Hunting the Big 5 with our Camera – Safari South African Style

The GypsyNesters in Kruger National Park in South Africa

As luck would have it.

The phrase doesn’t necessarily refer to good luck; sometimes it can preface a lament of ill fortune.

In the case of our photo safari in South Africa, as luck would have it, we were about as (good) lucky as anyone could get.

Elephants in Kruger National Park, South Africa

When we set out on Viator’s Best 3-Day Kruger Park Wildlife Safariwe packed our camera into the backpack excited at the prospect of seeing the Big 5.

Especially rhinoceros, since the endangered giants had eluded us in Tanzania.

There are only about 20,000 white rhinos left in the world, and about half of them live in Kruger National Park, so there is no better place to see them.

A rhino covered in birds in Kruger National Park in South Africa

And see them we did, dozens of them.

We saw them on the very first afternoon, and every day of the three-day tour.

We were closer to rhinos than we ever dreamed possible.

In fact, on the last day we were feeling fairly strongly that we might have been too close.

Baby Rhino at Kruger National Park, South Africa
Soooo cute! Look at his little bump of a second horn!

On our way out of the park we came upon a family of rhinos, so we stopped to watch as the momma and baby leisurely strolled across the road in front of us.

Meanwhile several other cars pulled up to take a look, which made the dad downright disturbed as he felt that he was being cut off from his family.

An angry male rhino in Kruger National Park, South Africa
He’s HUGE! And unhappy.

At that point the two-ton beast stepped into the center of the vehicles and got pretty protective, rocking back and forth and staring down each of his mechanical adversaries.

The nearest car to him was a tiny compact that weighed less than half of the gridlocked huge, horned creature.

The big guy could have crushed it in a second, and, and the driver was obviously distressed… with good reason.

Yet the car behind them seemed oblivious to the situation, so our fantastic guide, Phineas, who was feeling the tension, backed us away slowly, opening a path for the rhino and helping to defuse the situation.

The big fellah did an imposing, and less than graceful, backwards walk into the bush before turning to catch up with his family.

WATCH: We captured the whole rhino ordeal on video. It was hairy!

An elephant crosses the road in Kruger National Park, South Africa

As intense as that situation was, it wasn’t the highlight of our safari.

Day two would take that honor.

We set out early for an all-day game drive and immediately came upon more rhinos, then drove deeper into the park and found gorgeous giraffes…

Giraffes grazing on trees in Kruger National Park in South Africa

…and several giant elephants.

Elephants in Kruger National Park in South Africa

A herd of elephants in Kruger National Park, South Africa

Baboons groom each other in Kruger National Park, South Africa

Next we came upon a troop of baboons. There were at least thirty in the group, including several babies.

One looked to be brand newborn, perhaps only a day old, and we caught it nursing while the mother carried it along.

So cute!

A baby baboon clings to its mother in Kruger National Park in South Africa
Just look at that little baby’s face!

Phineas put his sixteen years of guiding experience to good use by spotting animals that we never would have seen on our own.

Our guide, Phineas, on our Kruger National Park Photo Safari in South Africa with Viator

Driving in Kruger National Park, South Africa

He also utilized his ability to speak 12 languages – from Afrikaans to Zulu (and German and English) – to talk with other guides about where to find animals, especially the elusive big cats.

As much as we were focused on rhinos, without a doubt lions are the main attraction at Kruger National Park.

However, they can be a bit reclusive so it is not uncommon for visitors to miss seeing them.

When he heard that two lions had been spotted Phineas hurried us to the area, only to find several other groups looking without any success.

After surveying the situation, he broke off from the pack and spotted the pair of predators lounging under a tree about a quarter of a mile away.

It was one of several times that we wished we had a tripod to get a better shot, but we made due steadying the camera on the truck.

While everyone else was looking for the cats further down the road, Phineas had a hunch that led us right to them.

Once we had enough time watching the lions undisturbed, Phineas kindly went back to alert the other guides to their location (it’s cool to be the ones in the know!) and headed off to lunch.

With lions, rhinos, and elephants already marked off our list in the morning, we needed only two more sightings to complete Africa’s Big 5.

An African Buffalo in Kruger National Park in South Africa

The five animals were chosen because of their desirability to hunters, and their dangerous nature.

They are considered the most aggressive and likely to attack or kill humans.

The next one for us to see, the African buffalo, came soon after our meal.

That left us with only the leopard to complete the set.

A hippo surrounded by birds at Kruger National Park, South Africa

Throughout the afternoon we saw more and more elephants, until we were calling this the day of a hundred elephants.

We also spotted even more rhinos, a jackal, crocodiles, hippos, wildebeest, a myriad of birds, zebras, a few warthogs, steenboks, and endless impalas… but no more cats.

Steenboks and impallas in Kruger National Park, South Africa
Steenboks and impala – Phineas calls them “fast food” – the impala even has the Golden Arches on his flank!

Not that it mattered, with so much to see we had pretty much forgotten about leopards.

A giraffe eating from the treetops in Kruger National Park in South Africa

In fact, we were pretty thrilled because we had observed, and photographed, all of our GypsyNester Big 5: giraffe, hippopotamus, rhinoceros, elephant, and zebra.

A zebra at Kruger National Park, South Africa

So as sundown drew near we headed for camp excitedly discussing what a great day it had been.

Beautiful sunset at Kruger National Park in South Africa

Then we crossed a bridge about a mile from camp and spotted a spotted cat slinking along the riverbed.

