The Big Five

If you're planning a trip to a national park in Africa, have you saved room in your backpack for one of these?

If you haven't, you should--not because you'll look sexier but because you'll see sexier. I made do with my pitiful little Sony, so the quality of the photos below suffers in many ways. Many times I wasn't able to zoom in as much as I'd wanted to. Some photos are blurry, taken through the windshield of our vehicle. Disclaimers are boring, I know. I did do the best I could with the equipment I had. If you want to buy me that thing up there for Christmas, I won't stop you.

Before I set out on my South African adventure, I knew a little about South Africa. I knew of course who Nelson Mandela was, I knew that South Africa hosted a World Cup, that South African wine is pretty good, that Apartheid was over and that Africaans was the official language. I did not know anything about The Big Five. What a dunce.

The Big Five is all anyone ever talks about in South Africa. Forget Apartheid. There are shops called The Big Five (there are none called "Apartheid"). Every belt and bracelet in those shops has The Big Five on it. You can buy Big Five ashtrays and Big Five statues. Big Five dishtowels and Big Five chocolates. Big Five keychains and Big Five ties.

"Did you see The Big Five?" one of my students asked me this week when I got back to Munich.

"Oh goodness. You too? Was I the only one on earth who didn't know what The Big Five was?"

"Yes. So did you?"

"Do what?"

"See The Big Five?"

"Yes, I did--apparently."

"Ah," he said. "You had a really bad camera."


"Next time you go," he said, "you need to take one of THESE."

"I know!"

So what is The Big Five? And how did The Big Five come to be called The Big Five? Welcome to the motherload of knowledge, dear dear I Must Be Off! readers. You're about to learn so much.

Each of the animals making up The Big Five was chosen for its difficulty of hunting on foot. Not for its beauty or size but for how hard it is to kill.

The African Elephant --

Or in Africaans, the Olifant! I like olifant much better actually, so I'm just going to use it. The African bush olifant is the largest living terrestrial animal, males standing ten to thirteen feet at the shoulder and weighing 10,360–13,330 pounds; females are a bit more petite. Here is a picture of one I took at a watering hole. I'm particularly proud of how close I was able to get. I had to climb up in a very big tree to get this bird's-eye view:

The African Bush Elephant

The African bush olifant eats almost a thousand pounds of vegetation a day, yet only about 40 percent of this is entirely digested. Olifant poop is probably the most common sight in South African national parks. Easily reconizable, they are the bowling balls littering the roads.


The African Lion -- 

The African Lion
I just have to say upfront that I have not seen The Lion King; so when a helpful tourist pulled up to our vehicle and whispered "lion," pointing into the bush a million miles away, I wasn't exactly sure what I was searching for and of course not really sure why the guy was whispering. When I finally saw it, I was elated. My first sighting of a lion in the wild (well, it's a national park, but I assume there's no breakfast buffet or room service)!

As you can see on the right here, the African Lion has a bit of an attitude--King of the jungle and all. Sadly, this beautiful animal lives only around 14 years in the wild, 20 in captivity (where there is a breakfast buffet). There are apparently 12 subspecies and even a couple of hybrids with tigers. I'm thinking the fellow on the right here might be a hybrid with Donald Trump.

Lions are noctural or crepuscular hunters. They sleep a lot during the day, so I think we were lucky to get such a good picture of this one awake. He does appear a bit drowsy, though.


The Cape Buffalo --

The Cape Buffalo
The Cape buffalo is apparently--after the mosquito--the most dangerous animal in Africa, killing more hunters than any other animal. They gang up on hunters, so good on 'em. Maybe Walter Palmer will choose it as his next project. We can only hope.

Due to their extremely aggressive nature, they have never been domesticated. While the African buffalo is highly susceptible to disease, populations remain strong with around 900,000 animals worldwide. Here are a couple of them on the left.

I didn't know how dangerous the Cape buffalo was when I took this picture--hell, I didn't even know there was a Cape buffalo. Apparently, when I took this shot, I'd never been closer to death.

It bears mentioning here that you are not allowed to leave your vehicle in a national park. There are a few areas where you are allowed to leave your car, but of course there are also signs warning you that doing so might make you a lion's lunch. I rolled down my window to get a good shot of these beautiful Cape buffalo. It was exhilarating as most bone-headed things are. I'm lucky to be alive.


The African Leopard -- 

I'm going to quote straight from Wikipedia on this one because I didn't believe it myself until I read it here: "African leopards exhibit great variation in coat color, depending on location and habitat. Coat color varies from pale yellow to deep gold or tawny, and sometimes black [emphasis added], and is patterned with black rosettes while the head, lower limbs and belly are spotted with solid black." Sometimes black! It's quite possible that I've taken a photo of a very rare leopard. I couldn't see its belly to see if the requisite spots--or limbs--were there, but this one is definitely black. And look at those beautiful rosettes!

The African Leopard

Leopards are quite difficult to spot--pun intended. They're usually lounging around on trees, but this one was just lying there in the middle of the path in the Knysna National forest, which allowed me the rare opportunity of walking through a rainforest on my own with no guide--risking my life once more to bring you up-close images of The Big Five.

This brings us to the last of the The Big Five. It's actually two species.


The White/Black Rhinoceros --

I have to apologize for the quality of this photo. This prime specimen darted across the road before I could zoom in on it. I can't tell whether it's a white or a black rhino (maybe a gray one?), so I'm just going to let it be both. The collective noun for a group of rhinoceroses is a crash, which is my favorite bit of useless information today. You will seldom see a crash of rhinos since male rhinos--like many animals in The Big Five--are solitary creatures. A crash, mostly females, may consist of up to 14 animals.

The White/Black Rhinoceros

Interestingly, there's a theory that the "white" rhino was not named for its coloring but that "white" is actually a mistranslation of "wyd" from Africaans, which means "wide" referring to the rhino's mouth. This made a lot of sense to me because the German is Breitmaulnashorn (wide-mouthed rhino), and this was confirmed to me by a South African woman at one of our campsites. Wikipedia, though, says this is a bunch of bull. 

Have you seen The Big Five while visiting a national park in Africa? I'd love to compare pictures!

I must be off,


Christopher Allen is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O'Type (a Satire), an episodic adult cartoon about a man struggling with expectations. Allen's writing has appeared in Indiana Review, Night Train, Quiddity, SmokeLong Quarterly: the Best of the First Ten Years anthology, Prime Number Magazine, Contrary, [PANK] blog, Necessary Fiction, Word Riot, Bootsnall Travel, Chicken Soup for the Soul and over 100 other good places. A finalist at Glimmer Train in 2011 and the winner of the Ginosko Literary Journal's Flash Fiction Award in 2015, Allen has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize twice.




  1. Have you heard of the Little Five, Chris? Have a look here:

  2. No, I hadn't! Thank you so much, Paola! Great to know.


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