Big Five and Beyond
Lessons from a local on how to make the most of this magical continent.
WORDS KIRSTIE BEDFORD
Click speaker icon above for sound
“People say they want to come to Africa to see the Big Five.” Sherwin Banda from African Travel tells me. “But when you ask them about their experience afterwards, they always say, ‘I went for the wildlife, but I will return because of the people'."
South Africa-born Sherwin is president of the longest established luxury safari operator focused exclusively on Africa, and his enthusiasm for the continent is catchy.
“Africa is often referred to as the cradle of humanity, and when you are there, it’s as if you connect to the rhythm of Africa. Something magical happens with that ancient cultural connection. It's a feeling that comes through your bones. You can leave Africa, but there’s no way Africa will ever leave you.” He says.
Sherwin's eyes widen as he talks about his love for his homeland and why seeing the Big Five is, quite rightly, high on the agenda. "The experience is something unique to Africa, and it stirs something in you that you can't explain until you have personally come face-to-face with a lion, leopard, rhino, elephant or buffalo."
To make the most of your experience, he suggests staying at private concessions within national parks.
“These are lodges that have special areas within the national park and so there are no boundaries. The animals patrol the area and you get to go and safari any time of your choosing. If you just think of cats, they are more active at night than during the day, so you get experiences that everyone else who has to leave the national park doesn't. And, because the lodges are small, you will never have over-tourism."
Sherwin says anyone planning on a safari must also do one thing before they go. "Disable geotagging on all of your electronic devices. This stops poachers from tracking your location that can be found in images you share on social media and protects the wildlife."
Nothing beats an African sunset
Opening your horizons
Sherwin says while the intention of most travelers is to see the Big Five, there are also plenty of other fascinating wildlife to be found on an African safari and it provides an incredibly rich experience.
“My favorite are painted dogs,” Sherwin explains. “When you understand the psychology behind these animals, it is fascinating. They operate as a pack and therefore they have a higher success rate in hunting than big cats."
He says giraffes are another incredible species to watch, particularly when they are eating given they have four stomachs.
“The joy of safari is that no two days are the same. You don’t know what’s around the corner. When you are on safari you are having your own National Geographic moment.”
“When you are there, it’s as if you connect to the rhythm of Africa. Something magical happens... it's a feeling that comes through your bones.”
While travelers gain much from a trip to Africa, you’re giving much more than you could imagine in return. “Countries here would not survive without investment in tourism. The largest number of people employed benefit from tourism. When people travel to Africa, they not only support the livelihoods of many local communities but when they purchase local products or souvenirs they also allow culture and heritage to survive.”
He says women in particular have benefited greatly from visitors to the continent.
“They have learned the skill of beadwork. Jewelery and souvenirs are made by women who in some cases have not married or are widowed and are supporting their families.”
People say they come to Africa for the wildlife, but they return because of the people says Sherwin Banda
The key to leaving Africa feeling fulfilled, he says, is to be present.
“Travel does something nothing else does, it transforms your mind and bias. You cannot do with books or television and everyone who is willing to be present and awake and take in the full breadth of the experience will leave transformed.”
The top six spots you can't miss on safari
WORDS MARK EVELEIGH
Kruger National Park is often considered a tame alternative to the great wildernesses of other parts of Africa, but this giant among parks is the ideal introduction for safari newbies. As one of Africa’s biggest parks (almost the size of New Jersey state), there’s ample opportunity to get off the beaten track. MalaMala and Sabi Sands game reserves share unfenced borders with the mighty Kruger and offer world-class Big Five sightings, including what's been called the best leopard sightings in the world. Don't miss Addo Elephant National Park where mass gatherings of up to 400 pachyderms are sometimes seen, and Kwandwe Private Game Reserve that offers phenomenal big cat sightings, along with one of the highest densities of (heavily protected) rhino in Africa.
SHERWIN'S INSIDER TIP:
South Africa has 11 official languages, and it’s as diverse as its people. For those who want an affordable luxury experience, this is an amazing destination. As well as a fantastic country for safari, it is also very receptive to all travel styles, whether that’s solo women traveling, or the LGBT community.
WANT TO GO?
The iconic Masai Mara is often described as the best big cat country in the world, and it’s here you’ll see lions and cheetah within a relatively short distance. It's also the best spot to head for the spotted leopard and painted dogs, and both are also relatively common in the Samburu National Reserve on the banks of the Ewaso Ng’iro River. Further south, the floodplains of Amboseli National Park is known as ‘a land of giants’ and with mighty Kilimanjaro as a backdrop, it’s an unforgettable place to watch elephants. Laikipia Plateau (specifically Lewa Wildlife Conservancy and Ol Pejeta Conservancy) on the flanks of Mount Kenya, is arguably the most exciting place to see rhino in Africa.
