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The Safari Big 5 Game - A South African Safari Adventure

By Edited Jul 27, 2016 1 0

Last year we were privileged to have the opportunity to see most of the safari big 5. I took my family to South Africa’s  Hluhluwe–iMfolozi Park which is about a 300km drive north of Durban. We arrived at the parks gate in our hired Hyundai i10 and planned to spend a few nights enjoying the African wildlife. My son who was two years old could not contain himself, when he saw real life zebras and buffalo for the first time before reaching the camp. The great adventure had begun but we were here for more than that. We had come all this way to see the African big five game. The Hluhluwe–iMfolozi Park is the birth place of rhino conservation and is one of the few places in the world to see the endangered rhino roam the savannah.

Pride of lions sighted

What Are The Big 5 Game?

The African big five game animals is a term coined by big-game hunters and refers to the five most difficult animals to hunt on foot in Africa. The term was later popularized by safari tour operators for marketing safari adventures. The big five animals are the African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard and the White/Black rhinoceros. The animals making the big five game list were chosen based on ‘difficulty to hunt’ them and not on physical size. The big five can be found in the following countries:  Botswana, Zambia, Uganda, Namibia, Ethiopia, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Malawi.[1]   

African bull elephant

The History Behind The Game Park

The Hluhluwe–iMfolozi Park is the oldest nature reserve in Africa. It was originally a royal hunting ground for the Zulu’s during the 1800’s. In the 1840’s the great white hunters arrived by ox wagon from the Cape of Good Hope and Port Natal. They hunted the area’s wildlife for skins, ivory and of course rhino horn, and shot hundreds of thousands of game in a 50 year period. The elephant herds were decimated and a number of animal species were brought close to extinction.

Lonely Rhino
By 1890, fewer than 100 white rhinos were surviving in the Umfolozi area, the last remaining white rhinos on earth. In 1985 the area fortunately received formal protection as a game sanctuary from the Natal Colonial Government. The Umfolozi and Hluhluwe reserves were established primarily for the protection of the white rhino, which was on the critically endangered species list.

From early 1960’s new species were reintroduced to the reserves, and the corridor area between the Umfolozi and the Hluhluwe was finally incorporated in 1989. The joining of the three separate reserves combined allowed for a natural movement of the game between the two areas and a total of 960km2 (96,000 ha) of protected nature reserve.[2]

Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park

Hluhluwe–iMfolozi Park is approximately a 300km drive on the N2 from Durban, South Africa.

Vital information About The Hill Tops Camp

Our African Safari started the moment we signed the entrance permit at the park gate and immediately started to spot game on our way to the Hill Tops Camp. There are many accommodation options, 2 bed or 4 bed chalets, rondavels which are round thatched huts, an 8 bed luxury bush lodge and even 2 bed safari tents if you wanted the full African experience.

We stayed at the Hill Top chalets, which are very spacious self-catering units. The chalet had a fully equipped kitchen and bathroom en suite. The unit even had satellite television. The package we took was for a 2 Bed Chalet with Bed and Breakfast. The breakfast is served daily at the restaurant and it is open every evening for a buffet style dinner. We had the dinner at the restaurant the first night as we had travelled a long way from Durban and were tired.  There is a beautiful African hunter themed bar next to the restaurant. An outdoor swimming pool to the rear of the camp is perfect way to end the day’s game tours, under a setting African sun.

The Hilltop Camp Entrance

The Hill Top Camp, built in 1934, is the only facility with 95 octane unleaded petrol and diesel, otherwise you will need to drive to the next village, which is outside the game park at Hluhluwe village. There are two gated entrances into Hluhluwe–iMfolozi Park. As we were staying at the Hill Top Camp for the entire safari holiday, we entered through the recommended Memorial Gate to the north which is 15kms or roughly 45 minutes travelling time.

Remember that being on an African Safari, local amenities are far away and not easily accessible. Pack the most important items for your trip, the facilities at Hill Tops Camp cater for most necessities but not everything.

There is a curio/supplies shop next to the restaurant that is stocked with typical African curios that any south African is accustomed to seeing and food supplies. The shop seems to be stocked regularly and you could buy most things in limited supply at exclusively higher prices .We purchase some lamb chops, chicken kebabs, vegetables and beer and had a true South African braai.

Hilltop camp panoramic

Our little car in the game park

Guided tours are operated by experienced park rangers who collected visitors from the reception/lobby area of the Hill Tops Camp. The tours ran depending on demand, in the early morning till late night in regular intervals. The park ranger drives an open top 4x4 truck and is experience in tracking and locating the game herds. We did not take any guided tours as found them to be very expensive and priced at international tourist rate. We were able to get around just fine in a little Hyundai i10.

