African Wildlife Safari — See the Big Five in Africa

Experience the trip of a lifetime on an African wildlife safari. See the animals up close and un-caged, including the Big Five in Africa.


This was my first trip to South Africa, and it far exceeded my expectations. I spent three days at the Thornybush Game Lodge and went on six amazing African wildlife safari game drives. In my wildest dreams, I never thought I would see so many beautiful animals so up-close.

The three days at Thornybush were easily my favorite part of a two week tour in Southern Africa. Although the Rovos Rail luxury train trip to Victoria Falls and another safari in Chobe National Park in Botswana were both really awesome too.

A gorgeous leopard calmly laying under a nearby tree licking its fur; of the big 5 in Africa, leopards are the favorite.
Of the big five in Africa, leopards are the animals we most hope to see and photograph.

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Thornybush Game Drives – One For The Bucket List

The animals are everywhere — they are unfenced, free to roam, and mostly oblivious to us camera wielding tourists. It’s great seeing the Big 5 animals, but there’s so much more. There are many other amazing animals and many reasons to visit South Africa.

A pair of young lion brothers playing in the grass offer us tourists a great African wildlife safari experience.
These young lions lounging in the grass are brothers. A bit earlier, one of them tried stalking an elephant, but the elephant quickly chased him away.

Game Drives on an African Wildlife Safari

The game drives begin every morning at 5 AM and every evening around 4 PM and last 2-3 hours. Your transport is a Toyota Land Cruiser driven by a ranger and guided by a tracker. The Land Cruiser is totally open: no doors, no windows, no roof, and no roll bars — you have a completely unobstructed view. 

The ranger explained that as long as we don’t stand up or put our arms or legs over the side, the animals only see us as one really big unit, and would not attack us. This certainly seemed to be true because we were sometimes just a few feet away from lions, elephants, rhinos, wild dogs, and even a leopard. It was also pretty exciting.

A parade of elephants walking through the brush knocking down small trees as they go and munching on the bark.
Elephants are amazing to watch as they parade through the brush, often in single file.

Our guide quite frequently went off road into the bush over trees and logs and down dry riverbeds. More than once, we were completely surrounded by elephants as they paraded in front of us and circled around behind us. I don’t have the words to explain how incredible this was, and, except for one cranky bull in musk, the elephants ignored us.

No safari in Africa would be complete without seeing rhinos like this adult and baby white rhino.
A mama white rhino with her baby.

What are the Big Five in Africa?

  • Lions
  • Leopards
  • Elephants
  • Rhinos
  • Cape Buffalo

The term “Big Five” is from the bad old days, when South African animals were frequently hunted for sport; these were the most prestigious to kill because they were the most dangerous to hunt. Although most of us only shoot with cameras now, the term is still used in safari ads. You will see all five in the Thornybush Game Reserve.

Cape Buffalo lying in the mud to keep cool while being groomed by birds appropriately called red-billed oxpeckers.
Cape buffalo can be dangerous, but these are just lying in the mud while red-billed oxpeckers (see inset) remove ticks.

What Other Animals Can You See at Thornybush?

In addition to the Big Five in Thornybush, you will see much much more. There are:

  • Baboons
  • Crocodiles
  • Giraffes
  • Hippos
  • Hyenas
  • Monkeys
  • Wild dogs
  • Zebras
  • Several varieties of antelope (including impala, kudu, nyala, springbok, and wildebeests
  • Several varieties of birds (including African fish eagles, guineafowl, red-billed oxpeckers, purple crested turacos, and huge vultures
Wild dogs, like this young one at Thornybush, have striking calico-like coloration with black, tan and white spots and patches.
This young wild dog is part of a pack in the Thornybush Game Reserve. Their coloration is so unique, they are also called painted dogs.

Thornybush Game Reserve and Lodge

The Story of Thornybush

Thornybush Nature Reserve was originally created for big game hunters, but now it’s strictly for viewing and photography. The reserve is in the Lowveld savannah adjacent to Kruger National Park. Thornybush Game Lodge and other lodges in the area are private eco-lodges and are essential to supporting the animals and the reserve they thrive on.

