with Greater Kruger National Park, which is more than 7,500 square miles in size. And it’s famous for up-close game viewing of the “Big Five.”
Leopards, in particular, are a big draw at Sabi Sands.
The Sabi Sands reserve has the highest concentration of leopards in the world.
Safari in South Africa
During our three-night safari at Simbambili Game Lodge in Sabi Sands, we saw lions and other members of the Big Five.
We also saw giraffes, zebras, thousands of graceful leaping impala, wildebeest and cheetahs.
At first glance, cheetahs look similar to leopards. One way to spot the difference between a cheetah and a leopard is the face marking. A cheetah has black “tear marks” (a black line) running down from its eyes on either side of its nose.
But we didn’t see any hyenas at Simbambili.
Those we spotted in Thornybush Game Reserve, another private reserve adjoining Kruger.
And after oohing and aahing over hyena pups suckling on their mother, we think hyenas are kinda cute – well, at least the babies.
Safari game drives
Days began at 5:30 a.m. with a knock on our door. After scarfing down a quick coffee and muffin, we’d climb into our assigned land cruiser.
We were visiting in South Africa’s cooler winter months (May to September) – when the game viewing is best – so we were grateful for the hot water bottles and blankets provided to ward off the morning chill.
Then we were off, bouncing along on seriously bumpy dirt tracks criss-crossing the dry bushveld.
It always amazed us how the tracker – perched precariously over the front grille without a seatbelt – never fell off.
His was also the worst seat when we encountered the horny white rhino (pun intended!).
Driving slowly, we’d been watching this fella, as red-billed oxpeckers picked insects off his back and he snuffled about the low grasses with his flat snout. But then he started spraying urine on the dirt road in front of us, stomping and snorting as he got closer.
We backed up.
The rhino charged forward – and thrust his horn almost onto our poor tracker’s lap.
“He smells a female’s scent on the ground,” explained Pierre. “Unfortunately, we’re right on it.”
Pierre cupped his hands around his mouth and blew, making “rhino talk” for “Go away!”
Fortunately it worked – the rhino grunted his way around us, then ambled on.
Quiet moments and sundowners
Not all our game drives were so adrenalin-fueled.
Once we just sat quietly gazing at a grazing herd of Cape buffalo.
Another time, we leisurely observed a leopard drag an impala carcass higher up a tree, while her cub slept on a branch, feet dangling.
And we always stopped for sundowners on afternoon drives.
Whoever invented this safari sunset ritual was a genius.
Our guide and tracker would whip out limes, liquor and ice cubes from a cooler, plus traditional South African snacks like biltong (spiced dried meat).
We’d drink gin-and-tonics while stretching our legs atop a knoll, watch the sky turn pink then inky violet – and wonder how the next day could possibly be any better.
Night game drives
There was also an hour of night driving on the return to the lodge. Everything felt different in the dark, as the bush seemed to close in on the vehicle.
The tracker would shine a bright spotlight back and forth, looking for the reflecting eyes of smaller nocturnal critters, like cat-like civets and fierce honey badgers.
We saw lions again too (they usually hunt at night).
Best South Africa safari lodges
Back at camp, warm vanilla-scented facecloths and a glass of creamy Amarula eased the transition from wilderness to civilization.
Simbambili has electricity, air-conditioning and even in-room phones and free WiFi.
But as it’s un-fenced and animals wander about, we had to be escorted to dinner from our bungalow or room. And a guide had a rifle handy when we dined in the bush or outdoor boma (gathering place).
In the boma, warmed by a blazing fire, we tasted African specialties like barbecued impala and pap (a cornmeal staple flavored with fresh tomato sauce).
Our Sabi Sands safari quickly took on its own rhythm.
Game drive, breakfast, bush walk (with an armed ranger-guide) to learn about animal tracks and towering termite mounds, lunch, siesta, sometimes afternoon tea, game drive, dinner.
And at night, deep in the wild, we’d occasionally fall asleep to the heart-thumping roars of nearby lions.
Best places to see the Big Five in Africa?
For us, going on safari is a dream vacation, and so we’ve done several safaris – in South Africa, Botswana and Zambia.
You can see the Big 5 animals on an African safari in all these countries and more, like Tanzania and Kenya. But some destinations are better than others for viewing certain African safari animals.
As we discovered fairly quickly, one of the best places for Big 5 safaris is Sabi Sands private game reserve.
Book a three-night safari, and you’re bound to have awesome game viewing and tick the Big Five safari animals off your bucket-list.
If you want to see rhinoceros, your chances are best at one of the game reserves in South Africa, as the country is home to 80% of the world’s remaining rhinos.
For leopards, again, Sabi Sands is tops – you’re almost guaranteed to see leopard there.
Want to see huge herds of elephants? Then Chobe National Park in Botswana is a sure bet. The park is home to the largest populations of elephants in the African continent.
On our Chobe safari, we saw elephants giving themselves dust baths, bathing in the river, yanking grass out of the water with their trunks to eat, spraying each with water – and we heard them trumpeting too.
Perhaps even more amazing is that we had really up-close-and-personal elephant viewing. This is especially true when viewing ellies from a boat in the Chobe River.
For lots of close-up elephant viewing, we’d suggest a Chobe River safari on the elegant Zambezi Queen. Wake up to the sound of hippos grunting and sip champagne as you watch elephants play at sunset, just beyond your boat – magical…
In Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater, it’s almost a guarantee that you’ll glimpse the critically endangered black rhino.
Like Sabi Sands, South Luangwa National Park in Zambia is also a good place for spotting leopards. Try a walking safari too (they were pioneered there).
The Masai Mara, one of Africa’s most famous national reserves, is renowned for seeing lions on the hunt for wildebeest during the wildebeest migration from August to November.
Photo credits: 3, 4, 8, 14, 16 to 20, 24 and 25 are © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase | 6, 11, 15, 22, 23, 26, 28, 29, Simbambili Game Lodge | 30 Zambezi Queen Collection | Remaining photos Pierre Mouton except where noted