The excitement of being in the African bushveld – “the bush” as we call it – is that you never know what you’ll see next. It may be an attractive lizard that you can’t remember seeing before, or a particularly beautiful tree bursting from the bareness of winter into flower, or an unusual bird, or it may be one of the Big Five.
The term Big Five was coined by hunters who regarded these animals as the most difficult and dangerous to hunt – on foot, of course. They are the Elephant, Lion, Leopard, Rhino and Cape Buffalo. Certainly there are other large and potentially dangerous animals that didn’t make the cut, such as Cheetah and Hippopotamus for example. But the Big Five have worked their way into bushlore and now every visitor to the African wilderness areas wants to see them.
Somehow the Lion gets to be first among equals. There is a fascination about these creatures that goes beyond their beauty and grace. There is the subtext that this is the ultimate predator. Their group hunting is strategic involving stealth but also planning. And their prey can be as small as a baby buck or as large as an elephant. Or a human. During the day they are usually lying peacefully under a shady acacia tree, perhaps on their backs, snoozing. But at night all that changes. The darkness is in their favour.
Male Lion at Night. Picture: Aron Frankental.
Going on a game drive is about the fun of experiencing the African bush itself, but there is the pinnacle offered by seeing the Big Five in one drive. It’s like a hole in one at golf. You have to have everything just right and then you have to get really lucky. I’ve been going to the bush for sixty years (admittedly more as baggage than as an asset for the first few) but I’d never seen the Big Five on one game drive. Until now.
Relaxing at a dam in the evening having a sundowner and watching the yawning antics of a waking hippo, we hear that a leopard has been sighted apparently making its way towards one of the other dams. We finish our drinks and head off in that direction. We have no real expectation of seeing the big cat, but we don’t have an agenda for the next hour anyway. The most direct route is blocked by a herd of elephants. We do a three point turn in the bush only to collect a branch. I remove this and discover three elephants – two females and a youngster - loping down the road towards us with ears out and trunks raised. I don’t think they were really angry; perhaps the mother was entertaining her youngster by making us run! Nevertheless I’m on the vehicle in record time exhorting the driver to go, my voice two octaves above the usual timbre.
So we get to the dam. There are four other vehicles facing it, occupants waving and gesticulating to us. We drive in next to them, inadvertently blocking their view and disturbing the leopard on our right. When this is explained to us curtly, we apologise and look more sunburnt than usual. But all is well. Another herd of elephants comes down to drink, and shortly afterwards the leopard gets up and strolls between the pachyderms unconcerned by them or by our rude entry. Everyone gets a good view.
We try to follow the leopard but lose her, only to come upon three male lions – a triumvirate we’ve seen on another night. (One member is the subject of the picture above.) We lose them, staggered by the luck of three of the big four at one dam essentially at once. But almost immediately we come on a small family of rhino – a youngster and two adults. A small girl in the car ahead is almost incoherent with excitement. She’s pointing and waving. We nod; we see the rhino too. But she’s not watching them; the leopard is there! It is toying with the rhino, irritating them and frightening the youngster. It’s an extraordinary piece of behaviour.
At last the rhinos wander into the bush and we lose them and their attendant leopard. Our driver – young and optimistic – asks if anyone has spotted a buffalo, the missing ingredient for a Big Five game drive. No one has. I tell him not to be greedy. We head for home.
A few minutes later one of us spots big red eyes in the bush. The spotlight reveals a lone buffalo bull...
Enjoying the bush isn’t about a Big Five Drive, any more than golf is about hitting a hole in one. It’s the rarity that makes it special, that’s all. The next day we repeated our route of the previous evening and saw very little. But we had a wonderful drive.