Up close view of a bush with big thorns, which is where Thornybush gets its name.
Wondering why this area is called Thornybush? These bushes are everywhere.

Thornybush Game Lodge

Thornybush Game Lodge overlooks the seasonally dry Monwana River. The rooms are individual bungalows that line the riverbank like a string of pearls. The bungalows have beautiful views of the riverbed and the animals, especially a cheeky troop of baboons, who hangout there.

The interior of a Thornybush Game Lodge bungalow with mosquito-netted beds, a sitting area, and spacious bath.
Inside a bungalow at Thornybush Game Lodge.

The Thornybush Game Lodge bungalows are large, plush, comfortable, and have everything you need. The lodge also provides an abundance of food and drink with three hearty meals each day and snacks in between.

The lodge food is really great with lots of dishes prepared using fruits and vegetables from local community gardens. This is another win for the game reserve because local growers sell their produce to the lodges and the lodge guests get wonderfully fresh food.

A female giraffe is calmly laying down near Thornybush lodge while oxpecker birds clean off ticks.
This giraffe seems pretty chill while red-billed oxpeckers clean away ticks.
A large male Kudu, with impressive twisted horns, walks away and turns back to look at us.
Looking back on our Thornybush Game Reserve safari, I can’t wait to go back!

It’s expensive

Thornybush Game Lodge costs several hundred dollars per person per night, so it’s expensive. I’m normally a budget traveler, but I found it easy to rationalize the cost.

And it’s worth the price

The price includes a beautiful and spacious room, all of your food and drink, and two game drives each day. This is truly the adventure of a lifetime and well worth the cost. 

The game lodges support the reserve and provide good jobs for the local people. The reserve also provides safe habitat for the animals and protects them from hunters and poachers. The animals are here in abundance and are free to go where they please.

An African Fish Eagle perched high in a tree is really striking with its dark body feathers and white head and chest feathers.
This African Fish Eagle, perched high in a tree, is watching for fish in the pond below.

Can You Visit Thornybush Game Lodge Without a Tour?

There were independent travelers, including families with children, at the lodge who had driven there on their own. There were also other lodges in the reserve that appeared much more rustic and are likely less expensive.

A zebra poses for a photo while wandering through a brushy area.
Zebra, your camouflage is good, but we still see you.

African Wildlife Safari Fun Facts

  1. Safari is a Swahili word and means journey.
  2. The dark vertical stripes on Impalas’ hindquarters resemble the letter “M.” The local joke is that “M” stands for McDonald’s because impalas are fast food for the big cats and wild dogs. 
  3. White rhinos and black rhinos are the same color. Neither are white or black. One of their distinguishing features is the shape of their mouths. Black rhinos feed on leaves and twigs and have pointy lips to grab them. White rhinos graze on grass and have straight, wide mouths.
  4. Elephants push small trees and brush with their front feet to knock them down and then eat the bark from the branches. According to our Thornybush ranger/guide, bark is 80% of their food supply.
  5. Cape buffalo look harmless and laid back, but they are the most dangerous of all the African animals. They can be unpredictable and aggressive, and they kill more people than any other African animal.
  6. Leopards are lone, mostly nocturnal animals. The hunt at night and haul their prey up into a tree to eat. During the day, they often sleep in trees too. It’s pretty amazing to see them sleeping high up in trees straddling a limb with their legs dangling on either side.
  7. Lions are social and live in groups called “prides.” The females do most of the hunting. The males protect the pride and their territory. They spend most of their time just lounging around, playing, and sleeping.
  8. You can tell male and female giraffes by the hair on their horns. Females have hairy horns; males wear the hair off of their horns when they fight.

Practical Information

Getting There

If you are traveling independently, you can fly into Hoedspruit or Johannesburg and rent a car. If you have the means to arrange a private plane, there is an airstrip near the lodge.

I traveled on a tour with my Alumni group, so all of my transit and lodging arrangements were prearranged. Our tour flew from Cape Town to Hoedspruit and then traveled by van to Thornybush Game Lodge. The van ride took about an hour and much of it was on gravel roads.

