Pretty much everyone goes to Africa for one reason: to view big, wild, hairy animals from a safe-yet-still-thrilling distance. You would think you’d get the same experience from going to a football game or watching Russians at the beach, but let me assure you: this is way better.
Some people are really fanatical about it, like the gentleman who approached us before our very first game drive in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, to ask us if we’d seen the greater yellow-spotted bushpecker or something. We hadn’t, and he explained that, “That bird will be my 814th bird I’ve spotted in Southern Africa. Can you believe that?” No sir, I really can’t.
We’re a bit less Audobon Society and a whole lot more “croc v. lion v. elephant death match” on YouTube. But even for casual observers like us, your first glimpse of an African animal in the wild is guaranteed to give you goosebumps. For us, it happened like this: We were walking back from Victoria Falls National Park at dusk with two women from our group, about to take the dirt path shortcut back to our campsite. We were foiled, however, by two African elephants, with enormous tusks, standing in the middle of the path having their dinner. It was thrilling!
As with most things in life (my life, at least), safaris come with a checklist. Everyone is out to see “The Big 5.” I find this list a little arbitrary but I’ve been told that sightings of these animals are so coveted because back in the good old days they were the toughest and most dangerous animals to hunt on foot.
The Big 5 are:
We saw stacks of elephants in Etosha National Park, Namibia; at one point we even spied a herd of 30! We got close enough to them on our night safari in Hwange National Park to smell them – they smell like horses and fresh grass.
We only saw these guys once, in the air during our helicopter tour of the Okavango Delta in Botswana.
We saw at least a dozen rhinos in Etosha National Park. At one point, a mama rhino crossed the road with her baby in tow. We crept forward in our truck, but we must have gotten too close because Mama charged our truck broadside and then chased us down the road for good measure! Rhinos may look like armored cars but, believe me, when they’re chasing your vehicle down, they are fast!
And lions – these were the one animal we really wanted to see in Africa. I got a far-off glimpse of one at a watering hole in Etosha. Then, on our very last game drive, we caught sight of this guy:
We never saw a leopard. But we did spy this cheetah hanging out in a copse of trees in Hwange. I love the way they move, all slinky, lithe power.
We saw dozens of species of animals other than just the Big 5, though. Some honorable mentions:
These guys are scary. Statistically, they are the most dangerous animal to humans. When you’re in a pond, never knowing when they might surface on top of you and fling you into hippo- and croc-infested waters, they’re pretty intimidating. Check out those teeth! They also make this grunting noise that sounds like an asthmatic Bond villain’s laugh – “Hunh, hunh, hunh, hunh.” Only it’s not funny when they’re right outside your tent.
We saw so many zebra in three weeks that spying new ones became, well, boring. Zebra, a dime a dozen, who would have thought?
I love these guys. From their sweet, big eyes with Maybelline-long lashes to the way they’re so gawky when they drink water, I just adore them. I always got excited to spot giraffe, although we also saw loads of them.
Such an ugly animal — they look like Frankenstein’s monster, just a jumble of different animal parts. But I still loved to watch them gallivanting across the savannah or stop to look guilelessly up at our truck.
Another entry in the so-ugly-they’e-cute category. When they run, though, they stick their tail straight up in the air and prance off in this feminine, Frasier and Niles Crane kind of way that cracks me up.
Ostrich (and other birds)
Ostriches look like some kindergartner’s drawing of a bird — big turkeys with long legs and a long neck attached, topped by an old man’s bald head. The males have beautiful black and white plumage that brought out the Cruella de’Ville in me. I want those feathers!
Various deer-like creatures
We saw more kudu, springbok, oryx, impala, and hartebeests than you can shake a stick at. My favorite were oryx, with their monochromatic coloring and long horns. A nice thick oryx steak cooked medium-rare is darned tasty, too.
We only saw hyenas once — and unlike my idea of them from The Lion King, I think they’re actually a really beautiful and graceful animal. We spotted them on our night safari so we don’t have any photos.
Every game drive brought something new. We’re already trying to figure out how to get back here as soon as possible — perhaps to spot a kill or a chase and spot that elusive leopard!