The Big Five are the superstars of Africa, and spotting them in the best safari destinations in the world is genuinely one of life’s biggest thrills. But what is the Safari Big Five exactly? The term was coined in the 19th century by big game hunters who listed the African elephant, African lion, Cape buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros as the most dangerous creatures to hunt on foot in Africa. Thankfully this practice has mostly died out, and these incredible animals are now protected mainly in national parks and game reserves. Although, as a result, these animals now thrive, there is still no guarantee you will see them.
Where to go and what to expect.
Safaris are often a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, so it is worth taking time to consider your options and doing some research on the various destinations and what they have to offer.
- When do you want to go?
- What do you want to see?
- If you are travelling with children, what are their ages?
- How much time do you have, and whether you want to spend the whole time on safari, or would you like to include some downtime on a beach.
- Of course, your budget.
Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya.
I begin with Kenya as this is the country I visited on Safari with my young family. My youngest of four was 13 years old. As one of the best safari destinations in the world, the Maasai Mara was on my bucket list and definitely did not disappoint. We visited in August during the school holidays, which, though it was a popular time, did not feel too busy.
We stayed at Private Governors which is an amazing tented camp and the tours began early in the morning before the sun rose. Though it was cold then, the kids found it very exciting. The initial safari lasted a couple of hours. After that, it was back to camp for a much-welcomed breakfast, after which the second day’s safari began. The afternoon was really relaxed; we rested or sat around the nearby watering hole, watching the hippos interact. Then in the evening, we went out for our final safari of the day, which ended as the sun went down with drinks and snacks on the Mara, referred to colloquially as ‘sundowners,’ This was when we often saw lions lazing under nearby trees. We saw all of the big five, including the elusive leopard. We even witnessed the great wildebeest migration as they tried to avoid the crocodiles crossing the Mara from Tanzania. This was very fortunate for us as this migration usually takes place in July. Still, for some unknown reason, even to our guides, it was a couple of weeks late.
We also regularly spotted giraffes, hippos and crocodiles lurking in the rivers, along with wildebeest, zebra and gazelle. My particular love is for elephants, and I was lucky to encounter so many on safari. I just adore their matriarchal and very caring society and the fact the large cows dictate their own path, and everyone, even those in jeeps, quickly moves out of their majestic course.
We also had a walking tour with Jackson, our Maasai guide, a young warrior who invited us back to his village. He taught us how to brush our teeth using bark from the Salvadora persica. All I am saying is it’s no wonder he had such beautiful clean white teeth; it burned like hell, and my gums were numb for hours. He also taught us to play a game which involved putting lumps of dried goat dung into our mouths and seeing who could spit it the furthest. Not the easiest thing to accomplish with a numb tongue. I think I cannot be the only one who inadvertently swallowed some. There is an expression about eating similar substances now which is very popular as an insult. So at least when it’s levelled at me, I can reply I already have…always a silver lining.
Visiting the Maasai village was an incredibly humbling experience. We also had night time visits from a group of young warriors. They ran through the Mara in the pitch black to visit us and perform a ritual dance, in traditional dress, spears and all, whilst we sat around a campfire. This was both exciting and slightly terrifying.
We combined this trip with a few days in Mombasa at Serena Beach Resort before taking a drive and a ferry over to Diani Beach, voted one of the most beautiful beaches on earth. Our trip to Diani Beach was a great success. The beach itself is simply stunning and very relaxing, an absolute paradise. The crystalline Indian white sandy beach stretches before the eye for miles. The sand is the softest I have ever trod upon, literally it was like walking on a velvet carpet. Something about the light, the sun and the trees covering this coastline… its tranquillity is mesmerising.
There are a lot of activities on the beach, we tried snorkelling and scuba diving for the first time, which was terrific; the seas are teeming with colour and life. One of the highlights was a boat trip when we saw a humpback whale in the distance, which left my children speechless…sadly, the first and last time that happened. There are also countless restaurants, hotels, and shops nearby. The best time to visit is from January to March and July to September.
My youngest son’s ear swelled during our visit and was very painful, probably due to a spider bite. Although we visited a local doctor who saw us immediately and prescribed antihistamines and antibiotics, it was reassuring to know this level of medical support was available.
Samburu National Reserve, Kenya
Take a journey into the wild bushland of the Samburu National Reserve on the banks of the Ewaso Nyiro River. Here you’ll have the chance to spot a unique kind of Big 5 – the ‘Samburu Special 5’. These five rare animals can only be found in the Samburu ecosystem and include the Reticulated giraffe, the Grevy’s Zebra, the Beisa oryx, the Somali ostrich and the gerenuk.
You might even get to spot some of these animals on a special guided nature walk accompanied by a local expert who will be able to share a wealth of wisdom on the plants and animals found in the area.
Along with the Samburu Special 5, you’ll also have the chance to see more famous animals including elephants and lions just like Elsa, the lion cub made famous in the award-winning book and movie ‘Born Free’. Samburu National Reserve was one of two areas where conservationists George and Joy Adamson raised the lion cub.
You can get to know more about the region’s conservation and anti-poaching efforts in the nearby Ol Pejeta Conservancy, the largest black rhino sanctuary in East Africa.
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