Looking for where to see the big five in South Africa? Then read on below, where we’ve asked travel experts and bloggers from around the world to share their tips on the best places in South Africa to spot the big five animals.
South Africa offers a fantastically accessible way to see some great wildlife in a country that’s tourist-friendly and great value. Not only that, but there are plenty of national parks and private game reserves that are home to the big five, meaning you can see them all on one safari – or, if you’re exceptionally lucky, on just one game drive!
Not sure what the big five animals are? The short story is that the African Elephant, Cape Buffalo, Leopard, Lion, and Rhinoceros were named ‘the big five’ by hunters, as they were considered the most difficult and dangerous African beasts to kill whilst hunting on foot. Find out all about the big five animals here.
So below we list the nine best places in South Africa to see the big five animals. If you’ve been on safari in South Africa and seen the big five we’d love to hear from you – leave us a comment and let us know where you went and what you saw!
Jump to section: Addo Elephant Park | Aquila Game Reserve | Klaserie Private Nature Reserve | Kruger National Park | Madikwe Game Reserve | Pilanesberg National Park | | Plettenberg Bay Game Reserve | Pumba Private Game Reserve | Samara Private Game Reserve | Sabi Sands Game Reserve | Timbavati Game Reserve | Map
Addo Elephant Park
Contributed Péricles Rosa from by 7 Continents 1 Passport
If you’re looking for the best places to see the big five in South Africa, you can’t miss Addo!
Addo Elephant Park is the third-largest national park in South Africa and the world’s first “Big 7” conservation area, home to the traditional Big 5, and also the great white shark and southern right whale.
Located in a malaria-free safari area 40km from the coastal city of Port Elizabeth, the park is a sanctuary for a multitude of wildlife, including more than 600 elephants, 400 Cape buffaloes, black rhinos, lions, spotted hyenas, leopards, zebras, 400 species of birds, a great variety of antelopes and the unique flightless dung beetle.
Addo has a 64 km road network with two tarred big loops and other small gravel roads; a main camp featuring a swimming pool (only for overnight visitors), restaurant, gift shop, picnic area, and a wide range of accommodation options.
I visited Addo in the beginning of September 2018, while traveling along the Garden Route, and loved it.
The greatest thing about Addo is that you can get very close to the animals. We drove near zebras and elephants without disturbing them. In fact, more than once we were completely surrounded by many elephants of all sizes and ages.
I didn’t see lions, but I spotted herds of kudus, red hartebeest (a first for me), warthogs, dung beetles, a cape buffalo, and even a black-backed jackal and caracal.
Addo not only provides guided game drives, but also hop-on guides (guiding services for visitors in the comfort of your own vehicles). Advanced booking is required.
Don’t forget to bring along binoculars, cameras and wildlife reference books.
Aquila Private Game Reserve
Contributed by Manpreet, HelloManpreet.com
Approximately 2 hours drive outside of Cape Town, is the Aquila Private Game Reserve. We recommend hiring a car for the day and the drive from Cape Town is stunning and you’ll get a moment to stop and take photos of baboons that frequently side along the highway railings.
The game reserve does also have a hotel pick up bus service, but it’s fairly expensive compared to car rental.
The game reserve itself boasts a lovely hotel and spa for overnight visitors, and for those doing full or half-day safaris, buffet meals are provided before the safari.
We were staying at the infamous Taj Hotel in Cape Town and had booked Aquila for a half-day safari. Starting at about 12 pm and finishing at 3 pm. Be sure to take some swimming gear as the outdoor pool is accessible for all visitors before and after the safari with a beautiful view of the game reserve.
You will absolutely love the tour guides who take you around the reserve, they get just as excited to see the animals as you would on your first trip.
Amazingly, the reserve provides training to other reserves around South Africa in ways to protect Rhinos from poachers.
Aquila hosts the Big 5, the lion, rhino, leopard, elephants, and the buffalo. These five were on the brink of going extinct in the Western Cape and the original founders of Aquila wanted to set out finding land to provide these 5 to continue to live on in this part of the world.
Kwa Zulu Natal
Contributed by Erin Mushaway at SolSalute
Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park is the oldest game reserve in South Africa, founded with the goal to conserving and repopulating Africa’s rhinos. It’s not only possible to see all of the Big 5 here, but it is the best place in South Africa to see rhinos. Don’t miss a visit to the Centenary Capture Centre to learn about their conservation work.