A river in Kruger National Park, South Africa

It was a leopard, meaning that we had seen all of the Big 5 in one day!

A leopard in Kruger National Park in South Africa

Phineas assured us that we truly were incredibly lucky, since this almost never happens.

A hornbill in Kruger National Park, South Africa
A hornbill at our camp.

By spending three days in the Park, we felt relaxed with the pace of our explorations.

It helped that the park has all of the necessary accommodations within its boundaries, which saved time and made us feel more connected to our surroundings.

Our cabin at Berg-En-Dal camp in Kruger National Park, South Africa

In the evenings, we sat on the patio of our cabin at the camp at Berg-En-Dal listening to the sounds of wild animals filling the air.

Pretty sweet, and hardly roughing it, with comfy beds and air conditioning, plus a full service restaurant featuring dining under the stars.

Our cabin and patio at Berg-En-Dal camp in Kruger National Park, South Africa

A kudo pot pie at the Berg-En-Dal camp restaurant in Kruger National Park in South Africa

In keeping with our exotic surroundings, the first night we ordered wild kudu cooked in a pot pie, and as a schnitzel.

We had never heard of kudu, but our verdict was that they are quite tasty.

Phineas explained that they are a large antelope that is very prevalent in the park, and sure enough, he hunted some down for us the next day.

A kudu in Kruger National Park in South Africa
The non-shaggy kudu
A kudu on Kruger National Park in South Africa
And the fancy shaggy kind!

At Kruger National Park in South Africa, we ate lunch while watching elephants and hippos in the nearby river!

The restaurant at the Kruger’s Lower-Sabie camp could be the best lunch location we’ve ever experienced.

Seated on the balcony overlooking the Sabie River, we watched hippos, elephants, crocs, and kudus visit for a drink or a bath.

There’s no beating it.

An elephant walks by a river in Kruger National Park, South Africa

Certainly these critters can be dangerous.

To ensure that there aren’t any unwelcome wildlife encounters, all of the camps in the park are fenced off to keep out razor-sharp toothed visitors.

It’s kind of like we humans were the ones in the zoo.

The sun turns into a big round ball every evening in Kruger National Park, South Africa
Every evening, the sun turned into a huge, perfectly round ball.

In addition to our time in Kruger, the drive back and forth from Johannesburg gave us a chance to learn about the history of South Africa and an opportunity to see a good bit of the country’s landscape.

The journey took us through vast, open farmland, rolling foothills, and forested mountains, which was not what we expected to find.

A warthog crosses the road between Johannesburg and Kruger National Park in South Africa
And the animals kept showing up – warthogs are faster than we imagined!
Vervet monkey in South Africa
A vervet monkey in a village along the way.

Phineas discussed everything with the knowledge that living in a place all of his life brings.

He was equally comfortable conversing about South Africa’s origins, politics, Nelson Mandela, and the nation’s rise from apartheid, as he was explaining the ecology and wildlife.

Taking a different route back to Johannesburg gave us the chance to pass through the mountains that we had seen from below on the way over.

Along the road from Johannesburg to Kruger National Park in South Africa

Pilgram's Rest in South Africa

We drove along Bushbuck Ridge, stopped off for an amazing panoramic view from God’s Window, headed over Robbers Pass, and had lunch in the well preserved old mining town of Pilgrim’s Rest.

We considered this all a bonus because the tour really was all about the animals.

As Phineas told us when we were entering the park on the first day, “It’s not a zoo, you never know what you’ll see.”

Well, as luck would have it, we saw it all.

David & Veronica,

Big thanks to Viator for providing this wondrous adventure! As always, all opinions are our own. To see more about this tour, click here.

See all of our adventures in Africa!

YOUR TURN: So how about our Phineas? Is he a font of knowledge or what? What is YOUR personal Big 5?

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39 thoughts on “Hunting the Big 5 with our Camera – Safari South African Style”

  1. Fantastic up close and personal experience with those beautiful creatures! And you were very, very close. I’m sure I’d be petrified being stared down by a rhino. Glad it all worked out peacefully. 🙂

  2. I am of two minds about showing this article to my wife. Given the rich animal sightings you are describing, she would definitely want to head over to South Africa and Kruger Park in a flash!

    1. September, when we went, is the end of winter there and it is still dry season. Also Phineas pointed out that soon the trees would all have leaves making it harder to spot the animals. So I think we went at about the perfect time. Didn’t know it before we left, just got lucky.

  3. What a wonderful trip and you brought back so many memories of our time in Africa. Your pics are superb too! Thank you by the way for kindly commenting on my WA Lighthouses story yesterday x

  4. What remarkable photos! Kruger National Park looks simply beautiful. All those wonderful animals. I have a soft spot for the giraffes glad you were able to capture one. What an adventure!

  5. Briliant! We can’t wait to get to Kruger – we have already visited a couple of parks closer to Pretoria and are off to Madikwe in November, and then Kruger in December. I wonder whether you ever get to the point where you have had your fill of wildlife?

  6. I don’ think there is anything better than going on safari. I think I could spend all day in the jeep looking for those beautiful animals. It’s so exciting for you to have seen the big 5! Thanks for the memories!

  7. Visiting Kruger National Park tops my bucket list and I hear the drums beating when I read a post like yours – Definitely a dream come true! How fabulous to see “The Big Five” but I’d be hard pressed to figure out which of these magnificent animals would be in my top five list. They’re all amazing! Anita

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