A Big 5 Safari in Kruger National Park

We rounded a corner and there in the road essentially right in front of us were the painted forms of a pack of wild dogs. Their Mickey Mouse ears swiveled as our safari truck sputtered to a stop, and one or two got up, the fluffy white tips of their tails fluttering in the light wind.

“I’ve been on safari more than a dozen times,” my friend David said in front of me, “and I have never been lucky enough to see these guys before.”

Going on safari in Africa is a dream for many people; it’s that quintessentially bucket-list-worthy experience that basically everyone dreams of doing.

And what I learned from my own time spent on safari in Africa is that it is 100% worth the hype – because no two safari experiences will ever be the same.

My safari experience began with arrival at the Skukuza airport from Johannesburg. Formerly a private-plane-only airport, you can now get to Skukuza via AirLink flights on South African Airways. The airport is tiny – just one runway – with a thatched roof and an open-air design that oozes Africa.

We were met by Lazarus, our ranger from the Jock Safari Lodge where we’d be staying, and ushered into a waiting safari truck. Safari trucks in South Africa are built with optimal wildlife viewing in mind, with open sides and stadium-style seating, and by the time we got to the lodge, we’d already been treated to an encounter with some giraffes.

And it would only get better from there.

The Big 5

Traditionally, the “Big 5” were the five most dangerous animals to hunt on foot in Africa: the buffalo, elephant, rhino, lion, and leopard. And, while hunting is still legal in many African nations, the majority of the “shooting” these days is done with cameras.

The Big 5 today represents the top five animals that people hope to see on safari – and we were lucky to see them all.

In fact, we saw the Big 5 on our very first game drive into Jock’s private section of Kruger National Park. Lazarus was incredibly talented at spotting animals in the bush (you wouldn’t think that something like a rhino or giraffe could hide very well, but they can!), and also seemed to have a knack for being in the right place at the right time.

Buffalo

You may not look at a cape buffalo and automatically assume it’s dangerous. But buffalo (and especially the lone males) can be incredibly unpredictable, often giving no warning before they charge at you.

We saw plenty of buffalo in Kruger – huge herds, in fact. They aren’t the prettiest animals, but I enjoyed watching the birds hopping all over them.

Elephant

Elephants are some of my favorite animals on earth. I’m always amazed by how graceful and quiet they are despite their size, and never tire of watching their interactions with one another. Elephants have personalities that can rival the ones that we humans have!

We saw quite a few elephants in Kruger: there were a few that ambled through the dried-up riverbed right in front of our lodge, a handful munching trees along the side of the road, and one particularly adorable family group that was playing and drinking in the riverbed.

This family group had three fairly young babies, and we all were incredibly amused when they all decided to “charge” our safari truck. Cuteness overload.

Rhino

Before going to Africa, I was aware of the plight of the rhino there. These animals are becoming critically endangered thanks to poachers killing them for their horns. Knowing this, I didn’t really expect to see many in the wild. But guess what? There are still a LOT of white rhinos in Kruger!

We saw close to a dozen on our first game drive, including a mama and young baby that grazed right alongside our truck for a while.

They baby – complete with adorable baby rhino rolls – was a treat to see. It gives me hope that perhaps we can still save these beautiful animals.

Lion

We probably had the most luck with seeing lions – in fact, we saw them on 3 of our 4 games drives.

The first encounter was after dark on the first night, when we witnessed two male lions calling/challenging each other on one of the paved roads (you can listen to this in my video). The lions stalked down the road towards each other in a territorial dispute, and we nearly saw a real cat fight!

On the second day, we became voyeurs to a pair of lions mating (fun fact: lion sex only lasts for a handful of seconds, but when they are mating they do it every 10-15 minutes for days on end!).

We also came across a group of four young males napping in the shade right alongside the road.

And, lastly, we met with a whole pride of young lions atop a rocky hill at sunset that evening.

The teenagers were fascinated by the wheels on our safari truck, and one even “stalked” us for a while as we drove away!

Leopard

Of all the Big 5, the leopard is definitely the most elusive. In fact, it’s not uncommon for people to never get a glimpse of one on safari. This is because leopards are largely nocturnal and they are also quite shy – spotting them isn’t easy!