While home to all Big 5, cats can be difficult to see here. However, if you do spot you may be rewarded with a rare sighting of lions lounging in the trees. In the heat of the summer, the lions are known to climb trees in search of relief from the humid hot days.
Hluhluwe-Imfolozi is near South Africa’s eastern coast in Kwa-Zulu Natal. While it deserves at least two or three days to explore in-depth, it’s a very easy day trip from nearby St. Lucia. A number of tour operators offer guided game drives departing from this beachside town near South Africa’s wetlands.
If you do decide to stay within the park and dedicate the time it deserves, there are two lodgings within the park to choose from. Hilltop in Hluhluwe is more comfortable, with a restaurant, larger curios shop, and even Wi-Fi. We stayed at Mpila in Imfolozi, which is a bit more rustic and only offers self-catering. However, enjoying our dinner on our tent’s deck while a hyena paced back and forth next to us was a priceless experience.
Klaserie Private Nature Reserve
Greater Kruger Area, Limpopo
Contributed by Anna, Would Be Traveller
Klaserie Private Nature Reserve covers 60,000 hectares and forms part of the greater Kruger National Park. That means the Big 5 are free to roam in and out of the reserve’s land as they please. You’ll find everything from buffalo, elephants, and rhino to lions and leopards (as long as they’re not hiding!) But what makes Klaserie extra special, is the opportunity to see rare species including African painted dogs and cheetah too.
Klaserie is 40km to the east of Hoedspruit, making it an easy addition to any 2 week South Africa itinerary. The landscape is beautiful, with open plains, forests, and plenty of waterholes and the Klaserie River, from which it’s easy to spot animals drinking.
As a private nature reserve, only a certain number of cars are allowed on the land at any one time. You can, therefore, enjoy your safari in relative peace and quiet, which makes for intimate sightings and reduces the impact on animals.
The accommodation on offer is wonderful. You can choose between authentic camps and luxury lodges, including Africa on Foot, which specialises in walking safaris, and nThambo Tree Camp, which boasts canvas-walled tents perched on stilts, giving you beautiful views as you rest.
Kruger National Park
Limpopo and Mpumalanga
Contributed by Nicole from Nicole LaBarge Travel Blog
Kruger National Park is one of the most popular safari parks and the best place to see the big five in South Africa. Kruger is located five hours east of Johannesburg and is the most exciting African safari destination.
Kruger has a high density of wild animals and is one of the best places to see the Big 5 – lions, rhinos, elephants, buffaloes, and the elusive leopard. We were able to see a leopard up in a tree with its kill. Leopards often eat their kill up a tree otherwise it may lose the meal to another animal such as a hyena. It has even been documented that a leopard has lifted prey twice its size up into a tree.
We spent a lot of time watching this leopard in the tree and even though we were close, I was still using my binoculars to look at the leopard and watch it. Whilst it is great when you can see the wildlife up close, binoculars can really help with spotting animals that are farther away. They can really improve your African wildlife experience.
We stayed in Nelspruit near Kruger instead of staying inside the park. Nelspruit is mainly famous due to its proximity to Kruger National Park but it is also a great city to visit on its own. From the botanical gardens to the Jane Goodall Chimpanzee center you will find plenty to do there.
Madikwe Game Reserve
North West Province
Contributed by Cameron, The World Pursuit
Madikwe is a tremendous private game reserve that provides all visitors a truly unforgettable safari. While many think of going to Kruger, Madikwe is the far less crowded option with just as good of game viewing. Madikwe Game Reserve is the fifth largest game reserve in South Africa and a big five reserve. The game reserve has nearly 60 species of mammals and a population of over 10,000!
One just one game drive it’s possible to see a lion, hyena, elephant, rhino, leopard, and everything in between. Being here truly feels like being out in the wild. There are no paved roads and nothing touristy feeling about Madikwe Game Reserve unlike some other parks in South Africa. The big draw of Madikwe is all the incredible wildlife you can see on the reserve. You can expect to find all of the classic safari animals such plus some you may have never heard of. The best part is it’s only a four-hour drive away from Johannesburg in the northern part of South Africa. Making it easy to get to from the city.
A great place to stay is Jaci’s Lodge and Jaci’s Tree Lodge. It’s an amazing lodge and we could not think of a better place to go on safari. It’s romantic and the perfect place for an African safari honeymoon as well.
Pilanesberg National Park
North West Province
Contributed by Mariza, Hoponworld
Located less than 3 hours drive from Joburg, Pilanesberg Nature Reserve is a tranquil escape from the bustling streets of urban life and one of the best places in South Africa to spot the Big 5.
