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A Big 5 Safari in Sabi Sands (+ Other Africa Big 5 Safaris)

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.

On a Big 5 safari in Sabi Sands, you're likely to see lions hunting!
We see lions on the hunt on our Big 5 safari in Sabi Sands!

Spoiler alert! Africa safari Big 5 contents:

Killer lions

The Big 5 safari animals

Sabi Sands Game Reserve

Our Big 5 safari in South Africa

Best South Africa safari lodges – Simbambili, Thornybush and 5 others

Best places to see the Big 5 in Africa – South Africa, Zambia, Kenya, etc.

Killer lions on our Big 5 safari

On a big 5 Safari, you may see lions hunting impala
Lions stalking impala in Sabi Sands Game Reserve

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.

Big 5 safari animals include lions
The lions feast on their kill

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.

Big 5 safari: This lion wanders off with part of a freshly-killed impala
This lion wanders off with part of a freshly-killed impala

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.

No doubt.

Big 5 safari
This lion won’t go hungry tonight…

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.

Hippos, which can more dangerous than lions, aren’t one of the “Big Five” safari animals

Sabi Sands Game Reserve

Out on a game drive in Sabi Sands Game Reserve
Out on a game drive in 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.

Monkeys groom each other…

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.

Leopards are perhaps the most elusive of the Big 5 animals to spot on safari
Leopards are perhaps the most elusive of the Big 5 animals to spot on safari

Safari in South Africa

Simbambili Game Lodge is one of the premier Sabi Sands lodges
Simbambili Game Lodge is one of the premier Sabi Sands lodges

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.

This dazzle of zebras are quite, well, dazzling!

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.

Oxpecker birds eat ticks and parasites off this wildebeest
Oxpecker birds eat ticks and parasites off this wildebeest

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.

Watching lions on a game drive

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!).

Rhino encounter

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.

A rhinocerous
This ornery rhino came a little too close to us for comfort!

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

Grazing herd of Cape buffalo
Quietly watching a herd of Cape buffalo graze around us

Not all our game drives were so adrenalin-fueled.

Once we just sat quietly gazing at a grazing herd of Cape buffalo.

This buffalo spies us warily…

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.

Enjoying sundowners in the bush on a Big 5 safari...
Enjoying sundowners in the bush…

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).

Making gin-and-tonics for sundowners
Making gin-and-tonics for sundowners on the grille that pops up at the front of our game vehicle

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.

Impala and kudu outlined against the setting sun
Impala and kudu outlined against the setting sun

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).

lions on safari - lion at night
A lion hunts 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 Game Lodge is set along Manyeleti River in the Sabi Sands reserve, which  borders Kruger National Park.
Simbambili Game Lodge is set along Manyeleti River in the Sabi Sands reserve, which borders Kruger National Park

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).

Our outdoor deck with private plunge pool

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).

Who’s got a sweet tooth? Cupcakes for dessert at lunch one day at Simbambili

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.

Falling asleep to the sound of roaring lions at night? Priceless…

Other top South Africa safari lodges?

We’ve already mentioned Thornybush Game Lodge (great for a family safari).

The list of best safari lodges in South Africa also includes:

Tips for your South Africa safari in Sabi Sands

We flew from North America direct to Johannesburg on South African Airways – see our review of SAA.

For safety reasons, you should pre-book your airport hotel transfers in Johannesburg with a reputable local company like JMT Tours.

Flying time from Johannesburg to Hoedspruit airstrip (for both Thornybush and Sabi Sand game reserves) is about 60 minutes.

Anti-malarial tablets should be taken (as Sabi Sand is in a malarial area).

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.

Cape buffalo in Africa
What big horns these Cape buffalo have!

South Africa

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.

We also saw elephants on our South African safari in Sabi Sands
We also saw elephants on our South African safari in Sabi Sands

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.

A Sabi Sands leopard with its kill in a tree


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.

