The Big 5 – What It’s Like to Experience the Magic of Africa

Heather Markel, Writer, Speaker, Photographer, Traveler, Business Strategist

Lions and leopards and buffalo, oh my!

I’ll be honest. I never heard the term “The Big 5” until I came to Africa. I knew there were elephants, but I saw those in Thailand. So, I was looking forward to seeing animals, as I always am, but I wasn’t in search of any particular ones. I certainly didn’t expect to be so viscerally impacted by the experience.

An oryx.

Photograph by Heather Markel, Copyright 2019

I sign up fo a 3-week safari that covered South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe. We say goodbye to Cape Town (me thinking this is the last I will see of this beautiful city) and head north. Along the way we stop at a Rooibos farm and disembark in the middle of nowhere to admire some poisonous plants where the land is, quite literally, covered in crystals. I ask our tour guide if I can take a few. With his permission I select one each of the three different crystal rocks I see.

“I am still perplexed at the patterns on these animals – as if they are carefully painted by an artist.”

It’s with a degree of disbelief that I stare out the window when our truck makes it’s first wildlife sighting stop. We aren’t in a national park, we’re just minding our own business on a local road. “Oryx!” yells our tour guide, “Stop the truck!” This unbelievably complicatedly beautiful beast stares at us from the flat land on our right. White with tribal-lines of black and brown across its body, as if someone had carefully and perfectly painted them on. I gape, speechless, wondering how such a beautiful animal exists in this world and I have never seen a photo or heard its name before. Sometime later, the truck stops again and a short distance away are a zebra mommy with her tiny zebra baby. Just grazing from the land, yet keeping a watchful eye on us. I don’t get my camera out fast enough because I’m so mezmerized my brain doesn’t think to take a photo for several minutes.

A different zebra mother and baby – when I finally remembered to take a photo!

Photograph by Heather Markel, Copyright 2019

Things start heating up when we stop for our first giraffe. Let me explain. There’s is a giraffe right outside the window of our safari truck! I mean, it’s right there, like it could stick it’s head inside! What? This isn’t a zoo, and now I never want to go to another one if I can help it. This is a giraffe, walking around it’s land, eating lunch from the tree right by the side of the road. Though I never tire of seeing this phenomenon, our truck begins passing the many oryx, zebra and giraffe on the road to keep to schedule. Cries of “Oh, it’s just another oryx” circulate among the passengers. So, to clarify, we’re in Africa, we’re seeing amazing wildlife, and we have started to take that wildlife for granted!! Sadly, this happens.
When we finally see them, the elephants blow me away with their power and fierceness. In Thailand, they are large with little ears. They’re cute, they’re playful and you can feed them. In Africa, we maintain a very large, respectful distance and marvel at how they can be that enormous and have babies that are so playful and how they all love frolicking in mud. One evening we see a beautiful elephant family come out for water at night. It’s the most majestic thing I’ve ever seen. A few days later, we see our first rhino. It’s very far away. Honestly, so far that I’m not that excited because I can’t really see it. The next day, I take a smaller vehicle and a mother rhino with a “tiny” baby pass right in front of our car. I stare in disbelief, once again. The baby is adorable. Side note – I’m extremely angry at the people (I’m told they are in China) who are so arrogant they feel they have the right to have rhinos poached so they can grind the tusks into powder that will prolong their erections or make them more potent, all of which has been medically disproved. Whoever you are that is creating this market, a giant “fuck you” for bringing this beautiful animal to the brink of extinction. Later in my travels, I see a rhino family – a male a female and a large baby. The female is angrily snorting at the male and charges him and dust clouds rise in her wake. She is one powerful mama. Our guide explains to us that the male is frisky and the female wants none of it. I cheer her on, though silently, so as not to make her charge us! These rhinos are so close to us that I can’t believe we’re safe, but this is the wonder of the experience – being able to be that close to such beautiful, wild beasts, and also exercise respect to turn off the engine and be silent.