Best Time to Go

I was in Thornybush in October, which is early spring, and it was perfect. It was never too hot and just cold enough for a jacket in the early morning and evening. The dry winter season was over and leaves were staring to grow on the trees and bushes.

Weather

The following average monthly high and low temperatures and number of rain days are for Kruger National Park (source), which is adjacent to Thornybush Game Reserve:

AverageJanFebMarAprMayJunJulAugSepOctNovDec
High (c)333232302826262729303132
Low (c)2120201712991114171920
Rainfall
(days)
776321112467

What to Take on a South Africa Luxury Safari

You will want comfortable, casual clothes, your camera gear, and whatever toiletries and medicines you normally bring on a trip. Check the weather chart above to see what’s normal for the time of year you plan to go. 

I went in October and it was mild, but was a bit cooler than I expected. It was chilly on the early morning game drives, so I wore my fleece and sometimes my windbreaker too. Even the ranger/guide always wore a jacket. I wish I had brought gloves too.

I needed gloves! I missed a great video opportunity when a pack of wild dogs ran past us. My hands were so cold I failed to push the video button all the way down.

Tips About Clothing

  • Comfortable:  This is essential. There’s no graceful way to climb into the back of a Safari Land Cruiser. To get in, you literally climb up the side.
  • Convenient: Choose clothing with sun protection (SPF 50 is great) and, preferably, clothing that is hand washable and quick to dry.
  • Colors: Safari sites recommend wearing neutral colors like khaki and olive green and avoid light, bright, and dark colors. The issue with light colors is that they show the dirt; the issue with bright and dark colors is that they can attract tsetse flies. I totally broke the color rules, but luckily, I never saw a tsetse fly.

Essentials to Take

  • Fleece jacket
  • Windbreaker (preferably waterproof, just in case it rains)
  • Hat (one that provides sun protection and won’t fly off while riding in an open vehicle)
  • Gloves (photographers gloves would be perfect)
  • Long pants
  • Shorts
  • Long-sleeved SPF 50 shirts
  • Kerchief/bandana (to wet and wrap around your neck in hot weather)
  • Sunscreen
  • Insect repellent (hopefully, not needed but good to have)
  • Soap packets for laundry

Other Things You Might Want

  • Binoculars
  • Swimsuit (the lodge has a pool)
  • Pants with zip-off legs that convert to shorts
A pair of young impalas clash horns in a play-fight.
A pair of young impalas play-fight to practice their horn clashing skills.

Conclusion

Note from Corinne:  As you know, Jim and I have been on numerous self-drives and safaris in different parts of Africa. Check out these posts if you are interested in safaris in Botswana, Zambia, or Uganda

One more really cool detail about Thornybush is that during every game drive, the ranger and tracker find a safe area in the bush to park and set up a spread of drinks and snacks. It’s a small, impromptu coffee break or cocktail party. So picture yourself out in the bush with a glass of wine watching a gorgeous African sunset — it’s pretty awesome.

Photo op with the Thornybush Game Lodge Ranger/Guide and the Tracker.
One of the best things about a safari in Africa is the people. Here Henny, the Ranger/Guide (left), and July, the Tracker (right), graciously pose with me for a photo op.

Pin Thornybush Game Reserve for later planning!

Chasing the Big 5 animals in South Africa at Thornybush Game Reserve.
Chasing the Big 5 animals in South Africa at Thornybush Game Reserve.

32 thoughts on “African Wildlife Safari — See the Big Five in Africa”

  1. Pingback: Madagascar Itineraries, Things to do - A Travel Guide | Reflections Enroute

  2. The world seems to be in love with African safaris at the moment, us included. I am thinking of trying to do one next year so am hungrily devouring all info I can get as there are so many different parts of Africa and so many different experiences. This places looks incredible so it will definitely make my list of ones to check out more when I am ready.

    1. Kerri, thank you for your comment. If it’s not already on your list, check out Chobe National Park in Botswana also. I spent two days there and loved it, especially the boat cruises on the Chobe River. See Corinne’s post about Chobe’s swimming elephants.

  3. Yet to get to Africa and see the big 5 on a safari. Seeing animals in their natural habitat reminds me of how complicated we have made our lives as humans. Don’t you think so?

