There are few wildlife experiences that can beat the thrill of a up close encounter with a member of Africa’s iconic Big Five – lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo and leopard. The famous five are still commonly found throughout South, Southern and East Africa, and the chance of seeing any, or all, while on safari adds an exhilarating edge to any safari experience.
Big Five safari destinations range widely and we advise safari first-timers to choose destinations like the private Kruger National Park reserves such as the Sabi Sands, which deliver exceptional Big Five safaris where you’re likely to see most, if not all, of the Big Five after just a couple of game drives.
For something off the beaten track, Zambia’s South Luangwa is not only known as the birthplace of walking safaris, but is also home to an enormous concentration of big game including an abundance of the Big Five. Botswana’s Moremi Game Reserve offers consistently good leopard sightings, big herds of elephants, lions, cheetah and packs of wild dogs, although rhino sightings are rare.
Our pick below of the best Big Five destinations – with the exception of Namibia’s Etosha National Park (no buffalo) – are home to lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhino. It is important to remember however that there are no guarantees when it comes to spotting all members of the Big Five while on safari. Leopards are notoriously elusive for example, and rhino numbers are dwindling all across Africa, so sightings of these creatures are becoming more and more rare.
South Africa – Greater Kruger National Park, Phinda Private Game Reserve & Madikwe
South Africa’s Kruger National Park, and the private reserves that border it, offer perhaps Africa’s most reliable Big Five sightings. The Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve is exceptional – leopards are relatively common and the area generally offers up the Big Five within a couple of days – while the Timbavati is famous for its white lions.
Phinda Private Game Reserve, with its incredible array of ecosystems, as well as the far northern Madikwe Private Game Reserve, offer easy Big Five game viewing in malaria-free, family-friendly environments.
Botswana – Chobe National Park & Okavango Delta/Moremi Game Reserve
Although you may struggle to tick off a rhino in Botswana’s two premier safari destinations, the country boasts Africa’s largest elephant herds, massive numbers of buffalo and lion, and robust populations of leopard.
The Okavango Delta and Savute region of the Chobe National Park are fantastic for elephant, buffalo and lion at any time of year, but you’ll see hundreds of elephant along the Chobe River from August to late October.
See our Best of Botswana Lodge Safari.
Namibia – Etosha National Park
Namibia’s iconic reserve may not have buffalo, but the quantity of lion and elephant more than makes up for the missing member of the Big Five! Etosha is also the place to see black rhino, and with its well-frequented waterholes, you’re bound to see excellent sightings of a variety of animals, with lion and leopard hot on the heels of antelope.
Travel to Etosha on our Namibia Desert Safari.
Zimbabwe – Hwange & Mana Pools National Parks
Zimbabwe is often overlooked as a safari destination, but safari aficionados swear by the country’s authentic accommodation, skilled guides and uncrowded national parks.
Hwange is Zim’s flagship reserve and boasts a tremendous variety of wildlife, with over 100 species of mammals and nearly 400 bird species recorded. It is also home to other less-seen animals like bat-eared foxes, wild dog, sable and roan antelopes and endangered black rhino.
It’s the Park’s elephants though that make Hwange world famous, with their numbers rivalling that of Botswana’s Chobe. There’s also plenty of other big game action here, with huge herds of buffalo and the rest of the sought-after Big Five.
Mana Pools is one of Zimbabwe’s most popular parks, and it’s easy to see why. The reserve lies on the Zambezi River, making water activities like canoe safaris and sunset boat cruises a major attraction. With its wide range of habitats and ecosystems, the park is home to a huge array of wildlife, and offers spectacular scenery and up-close encounters with the Big Five.
See the best of Zimbabwe on our Highlights of Zimbabwe Safari.
Zambia – South and North Luangwa National Parks
Few parks in Africa can match the phenomenal density of game that gathers at the lakes and rivers in the South Luangwa. While rhino sightings are rare, you will be able to feast your eyes on the rest of the Big Five, including massive herds of elephant and buffalo, and enormous prides of lion.
The South Luangwa is famous for its guided walking safaris, and these can range from a morning stroll from your luxury lodge, to several days in a remote bush camp. There are few experiences in the world that can beat walking through an untamed wilderness led by skilled, armed guides who are passionate about the bush and ready to share their extensive knowledge with you.
Zambia’s North Luangwa National Park appeals to those who want to experience Africa at its wildest: there are no permanent lodges, only few roads and just a handful visitors. Although you’re unlikely to see as much wildlife here as in the South Luangwa, the game viewing is still incredible! Highlights include vast herds of buffalo and elephant, many lion prides, and plentiful leopard and hyena sightings.
The focus in the North Luangwa is firmly on walking safaris, and the only accommodation is just a few seasonal bush camps that operate during the dry season (June to October).
See our Wild Zambia safari.
Big Five Travel Advice
Malaria-free Big Five destinations
Although Africa’s Big Five are intimidating, the truth is that the malarial Anopheles mosquito is far more dangerous! Many of our classic Big Five destinations are in malaria areas, and although the risk is often minimal or seasonal, and you are strongly advised to educate yourself about anti-malaria medication.
Alternatively, we’d advise safaris in malaria-free Big Five destinations, in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, Phinda Private Game Reserve, Pilanesberg National Park, or Madikwe Private Game Reserve. These Parks are ideal for families and safari first-timers, and you’ll see the Big Five without the risk of malaria.
See more about our malaria-free safaris over here.
The best time for a Big Five safari
Generally the best game sightings are during the destination’s dry season when the vegetation has thinned out and many animals are concentrated around permanent water sources. It’s also the most comfortable time to travel – dry weather, cool nights and warm days – but it’s also high season in terms of visitors, with corresponding higher prices.
Out-of-season Big Five safaris can be just as rewarding in terms of sightings, you’ll more than likely have the destination all to yourself, and you’ll pay less. Read more about affordable safaris.
Safety on a Big Five safari
Hunters coined the term ‘Big Five’, as they regarded lion, elephant, leopard, buffalo and rhino as the most dangerous animals in Africa to hunt. As a visitor however, armed with nothing more dangerous than a camera and travelling in a 4×4 with a professional guide and tracker, the risk posed by encounters with the Big Five is absolutely minimal.
It is however important to remember that lodges and camps in Africa’s national parks and game reserves, particularly those outside of South Africa, are often unfenced, and so it’s not unusual for animals to wander through the camp, especially under the cover of darkness. You’ll receive a safety briefing on arrival at your accommodation, and you will escorted to and from your room or tent by a guide, particularly at night.
Walking safaris in Big Five country
Little beats the thrill of a walking safari in Big Five country! With the prospect of an up close experience with any number of large and potentially dangerous animals at any moment, a Big 5 walking safari is probably one of the most exhilarating safari experiences you are likely to have.
Your safety is paramount. You’ll be under the professional care of an armed, highly skilled guide who is backed up by a team rangers and trackers.
Read more about our walking safaris.