SHERWIN'S INSIDER TIP:
Kenya is special because there are very different species from the north to the south. There is also wildlife you won’t find anywhere else on the continent, like the Grévy's zebra, Beisa oryx, Gerenuk and Somali ostrich, that can be seen at Samburu National Reserve. A few hours south is also the Nanyuki Spinners and Weavers, which empowers women to enjoy sustainable livelihoods, and now employs more than 100 women.
PLAN TO VISIT?
While the famous wildebeest migration – justifiably billed as ‘the most spectacular wildlife show on the planet’ – features the most dramatic river crossings on the Kenyan side of the border, there’s no substitute for witnessing the passage of the migration through Serengeti. The Mara River flows through northern Serengeti, and this pristine area offers a rare opportunity to escape the crowds in four-wheel drives among the more than one million wildebeest and zebra.
The Ngorongoro Crater, the world’s largest caldera, is also hard to beat for racking up sightings of the Big Five. Further south, Tarangire National Park has all the Big Five, with the exception of rhino, but you have a high chance of seeing herds of elephants numbering in their hundreds.
SHERWIN'S INSIDER TIP:
What a lot of people aren't aware of is that the wildebeest migration happens throughout the year, not just annually. There are more than one million wildebeest, and 800,000 other animals, so there is literally wildlife as far as the eye can see. Tanzania is also home to one of the world’s most ancient cultures, living exactly as they did centuries ago.
Botswana encompasses both the world’s largest inland delta (Okavango) and the legendary ‘thirstland’ of the mighty Kalahari Desert. As a Big Five destination, it's hard to beat. There are immense herds of elephants (especially in Chobe National Park), wonderful sightings of lion and leopard (in both Kalahari and along the Linyanti plains), and a large population of rhino at the Khama Rhino Sanctuary. The shimmering expanses of the Makgadikgadi Pan, one of the largest salt pans in the world, attracts diverse seasonal wildlife and Nxai Pan National Park is a gem for thousands of zebra during what is described as Africa’s longest land migration (longer in a straight line than the Serengeti migration).
SHERWIN'S INSIDER TIP:
The best thing about Botswana is that you can have both land and water safari experiences. It’s a magical, beautiful destination, and the government has limited the size of camps to keep numbers down, so it’s perfect for people who want an intimate safari experience.
While mountain gorillas still top the list for travelers to Rwanda, there is one spot where you can also find the Big Five. Akagera National Park in eastern Rwanda, near the border with Tanzania, is Africa’s largest protected wetland and home to lions, leopards, rhino, elephants and buffalo. Take an early morning game drive for your best chance to spot a leopard, who spend their days sleeping, and nights hunting for prey. Of course, once you’re here you can't miss trying to spot a mountain gorilla and your best bet is the Virunga Mountains in the northwest of Rwanda, a chain of volcanic mountains that straddle Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where around one-third of the world’s population of mountain gorillas live. It can take from one to eight hours to find them, but sitting and observing these incredible primates makes the hard work worth it.
SHERWIN'S INSIDER TIP:
Don't leave Rwanda without visiting the Kigali Genocide Memorial that commemorates the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Here you can meet both the Tutsi and Hutu people. Rwanda is also one of the cleanest places in the world. Every Rwandan has to spend one hour cleaning their community on the weekend, so there’s no litter. It’s also a good example of sustainable travel initiatives. Travelers pay for a permit to go into Rwanda and it is all reinvested to protect the endangered mountain gorillas.
TIME TO PLAN A TRIP?
Zimbabwe is home to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Mana Pools National Park, and the country’s largest national park, Hwange National Park. At Mana Pools you can see African painted dogs and unparalleled big cat sightings. The majestic elephants have also perfected the trick of rearing on their hind legs to feed from the highest branches. Meanwhile, Hwange is undisputedly Africa’s greatest elephant park with about 45,000 of these giants – outnumbering international tourists in the park by around 200 to one. The haunting rock-garden kopje landscape of Matobo National Park, with its range of granite domes and balancing rock formations, has to be seen to be believed and further north, Bumi Hills (on the shore of Lake Kariba) is home to a myriad of birds, mammals and crocodiles.
SHERWIN'S INSIDER TIP:
This should be on your bucket list, and you can easily combine it with Botswana. Make your first stop Victoria Falls. The locals call it “the smoke that thunders" because of the volume of water that cascades down. It's so loud that if you are visiting the falls when the water level is at its highest (May to June), you will not be able to hear the person right next to you. The flora and fauna are also nothing short of breathtaking.