Big Five: Elephant
You’re relaxing by a waterhole. The sun is slowly sinking and you’re thinking about a refreshing sundowner. Suddenly there’s movement along the tree line. A single elephant emerges, then another. Moments later the ground rumbles as forty elephant are heading right for you.
You realise that it’s the water that’s calling them as they pick up speed, passing your vehicle en masse to crash at a run into the waterhole, scattering birds and antelope. It’s a moment of pure, trumpeting joy as young and old romp in the waters.
These five ton, twelve foot high mammals are the real kings of the bush. The trunk with, 50,000 muscles, can uproot a tree or pluck a flower. It can hose down a herd or gently lift a stumbling youngster. The mighty feet make barely a sound as they pass.
You can see elephant at virtually every game reserve in South Africa. Every encounter carries a sense of awe that comes from being in the presence of a mighty, yet socially advanced creature carrying generational memories handed down over centuries.
South Africa has always led the way in amazing safari accommodation. Singita Boulders Lodge
is one of the most luxurious small hotels anywhere in the world, especially given its setting in the heart of the African bush!
Imagine relaxing in your plunge pool on the private deck of your glass fronted suite. The sun sparkles in the condensation around your glass of perfectly chilled, estate bottled Chenin Blanc. Gaze across the sand river to the expanse of the Sabi Sands; one of the richest wildlife reserves in Africa and home to all the Big Five.
Inside your feet sink into the sheepskin rug, you run your hands over the furniture handcrafted from fossilised tree stumps as you wander around your suite enveloped in a cloud-like cotton robe.
Big Five: Lion
The chances are that the first time you meet a lion he will be lying almost asleep in the shade of a jackalberry tree. He might roll over like a big pussycat with a rumble that could almost be a purr.
But then he’ll open wide in a mighty yawn revealing fearsome teeth, and swing a paw that could swat you like a fly. This is a mighty hunter, and when a pride of 12 to 16 males and females makes its move nothing stands in its way.
Sunset is when the pride is most active and your guide may shadow them in your vehicle as they move with deadly stealth towards a herd of zebra. Your vehicle seems unnoticed provided you sit quietly!
The moment of attack is sudden and swift and they gorge watchfully on their kill as scavenging hyenas gather with grudging respect, waiting their turn.
Sleep in the trees
Surely the Chalkley Treehouse at Lion Sands
is a contender for the ultimate in honeymoon accommodation! A thrilling afternoon game drive seeking out the Big Five concludes at the foot of an ancient leadwood tree.
You look up and there, set in the branches is a platform complete with four poster bed, sofa, bathroom and a picnic table. As the sun sets and the stars emerge, dinner is served to the call of the wild.
Your guide leaves and you are alone under a star filled sky, suspended above the domain of elephant, lion and rhinoceros.
Big Five: Buffalo
The Big Five are so called because they were the most prized animals sought by the hunter. Prized for their might and respected for their dangerous nature.
You might be forgiven for thinking that the harmless looking buffalo is the exception. You’d be wrong! An adult bull can be 10 feet long and weigh 750 kg and comes complete with a bad temper, a set of long curved pointed horns, and an unpredictability that warns off all but the bravest of predators.
The Kruger, Madikwe
and Phinda reserves are all places where you can see great herds of buffalo several hundred strong. They are an impressive sight moving steadily across the plains, dust plumes rising in their wake, pausing regularly for sustenance at waterholes.
A few irascible old males stand guard on the perimeter, scanning their beady eye on the surroundings for any potential threats, accompanied only by ox-peckers sitting jauntily on their backs where they offer their vital tick-removing skills.
Paradise restored at Tswalu Kalahari
In the far north of South Africa on the edge of the Kalahari is Tswalu
; an exceptional lodge, even by South African standards. Neglected and over-farmed for decades, this vast, delicately balanced private reserve — the largest in the country — has been painstakingly restored and conserved as a place of wild and fragile beauty.