You see so many elephants in Chobe National Park!
You see so many elephants in Chobe National Park!

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 wildebeest migration in Kenya
The wildebeest migration in Kenya

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.

More safari travel planning information

See these books and guides on African safaris, available on Amazon. (And just so you know, as an Amazon associate, we earn from qualifying purchases.)

Our top travel tips and resources

Hotels: is great for scoring a “wow” hotel – or at least a decent one. (We especially like their flexible cancellation policy!)

Vacation homes, condos and rentals: We prefer and use Vrbo (Vacation Rentals by Owner).

Tours: For the best local food, walking and other guided tours, plus skip-the-line tickets to attractions, check out Viator (a TripAdvisor company) and GetYourGuide.

Car rental: Renting a car is often one of the best ways to explore off the beaten path. Discover Cars searches car rental companies so you get the best rates.

Travel insurance: SafetyWing is designed for frequent travelers, long-term adventurers and digital nomads. It covers medical expenses, lost checked luggage, trip interruption and more.

Travel gear: See our travel shop to find the best luggage, accessories and other travel gear. (We suggest these comfy travel sandals for city walking, the beach and kicking about.)

Need more help planning your trip? Check out our travel tips and resources guide for airline booking tips, ways to save money, how to find great hotels and other crazy useful trip planning info.

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Big 5 Safari

Photo credits: 3, 4, 7, 12, 14 to 18, 22, 23, 27 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase | 6, 10, 13, 21, 24, 25 Simbambili Game Lodge | 29 Zambezi Queen Collection | 11, 19 Pierre Mouton

About the authors

Luxury travel journalists and SATW, NATJA and TMAC “Best Travel Blog” award winners, Janice and George Mucalov are the publishers of Sand In My Suitcase. Between them, they’ve traveled to all 7 continents. See About.

Find destination guides, global food-and-wine stories, luxury hotel reviews, articles on cultural explorations and soft adventure trips, cruise reviews, insanely useful travel tips and more!


Tuesday 13th of May 2014

Try Uganda next. Visitors fall in love with Uganda's breathtaking Rift Valley scenery, lush countryside and incredible biodiversity. Track our closest relatives, the Mountain Gorillas and chimpanzees, venture on safari to see the Elephants, Big Cats and incredible 1,066 species of birds, or just lie by the poolside overlooking the fabulous River Nile. Ugandans love to meet and greet new people – the country’s crafts, dance and community tourism intrigue and delight the visitor.

Colleen Friesen

Monday 11th of November 2013

Although I was at the Kapama Reserve, it sounds like we had very similar safari experiences. I don't think there's anything quite as awe-inspiring as watching lions tear apart their kill; crazy stuff that has a way of reminding me, that in spite of our insulated lives, we are still part of the food chain (especially if, like you said, we would have been dumb enough to get out of that jeep!). Loved all the photos (yours and the others you credited). Thanks!

Janice and George

Monday 11th of November 2013

The more animals we see in the wild, the more we realize how truly "wild" and unpredictable they are, no matter how "tame" they may appear (e.g., for elephant riding) or how cute they are when young. They deserve a healthy respect from us.


Thursday 7th of November 2013

These photos are surreal...cannot believe you saw a kill.

Janice and George

Thursday 7th of November 2013

We couldn't believe it either! How lucky did we get! And, we were told, it's not uncommon for guests to see a lion kill. Sabi Sand Game Reserve is definitely the place to go on safari for the best chances of seeing these kinds of animal encounters.


Monday 4th of November 2013

I cannot believe how beautiful these photos are. I envy you soooo much for having the opportunity to take such great pics. :) Good for you!

Janice and George

Monday 4th of November 2013

Aren't you sweet! But just so you don't feel too envious, some of these photos were also taken by our guide Pierre Mouton :-).


Monday 28th of October 2013

Great photos :)

Janice and George

Monday 28th of October 2013

Glad you enjoy them :-).