I see three sets of lions. One pride is so far away that with my poor zoom lens, I can’t see much. Zooming way in with binoculars, I see the male has a kill and his mouth is covered in blood. He walks off behind a large rock. He returns several minutes later and the blood is gone. I make a mental note that this scene would be a perfect advertisement for laundry detergent. On another occasion, I see two females. They are closer to us, but still quite far. Finally I see a male lion. He’s sleeping, but with his paws in the air like a cat. Our approach wakes him up. He’s irritated, which he displays by getting up, walking away, and finding a resting spot farther away from us. He then goes back to sleep. Ah, the life of a lion! Though, sadly, I learn that male lions constantly battle for leadership of a pride. When a new male takes over, he kills all the cubs, and impregnates all the females. Not such a fun life.

If you’re a longtime reader, or know me, you’ll know I love cows, and anything cow or bull-like. When I learn there were Cape Buffalo I am overjoyed! The first ones we see are just lounging about. Throughout my time in Africa I see many more, including walking across the road in front of us. At one point, our vehicle stops and we are perhaps 200 feet from a small group. We’re told they are older males. They’re apparently like cranky old men who have lost their sex drive. They can become highly aggressive and, sadly, have to be killed if they run into a town as there’s no stopping them. Bullets ricochet off their horns. I’m saddened to learn this could be their fate. But, then, as I see a buffalo and a baby elephant carcass, I realize that each animal I see, each day, has, quite literally, survived the night. Their entire lives are predicated on survival and fight or flight, terms that are considered unfortunate for humans. In the animal kingdom, this is just another day.
My favorite sighting though, is the leopard. Perhaps because it takes so much effort, but I think because they are simply the most elegant animal I have ever seen. My first miss is at Etosha National Park in Namibia. While I’m off in a smaller car, the rest of my tour group stays in our safari truck. They see a leopard, we do not. They show us photos, and I truly believe they have downloaded them from the internet. The photos are real. I have to see one. Our next chance is at Chobe National Park in Botswana. I tell our guide I want so badly to see a leopard. He responds, very matter of factly, “Yes, there’s one with a kill in the park.” For some crazy reason I still don’t understand, the guide tries to talk us out of seeing the leopard, and this prompts two people in our group to adamantly decide they don’t want to go see it. The other vehicles in our group all go see the leopard, and do. We go see more elephants. The two jerks who decided we should not see the leopard complain that they’re seeing animals they’re bored of.(!!) I feel completely cheated, so, in Zimbabwe, I try another game drive. No luck. I can’t believe I’ve come all the way to Africa, developed an unhealthy obsession with leopards, and now I might leave without seeing one.
As a last ditch effort, I decide to try Kruger National Park. I stay for 3 days, and end up with a game drive guide that is, of all my guides, the most driven to ensure we all see the animal we most want to. Ironically, my first leopard sighting is at night. There’s a mother and cub. Though they aren’t too far from us, the lighting is terrible and I can’t make them out in photos. Now I’ve gotten spoiled. I clarify to the universe, and my guide, I want to see a leopard, and I want it to be close to our vehicle, and I want to see it during daylight so I can get great photos. The next day we drive around a tree and I see spots near it that stand out, only slightly, from the tall grass. I think I’m hallucinating. I suddenly realize I’m not breathing. It’s a male leopard. He’s relaxing inbetween bites of his meal hanging in the tree. We drive within 20 feet. I’m within leaping distance of a leopard! He’s beautiful. His eyes are gorgeous, he’s panting, he avoids eye contact with us. I’m instantly smitten, and also feel like a jerk being one of the tourists over-invading his space. I take some photos, but my camera has trouble focusing on him between the blades of grass. The next day we’re treated to a young leopard at the side of the road stalking an impala. She’s stealth, muscular, lean and incredibly beautiful. None of us can believe she doesn’t pounce the impala. Instead, she follows it into the distance. On my last day at Kruger, driving out of the park, our truck suddenly comes to a stop. There’s another leopard walking right towards us. Like a cat, casually going for a walk, who has chosen the very same road we are driving, going towards us as we go towards it, it’s as if Africa is rewarding me with all the love I feel for her.

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