At the end of our very first game drive in Kruger, we were just returning to the lodge to get ready for dinner when Lazarus came running back inside to tell us that there had been a leopard sighted just a few minutes away. So we piled back into the safari truck and went off-roading into the bush. We ended up spotting not just one but TWO leopards – a mating pair that were slinking through the bush together.

We held out hope that we’d be able to see one of the spotted cats during the day, but we didn’t get to see them again in Kruger.

Other animals

Even though it’s the Big 5 that most people focus on while on safari, there are SO many other animals to see in Africa, too. We also spotted more giraffes, a few zebra, tons of antelope, baboons, warthogs, wildebeest, hyenas, and wild dogs.

Giraffe in Kruger National Park

Giraffe

Zebra in Kruger National Park

Zebra

Wildebeest in Kruger National Park

Wildebeest

Baboon family in Kruger National Park

Baboons

Hyena in Kruger National Park in South Africa

Hyena

Kudu in Kruger National Park

Male kudu

On our last game drive, we witnessed a playful pack of wild dogs chase and then taunt a small group of hyenas – even though neither were animals on our Big 5 list, this was one of the most exciting things we witnessed, mostly because the dogs are so rare. Even Lazarus was cackling like a gleeful little kid as we followed the dogs on their mission.

I expected to love being on safari – but the experience far exceeded my expectations.

It’s one thing to see lions and elephants on TV or at the zoo, but it’s another entirely to see them in the wild, with no fences or anything else stopping them from… well, just being wild! On more than one occasion, my dad and I would meet gazes across the safari truck and acknowledge just how special it was to be there, seeing it all with our own eyes.

This is one bucket-list item that is absolutely worthy of a top spot.

Where we stayed

There are lots of options for safari lodging within Kruger National Park. The Sabi Sands area is incredibly popular, but I stayed at a smaller lodge fairly far away from any others. The Jock Safari Lodge blew me away with its luxurious rooms, great food, and friendly staff.

We stayed at Jock for two nights and went on four separate game drives (two in the morning, and two in the evening). We also had the option to go on a walking safari with head ranger Lazarus, which gives you an entirely different perspective on the wild African bush.

Walking safari in Kruger National Park

And, of course, you could also just relax on the daybed overlooking the riverbed and be almost guaranteed to see things like antelope and elephants!

Elephant in Kruger National Park

Elephant spotted from our outdoor daybed

If you’re looking for a relaxing safari experience in a beautiful setting, I can highly recommend the Jock Safari Lodge (and no, I didn’t get paid to promote them or even get any discounts – I just legit LOVED my time there!).

Is going on a safari on YOUR bucket list? If so, which animal would you be most excited to see in the wild?

 

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30 Comments

  • Heather says:

    So fabulous!!!! I loved it all. The lions were my favorite but I like seeing all the animals. I also like the video you posted on the wild dogs. That was pretty amazing. Beautiful post and photos.

    P.S. You have an erroneous can in the rhino section and a they instead of a the. (I am sorry!! Working for a newspaper has given me the habit of copyediting in my head LOL)
    Heather recently posted..Week 10: Portrait: Environment

    • Amanda says:

      Thanks so much, Heather!

      And my only excuse for the typos is that I was too excited to hit publish on this one! (Though I have no clue where that random “can” came from – it was supposed to be another rhino photo! Fixed now.)

  • Stephanie says:

    This is my dream trip! I can’t believe how many animals you got to see. The hyenas look so interesting to me for some reason. I feel like a safari in Africa is one trip everyone should include on their bucket list. I’d love to see the rhinos and lions in particular, but I know I’d feel a bit anxious at the same time being so close to them. But that’s also the excitement!
    Stephanie recently posted..Photo of the Day | The Importance of Giving Yourself Time to Play

    • Amanda says:

      I agree that this is something everyone should put on their bucket list! It’s a way to see animals that isn’t harmful to them, and you really do come away with such a greater appreciation for nature.

      The only time I was really anxious being so close to such big predators was when one of the young lions started stalking our truck (you can see it in the video). I was acutely aware of the fact that it could have easily jumped right into the back of the truck where I was sitting!