Set in a volcanic crater formed more than 1.2 billion years ago, Pilanesberg boasts a fascinating and varied landscape full of plant and animal life. With more than 7000 animal species and well over 300 birdlife, it’s not surprising that Pilanesberg is a must-visit place in South Africa. Besides getting a closer look at the diverse ecological riches, there is, of course, also a chance to see rhino, elephant, buffalo, leopard, and lions roaming in the African bush.
Self-driving is a fun way to explore the reserve, but joining a guided safari tour is an excellent alternative if you’d rather sit back and enjoy the views. Of course, if you’re looking for a unique experience, consider taking a hot air balloon ride to admire the stunning scenery from above!
It is possible to explore the Pilanesberg on a day trip, but staying a bit longer is highly encouraged. There’s no shortage of accommodation options catering to all kinds of budgets and preferences within the reserve. These range from safari tents to luxury lodges and everything in between!
Oh, and travel tip — You’ll need to pay an entrance fee to access Pilanesberg, but it will be totally worth it! (South African residents: ZAR80 per adult, International travelers: ZAR110 per adult, Vehicle: ZAR40).
Plettenberg Bay Game Reserve
Contributed by Paula, Paula Pins The Planet
It is a blessing to see the big 5, something most people only dream about. While your safaris in South Africa would be far from incomplete without seeing all 5, it can be very challenging to see some of these elusive magnificent animals. One way to guarantee to see as many animals as possible is to visit a Private Game Reserve. You may think this is cheating, but far from it. This isn’t a zoo or a fenced area for hunters. The Plettenberg Bay Game Reserve is a safe, protected home for Africa’s big 5 and many other animals. A guided tour can get you up close to many animals and explanations of the species, their habits and their life in the wild.
Your tour at Plettenberg Bay Game Reserve will start at the lodge with an introduction to your expert guide (who answers all of your questions). You can choose a 2-hour game drive or a 2-hour horseback safari. You’ll be amazed at how many animals you will encounter throughout your 2-hour adventure, and how much you will learn about them. The cats are kept in a separate area from the rest of the animals, for obvious reasons, but the remaining animals have free roam of the reserve, mixing, mingling, congregating, and grazing.
You will be able to see the big 5, giraffes, zebras, hippos, antelopes, wildebeest, and maybe even a honey badger! One of the best aspects of visiting the Reserve is how much you will learn from the friendly and knowledgeable guides. These people know and love the animals and their passion for preservation is wonderful.
The Reserve is in Plettenberg Bay, on the Garden Route in the Western Cape Provence. You can stay in the lodge, or easily find accommodations in the town.
Pumba Private Game Reserve
Contributed by Claire, Stoked to Travel
Pumba Private Game Reserve is located in the Eastern Cape, just 20 minutes from Grahamstown and 1h20 from Port Elizabeth, which is also the nearest place to fly into.
As with other private game reserves in South Africa, you’re less likely to see herds or packs of animals but instead, you have a higher chance of a closer encounter with one of the Big Five. The unique thing about Pumba is that it is home to only the second-known population of the rare white lion in the whole of Southern Africa! Getting up close to one of these rare lions is a very special feeling, and the guides at Pumba radio each other frequently so you have a pretty high chance of seeing one. On our stay in Pumba, we had a seriously incredible experience – we saw a territorial male golden lion chase a male white lion over the savannah. We were within 100m of the action and at one point, we were racing alongside them in our jeep. A once in a lifetime moment!
Although Pumba makes for an excellent day trip from Port Elizabeth, it’s certainly a special place to stay for a few nights and there is a fantastic luxury 5* lodge with stunning views across the reserve. It also works well to add it on to the end of a Garden Route itinerary finishing in Port Elizabeth.
Sabi Sands Game Reserve
Greater Kruger Area, Mpunalanga
Contributed by Pamela, The Directionally Challenged Traveler
Sabi Sands is one of the most famous private game reserves in South Africa due to its game viewing possibilities. Neighbor to Kruger National Park, the wildlife roams freely between the two in their natural environment. Sabi Sands has a reliable source of water for the animals, so there are always animals to be spotted. Leopards, the most elusive of the Big Five are regularly spotted among the trees in Sabi Sands.