    1. Cobbledroads, thank you for commenting. I certainly agree that we’ve made out lives too complicated. Seeing the animals in their natural habitat makes that case and so does visiting places where you see beautiful, healthy, children who live in simple huts and have none of the trappings and toys we have, yet they laugh and play and seem very happy.

  4. I have not been on a safari but it is on my list as I so enjoy seeing animals in the environment they were born to be in. I didn’t know there were wild dogs there, their colors are really cool!

    1. Lara, thank you for your comment. I didn’t know about wild dogs either until I saw them at Thornybush. We saw them a second time while they were on a hunt. The whole pack ran right past us in single file. I was so excited to see them that I failed to push the video button on my camera and missed the shot. Their colors are very cool.

  5. Your pictures and narratives have fueled my South Africa dreams. Saw some but not all of the big 5 in Rwanda East Africa. But South Africa is indeed the stuff that dreams are made of. The Thornybush sounds like a good company to embark on a safari.

    1. Sandy, thank you for your comment. You won’t be disappointed if you visit the Thornybush reserve in South Africa. The rangers there really know how to provide a great experience for their visitors. I hadn’t considered Rwanda; maybe it should be on my bucket list.

  6. Danik, thank you for your comments. The safari was amazing, and it was also a lot of fun. We had the same Ranger/Guide, Tracker and group of people in the Land Cruiser on each of the six game drives, so we got to know each other a bit and that created a very friendly and fun atmosphere. I hope you do get to go on safari and see a lot of animals, especially tigers.

    1. Carmen, thank you for your kind comment about the photos. You will love South Africa. The animals are truly magnificent and the people and food are great too. Happy travels!

  7. Doing a safari in Africa is still one of those things so high on my list that I’ve not managed to do yet, I’ve done a night safari which was pretty cool but this would be amazing, especially seeing big game like this in their natural habitats 😀

    1. Amit, thanks for commenting. A night safari would be very cool, especially if you could see different animals and also have a clear view of the stars. I hope an African safari makes it to the top of your list.

  8. This is one of my dreams, being able to go to South Africa on a safari. Were you ever scared that something might go wrong? The photos look awesome and it feels like you were pretty close to them!

    1. Dany, thank you for your comment, and I do hope you get to go on safari. The animals were very close. I wasn’t more than 10 meters from the pair of young male lions you see in the video, but they were not at all interested in me. Oddly, the only animals that I was a bit afraid of were the baboons. They were frequently running on the roof and across the deck and trying to get into the bungalows.

  9. I have not been to South Africa yet but when I go, wildlife viewing will be one of the top things on my list. Thornybush Nature Reserve sounds very accessible. I like the idea of staying at a lodge nearby so you can get up early in the morning for guided tours.

    1. Rhonda, thank you for your comment. When you go to Africa, I do hope you go on safari. I was able to see and do other things on this trip, but the game drives were tops on my list and staying at a lodge also helps protect the animals and their habitat.

    1. Jill, it was a dream come true. I’ve wanted to go on safari since I was very young. It was amazing, and I’m so glad I finally did it.

  10. Gosh, what a visit, your photos capturing your stay are beautiful. So glad you got to see the Big 5 and much more – I think appreciating nature is so important! The lodges sound great too, I might have to start saving!

    1. Rachel, thank you for your comment. It was wonderful seeing the animals, and it was also very satisfying to see how much the rangers and trackers respected the animals and protected their habitat.

    1. Thank you Ansh. There were a lot of exquisite moments on this trip, and I’m really happy I could capture a few on camera.

  11. Such a great experience! We went to Kruger a few years ago and absolutely loved it. Definitely a bucket list item checked off. And as you pointed out, you can travel there independently and (at least in Kruger) stay in the park accommodations. They aren’t luxurious, but they are affordable. I worry some people miss out because they imagine it costs a fortune.

    1. Megan, thank you for your information about Kruger. I would have been totally happy in less luxurious accommodations. For me, the game drives were everything, and it’s certainly doable to go there and see the animals in a much more affordable way.

    1. Jules, thank you for your comment. I hope you do get to go on safari. This was really high on my bucket list and it did not disappoint.

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