  • Ijana says:

    This looks like such an amazing experience! That picture of the hyenas and dogs is great, as is the one with the lion on its back xD It sounds like it’s just a really special thing to see animals out where they have no human interference like in zoos and stuff. Definitely on the bucket list!

    • Amanda says:

      Very, very special. It’s hard to explain just how special it is – but it’s definitely unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before!

  • Our Wanders says:

    Awh… all these beautiful photos! That baby rhino is especially adorable!
    Maybe it’s a silly question, but can you take short walks around a lodge like this which is out in the wild? Or have you always been accompanied by a ranger?
    Our Wanders recently posted..7 Charming Hungarian Cities You’ve Never Heard Of

    • Amanda says:

      At Jock, there’s a large wall/fence around the entire lodge, and you couldn’t go outside this without being accompanied by a ranger. And after our bush walk where the rangers were armed and so alert the whole time, I don’t think I would *want* to go wandering on my own!

  • Amazing photos Amanda! Did you do all that with your 300mm lens? Great write-up, too – it really makes me want to make South Africa the next item in my bucket list.

    • Amanda says:

      Yes, most of the animal photos (and video!) were taken with my 300mm lens – SUCH a good purchase for this trip! I had my 12-40mm lens on a second camera body just in case, but I hardly used it at all.

  • Dominique says:

    What an awesome experience! I’ve been on safaris before, but I can’t say I’ve seen mating lions and fighting hyenas 🙂 I agree with your opinion that safaris are never the same; I’ve done three and I have no intention to stop!
    Dominique recently posted..Utrecht – Concert Xavier Rudd

    • Amanda says:

      And game drives in Namibia and Botswana were equally awesome, and yet so totally different. I don’t know that I could ever get tired of safaris!

  • Ella says:

    What a special experience! That’s awesome that you got to see the Big 5. I did a safari in Masaai Mara National Park in Kenya and also got to see the Big 5 there… it was so incredible! I managed to get them all on camera too, which I’m very proud of because I had a terrible camera back then haha.

  • Great recap of the animals! We just went to Kruger in September for our honeymoon and were blown away. Many people say it’s once in a lifetime trip, but I’m already thinking about how to get back! Great job on your video – I wish we had thought to do one! We just did our first one in Ireland, but Kruger has such great material to capture!
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  • Ahh what an incredible experience!
    I cannot wait to go on safari one day!

  • This is simply amazing! I would literally be singing “The Lion King” soundtrack the whole safari haha Cannot wait to experience this myself one day!
    Amanda | Lesson Plans & Layovers recently posted..High Tea at the Wellcome Collection in London

    • Amanda says:

      Oh believe me, my dad and I totally were! Haha. And on my overland trip (which included more game drives in different parks), we actually went out and bought the Lion King on DVD and watched it at one of our campsites!

  • Ashley says:

    WOW What an incredible experience!! You saw everything! And such amazing photos. I bet that was an experience of a lifetime.

    • Amanda says:

      We really did see it all! And yes, experience of a lifetime for sure (though I could definitely see myself doing it again at some point!).

  • Tobi says:

    Wow! Amazing pictures. It looks like you had an awesome time. It’s now on my list! Thanks for this! And the lions… Incredible… Cheers!

  • I am in Jo’burg these days and I am planning a trip to Kruger National Park. The best thing that happened today that I stumbled on your blog. But recently that incident of the hyena attacking the kid has feared me too and I am not sure how safe these lodges are. Whats your view on this?

    • Amanda says:

      Well obviously any time you have wild animals involved, no one can guarantee your safety 100%. But the lodge I stayed at was very safe, and it would be difficult for any animals other than monkeys to get inside the walls/fences. I can’t speak for other lodges, of course, but Jock seems to have things under control!

  • Bucket list for sure! Amazing photos!

  • Oh my goodness! The pictures you’ve taken are amazing. That baby rhino :D! I have always wanted to go on a safari and I dream of seeing lions, giraffes, rhinos, zebras, and elephants in the wild. How neat, that you saw a leopard!
    Kati from Ms B Travels recently posted..Liebster Award

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