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Advice For Game Viewing

It is said that ‘nothing stays still in the bush’. The game is always on the move and you will not find the same herd of animals in the same place. The best strategy is to experience the bush at different times of the day, early morning rise or late night dusk is when the game is most active. This little piece of advice is what will get you the best game viewing ever. The bush never rests and I was not going to miss out. We set our alarm for 4am, woke up and took a flask of hot coffee and a box of rusks and were out the camp gate a few minutes before 5am. Our route was pre-planned and we wanted drive to a lookout point roughly 10km away. Unsurprisingly we were not alone, we notice quite a few other private game drivers riding the roads in the thick mist before sunrise. That early morning ride paid off really well, as we got to see a ton of zebras, buffalo, elephant and rhinos all before going back to camp for our breakfast.

Zebras in the mist
Credit: Sudocream

Found these zebras in the mist who were not camera shy at all.

The game park is big with the only tar roads being to and from both camps and the main road connecting the two camps. The bulk of the game can be viewed from the tar roads but it is definitely worth the effort to use the dirt roads to get closer to the bush. We certainly saw more using some of the dirt tracks, which did not need a 4x4 vehicle to tackle. A lot of the game driving was driven in 2nd gear but you can get some speed on the tar roads. The roads in the iMfolozi park are in a much worse condition than the Hluhluwe park. When seeing game it is best to come to a standstill and watch from a distance, letting the car idle. You never know when you will need to move out of the way of a rhino, as we had to. Keep the windows closed for safety besides the air con is a lifesaver, in the midday heat. Game drives can go on for hours, so prepare by bringing bottled water and some snacks to eat while on the move.

Mother and calf rhino
Credit: Sudocream

A mother and calf white rhino that we encountered on the road. We were unable to pass for quite some time and kept our distance. It is white rhino behavor for the calf to run infront of the mother during flight, the opposite is true for the black rhino.

Each evening we topped up the cars fuel tank and made sure the tire pressure was perfect on all tires as well as the spare. Keeping the car lightly loaded helps a lot. There were a few times I had to pick my line and rev the car up some steep sandy inclines in 1st gear. Preferably leave your entire luggage at the accommodation.

Cell phone reception is good at the camps but it is limited on the tar roads and worse on the dirt tracks. It did make us wary to use the dirt tracks at first but they are frequented by other game drivers. We would not be alone for more than an hour until we saw someone else.  After a few days we even started to recognize some of the game drivers and waved at them.

Cape buffalo

The gates times are 5h00 to 19h00 in summer months, this being November to February in the southern hemisphere. For winter the gates open later and close earlier by 1 hour. These times apply to the gates at the camps too, you will not be allowed out at night to view game unless you are on a night game drive tour operated by licensed game ranger. We had to plan the route and monitor our timing so that we did not get locked out at the camp. All of our routes were loops, if it took us 2 hours to get where we are now, we had to allow 2 hours to get back plus some extra time in case we had a flat tire. Luckily we did not get a flat tire!

First day out we planned to visit a hide. A hide is a protected structure that is specifically designed so that people can watch animals from an elevated position and not disturb them or distract them. It had a viewing window which overlooked a watering hole. Unfortunately the watering hole was a complete dry dusty bowel and we saw nothing that hour we were there but I can imagine in the heat of the summer these lookout stations can get a lot of action. It was a cool shaded structure, ideal for having a snack and change from the car seat.

What Game Can You Expect To See?

The game park boasts over 1200 plant species, 84 mammal sand 350 bird species. The large amount of bird species makes it a prime bird watching location, and attracts tourists just for this reason. However the game park is home to the big five game and with the success of the rhino preservation, today over 1,600 white rhinos roam the savannah.

Giraffe in the bush
We saw buffalo, nyala and a giraffe, the giraffe spotted by my two year old son, just travelling from the Memorial Gate to the Hill Tops Camp. We went on game drives on our own, for hours at a time, using the game park map to guide us. The list of animals we saw:

Four of the Big Five Game - White and Black Rhino, African Elephant, Cape Buffalo, African Lion. Did not see any leopard but they are considered by far the hardest to spot due to their excellent camouflage.

Other Big Game – Spotted hyena, wildebeest, giraffe, zebra, nyala, eland, kudu, impala, springbok, duiker, bush pig, monkeys and baboons.

Smaller creatures – Countless birds species which I could not possible recognize, this is a bird watchers paradise, though you need to have the camera lens to photo them. Lizards, and the dung beetle spotted by some German tourists on a road.

Are You Ready For The Big Five?

The chance to see these majestic creatures, free and wild in their natural habitat is truly a magical experience. It has been for my family an unforgettable memory as we think back and re-tell stories of our South African Safari holiday. Make your travel plans today and get ready to see the big five game at the Hluhluwe–iMfolozi Park.

Family of Bushpigs crossing the road
Credit: Sudocream

One of my favorite memories! A family of bush pigs crossing the road, 5 piglets with mommy and daddy guarding.



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  1. "Big five game." Wikipedia. 16/06/2015 <Web >
  2. "Hluhluwe Game Reserve." Heritage Tour and Safaris. 16/06/2015 <Web >

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