The guides at the lodges are passionate and knowledgeable about the animals and how to track them. One thing that sets Sabi Sands apart is the communication that goes into trying to find the Big Five for each guest. For example, if a ranger spots a leopard on one day, they will let the other rangers know where it was spotted, if it fed or looked hungry, and what direction it was going. This helps the other ranger track the leopard’s movement. Since so many people make the journey to South Africa to see these animals, it’s great to know the staff goes the extra mile to make it happen.
There are over 20 lodges within the Sabi Sands Game Reserve making it easy to find one that fits your style and budget. Staying in the Lion Sands River Lodge provides a view of the Sabie River and the potential for hippopotamuses, water buffalo, and elephants to visit.
Samara Private Game Reserve
Great Karoo, Eastern Cape
Contributed by Lauren Melnick, Wanderlust Movement
Samara is a Big 5 luxury private game reserve in the Eastern Cape. Only 2.5 hours from Port Elizabeth, the 67,000 acres of malaria-free wilderness in the Great Karoo is the perfect setting for a unique safari adventure.
Besides the opportunity to see the Big 5, one of Samara’s unique experiences is tracking cheetahs on foot. Your guide will use radio collars to find the big cats, and once it’s safe to get out of the game drive vehicle, you’ll get the chance to follow them from a distance!
It’s the ultimate safari experience for big cat lovers or wildlife photographers who want to capture these incredible creatures in their natural habitat. All game drives include a sundowner and high tea at the Manor.
Travelling to South Africa for your honeymoon? Book Samara’s Star Bed! You’ll get to curl up with your partner in a remote, secluded location with spectacular views over the mountainous landscape and the Milky Way above.
If sleeping outside is too much for your comfort zone, Samara has two luxurious lodges on the property.
Please note that you can only take part in the Big 5 game drives and the cheetah experience if you are guests at the lodge. The rates per night include a full-board meal plan, two game drives daily and guided bush walks.
Thanda Private Game Reserve
Kwa Zulu Natal
Contributed by Daniella from No Hurry To Get Home
Thanda Game Reserve is one of the best places to go in search of the every-alluring Big Five, especially if you’re up for a more private experience that you’re unlikely to find anywhere else in South Africa. Thanda is spread over a 14000-hectare reserve that’s completely privately owned, so you’ll rarely find yourself sharing a wildlife viewing with other cars!
Set just a three-hour drive from Durban, Thanda is one of the best places to spot the Big 5 in the KwaZulu Natal area, especially if you’re keen to go on a safari that’s more on the luxury side. Moreover, Thanda has a deep commitment to wildlife conversation and the Zulu culture, and how they’re both intertwined with one another, so you can expect your game drives to have culturally-immersive aspects as well! Plus, if you’re keen to learn about the reserve’s amazing conservation efforts, you can always join the team in various activities like rhino and cheetah tracking.
There are different types of camps in Thanda Game Reserve, all owned and operated by the reserve itself. If you’re on a budget, you can go for a stay at Thanda Tented Camp, which is an extremely romantic camping experience. If you want something a little bit more luxurious, you can opt to book at Thanda Safari Lodge instead!
Timbavati Game Reserve
Greater Kruger Area, Mpunalanga
Contributed by sustainable travel bloggers Oksana & Max from Drink Tea & Travel
Located in the Great Kruger Area, Timbavati Game Reserve is an excellent place to see the Big Five. Unlike in Kruger National Park, certified jeeps in Timbavati can go off-road and get as close as 6 meters away from the animals and since the low density of lodges and camps in Timbavati ensures that each section of the park is serviced by no more than 3-4 camps and lodges, so there are never more than a few cars at each sighting.
While we were on our safari in Timbavati, not only did we get up close and personal with the Big Five but we also got to see lots of giraffes, zebras, impalas, and wildebeest. As well as unique rare animals, like wild dogs, honey badgers, and a rare white lion.
Formed in the 1950s, the Timbavati Game Reserve is an unfenced privately owned wilderness area on the western boundary of Kruger National Park. This means that animals can travel freely between the areas.
We stayed at Umlani Bushcamp while visiting Timbavati, a comfortable bushcamp built from natural materials in a traditional African style. We can highly recommend them to anyone visiting the area for their commitment to sustainability and social initiatives.
South Africa’s best big 5 locations mapped
That’s our list of the best places to see the big five in South Africa. Have you experienced the big five in any of these places? Or have any suggestions of other places to add to the list? Let us know in the comments section below!
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Other wildlife ‘fives’
Have you seen the big five animals and are are looking for a new wildlife challenge? For safari aficionados up for ticking all the ‘I’ve seen’ boxes, have you heard about the other groups of 5 animals?