Setting off across the reserve on horseback, the early sun illuminates the landscape from a perfect cobalt sky. With the wind in your face and joy in your heart you’re free to explore. It seems too arid to support life, yet as you approach an oasis of green around a spring, there among the sable antelope is a pair of black rhinoceros. You’re downwind, and to them just part of the horse so you can sit as long as you like — a privileged spectator.
Return to one of nine sumptuous suites constructed in perfect harmony with the colours and texture of the ancient Korannaberg Mountains. Or, for a family or group of friends you might prefer to take Tarkuni — the beautiful private villa built for the Oppenheimer family who have pioneered the restoration of the reserve.
Big Five: Leopard
Undoubtedly the most elegant of the Big Five this sinuous feline is a creation of grace and beauty. Spotting a sleek leopard draped across the lower branch of a sausage tree, eyes half-closed, seemingly oblivious to your presence, will be the highlight of your early morning game drive.
Appearances are, again deceptive. This apparently languid cat can race across the plain, kill an adult antelope and then drag it in its teeth 30 feet up into a tree for safe keeping. Keep your eyes peeled, as you may well spot a tree with a half-eaten meal protruding from a fork of the trunk.
Even more exciting is being on a night drive and hearing a rustle close by before your spotlight picks out a muscular form leaping down from a tree, padding softly across the road, and heading out on its nocturnal expedition.
Be quick though, as it won’t be long before its distinctive spotted coat blends perfectly with the vegetation and it disappears from view again, a silent assassin hidden among the shadows of the moonlight.
The Cape and Garden Route
While the Kruger is its best-known wildlife region, South Africa has an immense variety of safari locations you can enjoy, including malaria-free game reserves. So, at any time of year it will be prime safari season somewhere in South Africa.
If you decide to take the family south to flee the European winter, head for the Cape
. There is so much to see and do in the December to March sunshine. Stand together on the summit of Table Mountain and look out hundreds of miles across the city, the bay and the ocean.
Then head east along the Garden Route for the perfect malaria free safari adventure in the Eastern Cape. Kwandwe
and Shamwari are two of the finest reserves set among the coastal hills, plains and woodland of the Eastern Cape where lion, giraffe, rhinoceros and buffalo are among hundreds of species of wildlife.
Big Five: Rhinocerous
Fifty years ago enormous populations of rhinoceros roamed throughout sub-saharan Africa. Now, sadly they are a rarity, with the market for rhinoceros horn leading to relentless poaching. South Africa remains a good place to seek them out as they are carefully protected in many areas, and there are signs that poaching is coming under control.
Their acute hearing and keen sense of smell make up for their myopia, and their naturally wary demeanour means any approach must be taken slowly and carefully, your guide’s voice lowered to a conspiratorial whisper as you creep nearer. The more solitary Black Rhino is usually the hardest to spot, disguised amongst dense bush, munching contentedly on the surrounding vegetation.
It may even be a mother, protecting a young baby. The thrill of seeing them up close from a slow-moving vehicle can be an emotional experience as you realise that this strange prehistoric-looking creature has survived through millennia until now.
This can often be bettered by venturing out to track them on foot with an armed ranger — you may be further away, but the dirt under your feet makes you feel more at one with the environment, a cautious interloper in a primeval world.
Seven ecosystems in One Safari at Phinda
Over a thousand miles northeast on South Africa’s subtropical Indian Ocean coast is the magnificent Phinda Private Reserve. This is a unique ecological region with seven distinct habitats, each of which has been lovingly conserved.
The guides and Zulu trackers at Phinda are among the finest in South Africa and passionately knowledgeable about the thousands of animals, as well as the 436 species of birds, that inhabit this wild paradise. They will take you into mountains, along the shoreline, through rich forests, across grassy plains and into fascinating wetlands. There is so much to choose from — an unforgettable sleep out, early morning cheetah spotting, ocean reef adventures and an infrared “night-eye” safari.
You have six contrasting lodges to choose from, each of which reflects its ecological setting. Awaking from a sound sleep at Phinda Forest Lodge, and the panoramic glass front draws you into a world of colourful birds and luxuriant foliage.