A pair of female lions in the Klaserie Game Reserve on a Big Five Safari

Fulfilling a Dream – An African Big Five Safari

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The pre-dawn stillness of “the bush” was broken by our wildlife tracker, a tall man by the name of Enoch, pounding on the pole of our tree camp platform and announcing “time to get up!” It was not quite 5:00am in the Klaserie Private Nature Reserve and the blackness of the eastern horizon was just turning a light gray.

As we slowly gained focus, it would still be some time until we saw the first rays of sunshine. Somewhere, off in the distance, a nocturnal hyena giggled. We’d flown for two days and two nights to fulfill our dreams of going on an African safari and we’d finally made it to the bush.

For several years, we’ve had the dream of going on safari in South Africa. My parents had been to Africa several times and they urged us to “visit Africa before it changes.” We’d spent years trying to figure out a way of making this trip happen, but limited vacation time always got in the way. We couldn’t fathom making the trip for anything less than two weeks. We didn’t want to cut our experience short.

A female lion stretches and covers her eyes while laying in the grass of the Klaserie Private Nature Reserve
Female lion tired in the grass

Like most novice safari visitors, we had our dreams of seeing Africa’s big five game: the mighty lion, the majestic African elephant, the shy leopard, the fearsome rhinoceros and the unpredictable Cape buffalo. Of course, there are other animals we wanted to see: the skittish zebra, the elegant long-necked giraffe, the vicious hippopotamus, the stealthy crocodile, the graceful impala, and many more.

A bull elephant in the Klaserie Nature Reserve in South Africa
Bull elephant

So, in the early pre-dawn hours, we boarded our open-top Land Rover for our first game drive in the Klaserie Private Nature Reserve. It was a cold South African winter morning and we huddled under blankets clutching our cameras and hoping for big game sightings. Humming along the dirt track roads, we slowed for sightings of impala herds and several kudu pairs.

Our first sighting loomed large as we turned a blind corner. There, munching blissfully unaware on a small tree, was a male elephant. Due to the blind corner, we’d stopped closer to the elephant than our guide normally would like, however, this male was entirely unphased and gave us only a glance before going back to eating the tree.

Seeing a square-lip rhino (a white rhino) on a big five safari in South Africa
White rhino

Shortly thereafter, we came on square-lipped rhinoceros (sometimes called white rhinos) in a small clearing. These fearsome beasts were shy with us, sliding behind a bush and play hide-and-seek as we watched them.

Our guide, Matt, and tracker Enoch from nThambo Tree Camp explained rhino conservation, anti-poaching efforts and the disgusting trade in rhino horns. You read about this kind of thing in the news, but seeing this magnificent creatures up close (and not in a zoo), makes it all the more real…and heartbreaking.

The Cape Buffalo in the Klaserie Reserve
Cape Buffalo

On a subsequent afternoon drive, we saw four of the big five in one trip. Straight off, we saw a family of rhinos in a clearing – including a male, female and a calf. As we worked our way west towards the approaching sunset, we came on a herd of Cape buffalo were gathered in a small field and nearby a small male elephant was happily ripping a nearby tree of all its leaves and small branches.

Just down the dirt track, we headed off into the bush were two female lions were lounging in the shade. One of the lions had recently given birth. On this drive, we also saw warthogs, zebras and kudu.

Lance and Laura in front of a Land Rover on a Big Five Safari game drive
Enjoying our Big Five Safari in the Klaserie Nature Reserve

We moved to a different part of the Klaserie Reserve for the last part of our trip. On our final morning game drive, our game ranger Faffa from Africa on Foot camp, took us out for a game drive in the search of our final big five animal: the leopard. Far from our camp, in a stand of tall trees, we found one lounging lazily on a branch in a tree. She took our presence in stride. We were impressed with how beautiful these animals are!

A leopard in a tree
Leopard in a tree

A lot of people spend a lot of time planning the perfect South African safari and making sure they see the Big Five. And yes, the Big Five are each magical and amazing to see.

However, along the way, we realized that the journey is actually the destination. The process of tracking the animals, stopping to look at animal tracks in the soft sand and the way the grasses have been pushed down – it’s all part of the safari experience.

Yes, we had a game drive where we didn’t see anything other than three impala – all for a four-hour effort. However, even in that experience, we were having the time of our lives. Going on a big five safari was a dream come true!

We explored the Klaserie Private Nature Reserve while we were the guests of Africa on Foot and nThambo Tree Camp. As always, all opinions are our own.

24 thoughts on “Fulfilling a Dream – An African Big Five Safari”

  1. Glad that you had a good time!

    And I love that you found so much joy in the journey, rather than just the destination. I think so many people head to Africa wanting to tick the animals off the list. But that’s just the icing on the cake. If you go to Africa and don’t see all the other stuff which is where the true richness lies, you are totally missing the point. 🙂

    Looking forward to more posts!


  2. Suzanne Fluhr

    This is whetting my appetite for our trip to South Africa in October. I’m sure I’ll be bugging you with some more questions. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Diana Edelman

    I have done safaris in Sri Lanka, but that was mostly to see Asian elephants. This sounds amazing and something I would dream of doing!! What a cool experience you had, even if not all of the missions panned out as you expected.

    1. Laura Longwell

      The variety of animals was really remarkable. Not every game drive was a homerun, but we still saw so much!

  4. I’m a bit obsessed with getting to Africa lately, and this coverage isn’t helping 🙂 So glad you were able to make a big travel dream come true, and can’t wait to hear more!

  5. Dan @ A Cruising Couple

    What a trip!! An African Safari is high on my to-do list. I’d love the chance to photograph the big 5. That’s amazing you were able to find a leopard! Very jealous 🙂

    1. Laura Longwell

      I feel like I need a thesaurus so I can say something other than “amazing,” but it really was. Because we stayed in a private reserve, we were able to go off-road, so we got much closer to the animals than we would have imagined. On average, we were probably 20-30 feet away, which helped with the photos!

  6. I love the “cats” at the beginning of the post. Such a great adventure and great opportunity for wonderful pictures… opportunity that you clearly have not missed, but made the most of it.

  7. Great photos! Leopards very hard to spot, congratulations on seeing one. I lived in Africa for a while as a kid and have gone back a few times – there’s something very special about this continent.
    Frank (bbqboy)

    1. Laura Longwell

      South Africa is amazing. We’d love to go back and hope we’ll get the chance to explore more of sub-Saharan Africa too.

  8. Kenin Bassart

    Going on safari has always been a dream of ours as well. How long did you end up spending in South Africa. Did you find that 2 weeks was enough or did it just scratch the surface?

    1. Laura Longwell

      We were there about two weeks, excluding three days in Zambia. It was a great way to familiarize ourselves with the country and learn about other places worth visiting there when we have an opportunity to go back. It was an excellent experience, but one can always use more time, right? 🙂

  9. We went on safari in Tanzania earlier this year and it was seriously one of the best trips we’ve ever been on. We too save all of the Big Five. It’s really something to see these animals just doing their thing in the wild.

  10. Wow I can’t imagine how wonderful it was to see leopards in their habitat! Sounds like it was a wonderful trip.

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