Chasing the Big Five on Safari in Tanzania

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On Safari in Tanzania

What Are The “Big Five”?

Back in colonial┬átimes where erudite British gentlemen didn’t have iPhones and nightclubs to entertain them, big game hunting in the wilds of Africa was a pastime of considerably less universal derision than it is today. Many believe that the ‘Big Five‘ describes the five largest animals in Africa, but in those less sophisticated times, the term ‘Big Five’ was used to describe the five hardest African animals to hunt on foot. For those playing at home, the members of this illustrious hit list were:

  • African Leopard
  • Lion
  • Cape Buffalo
  • Elephant
  • Rhino

While (thankfully) it is less common for these beautiful (and in some cases, endangered) animals to be hunted with impunity; many tour companies now use the ‘Big Five’ tag to attract people wishing to see all of these animals. In November of 2014, it just so happened that I got the opportunity to accompany Shadows of Africa on a four-day safari that included the Serengeti, Tarangire, and Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Better still, we managed to spot all five and hunt them with cameras and selfie sticks at the ready.

Tarangire: Lions and Elephants

The first day of our safari saw me, Lisa of LL World Tour, and Robert of Leave Your Daily Hell packed into the 4wd with our trusty and knowledgeable driver, Timo. That may just be the strangest abbreviation of ‘Timothy’ I’ve ever encountered.

Tarangire’s dry and dusty plains surround a single river, but the sheer abundance of wildlife within the park was just jaw-dropping.

One of the countless zebra I snapped photos of while they ate by the roadside.
One of the countless zebra I snapped photos of while they ate by the roadside.

In a show of utter safari naivete, we spent a disproportionate amount of time photographing zebras, giraffes, and impala. By day four, we didn’t even bat an eyelid at such pedestrian fare. Strange how quickly we went from slack-jawed to ambivalent.

Our first encounter with one of the Big Five saw us come face to face with a wounded male lion who had sought refuge under a tree by the road. Our truck lurched to a halt as we passed within a metre or two of the magnificent animal. It showed its utter disdain for our gawking by slinking off into the savanna with only an occasional look back over its shoulder at us.

A wounded male lion slinks away from us.
A wounded male lion slinks away from us.

To have come so close to the animal was just awe inspiring. Only a few scant metres (and the car itself) stood between us and one of the most beautiful, dangerous hunters on the planet. It was a humbling experience.

Later that day, bellies full after our monkey harangued lunch; we would come across a herd of female elephants and their young as they ambled with disinterest across our path. So indifferent to our presence were they that one elephant even ventured up to within a few feet of our car to snatch mud from a puddle and splash itself (and us) to keep cool.

This female elephant came up to our truck to play in the puddle we were parked in.
This female elephant came up to our truck to play in the puddle we were parked in.

Serengeti: Leopards

In both hunting and tourism, the African Leopard is the hardest of the Big Five to catch in the wild. Solitary and largely nocturnal, leopards are both beautiful and elusive. They also happen to be my absolute favourite animal. You can imagine my utter joy when we came upon one sleeping high in a tree with its recently killed impala dinner wedged somewhere above it to keep it safe from vultures and hyenas.

The sleeping leopard wakes to regard me with disdain from his lofty perch.
The sleeping leopard wakes to regard me with disdain from his lofty perch.

We spent a thrilling twenty minutes gazing at and photographing the beautiful beast, and I could have spent a great deal more time. My photos don’t even begin to do justice to just how beautiful this big cat is. Our day also included another elephant encounter, and this one was thrilling in an entirely different way.

Where Tarangire had offered up females and their young, the Serengeti saw us come face to face with a bull elephant who was none too pleased at our presence. With ears flashed out he advanced upon us not once, but twice – eventually prompting our driver to put his foot down and get us the hell out of there.

Danger! Danger! This bull elephant let us know in no uncertain terms that we weren't welcome.
Danger! Danger! This bull elephant let us know in no uncertain terms that we weren’t welcome.

Ngorongoro Conservation Area: Cape Buffalo and Rhinos

Our final day on safari saw us descend into the otherworld Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Hemmed in on all sides by sheer cliffs, the Conservation Area is every bit as alive with life as the more famous Serengeti. Herds of impala, wildebeest, and zebras; flocks of flamingoes; and an abundance of hippo wallowing in the water made our day’s exploration a real treat.

A hippo doing its trademark yawn in a pool by the Serengeti Four Seasons.
A hippo doing its trademark yawn in a pool by the Serengeti Four Seasons.

We started our day coming face to face with a couple of grazing Cape Buffalo. Considered the most dangerous animal in Africa by some, the Cape Buffalo is placid enough when encountered in a herd – but gets a kind of superhero strength when cornered or frightened.

A Cape Buffalo on its own can fend off an entire pride of lions

Timo informed us with grave certainty. With their cow-like appearance, it’s perhaps easy to consider them nothing but harmless herbivores, but their sheer size makes them much more daunting when encountered up close.

Hard to believe the Cape Buffalo is such a dangerous animal as it munches on ferns by the road.
Hard to believe the Cape Buffalo is such a dangerous animal as it munches on ferns by the road.

As our day wound towards its end, it looked like we wouldn’t get to see the final member of the Big Five. Over-hunting has made the African Rhinoceros even harder to spot when on safari, but we were lucky enough to catch the barest of glimpses of a pair as they foraged for food about a kilometre from where we’d parked. It wasn’t the up-close look we’d have liked, but zoom lenses allowed us to at least snap a couple of photos to complete our collection.

A rhino grazes in the distance in Ngorogoro. As close as we got, sadly.
A rhino grazes in the distance in Ngorogoro. As close as we got, sadly.

And the rest

Our four-day safari saw us come into contact with all manner of weird and wonderful animals. Whether they were the commonplace (zebras, wildebeest, and impala), the iconic (giraffes, hyenas, hippos, and vultures), or the more unusual (serval cats, dik-diks, wildebeest, and monkeys) – Africa offered up such a wealth of memorable experiences and sheer beauty for us on our four day visit.

Inquisitive giraffes rubberneck at us as we drive back to civilisation.
Inquisitive giraffes rubberneck at us as we drive back to civilisation.

So in love with the whole experience was I, that I’ve since accepted a job working with Shadows of Africa as their Australia & New Zealand consultant. Not only does this have the perk of getting me the occasional trip back to Africa to do it all over again, but the privilege of helping other people discover just how moving a safari experience can be.

Next time, I’ll have to try my luck at finding the Little Five.

And the cheetah that eluded me this time around.

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Want to see more amazing photos of Tanzanian wildlife? Check out LL World Tour’s fantastic Tanzanian safari photo essay!

Your Say

What animal would you most like to see in the wild? Have you ever been on safari and ‘hunted’ the Big Five yourself?

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11 comments

    • Thanks, mate! Credit has to go to the Shadows of Africa tour guide who was able to get us close enough that I didn’t need to zoom too much!

  1. OMG so jealous! You had me with that first zebra shot but then the giraffes came along at the end, my favourite, love em!!

    • I was *so* excited when we first came across zebras, giraffes, and impala. It’s a bit sad that by the end of the trip, we barely even looked up when our guide pointed them out. Such beautiful animals.

  2. So incredible! Did you get any good shots of monkeys, or were they mostly hidden out? Love to see them, if you did. I was wondering if the safari is really grueling or not a struggle at all. Hot, I’m sure.

    • Aren’t they stunning? It was like he was looking right at me! Really lucky to have had my finger on the button at the right time, haha.

    • I couldn’t believe our luck. We would have been maybe 7-8 metres away and with an unobstructed view of the beautiful beastie. I could have stood there for hours.

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