Searching for the “Big Five” in the Serengeti

Posted on February 10th, 2014 by BreAnn

For the rest of my life, I will remember those nights in the Serengeti National Park, sleeping under the stars and hearing the sounds of ELEPHANTS roaming around and eating outside our tents at night!!  Yea… a bit scary, but how incredible, right?

As far as your eyes could see, there were THOUSANDS of zebras and wildebeest in the distance!

One of the top places in the world to go on a safari is the Serengeti National Park, so we were pretty ecstatic that we would be visiting this area on our 20-day tour around Africa!  On the third day of the tour, we transferred from our big truck/bus into several smaller 4×4 safari vehicles and headed hours away through the Ngorongoro Conservation Area to the “Seronera” area of the Serengeti, which lies in the southeast area of park. Wow…  en route from one area to another, you really experienced the sheer vastness of the region; we drove several hours and all you saw continuously were flat plains with thousands upon thousands of zebras and wildebeest polka-dotting the land as far as your eyes could see. It was spectacular!

Our safari vehicle had a nice pop-up roof for us to look out!

The safari vehicles each had a large pop-up roof so you could stand fully upright and peek out the top of the van to get a higher and closer view of the animals we passed. In our particular vehicle, we were joined by two other couples from our tour, and the six of us had a great time together those few days throughout the park. Our driver and guide, Nico, was kind of a crazy fast driver, but his wild driving ensured that we were one of the FIRST cars to arrive in an area when a particular animal was spotted.

The guides, in general, were always in search of “The Big Five”: the buffalo, lion, leopard, rhino, and elephant. These are the main animals people usually want to see when doing a safari, and they aren’t always that easy to spot.  I was excited about seeing these animals, but I also was excited to hopefully see other animals like the zebra, cheetah, giraffe, hyena, and such.

So here’s how the safari process works:  Basically, you enter the park area and there are numerous roads heading off into all different directions. The parks are HUGE and cover a vast expanse of land, so that means it’s nothing like a zoo in any way… and since it is wild, open plains, all animals roam freely wherever they please. So that, of course, means there is no guarantee you will see all the animals that you would like to, because it is SUCH a huge area and animals are constantly moving. However, if your guide is experienced enough, they should know how and where to look for certain animals; for example, lions often hang out on rocks or in trees in the mornings and afternoons, and cheetahs and leopards also look for shade under trees or mounds of grass in the afternoon. If you’re looking for hippos or crocodiles, you would search all the swampy areas with lots of water, and if you are looking for giraffes or elephants, you would only see them around areas with many trees (because they are constantly eating leaves and such!)


We spent three days doing safari game drives in both Ngorongoro Conservation Area and Serengeti National Park. On our first day, upon entering the area we almost immediately saw a herd of buffalo as we drove in, along with a TON of baboons! Man, the baboons were really fun to watch, as there were SO many of them, and the little babies were so adorable, running around and playing. Soon thereafter, we came across many giraffes grazing in the trees, along with constant groups of antelope, gazelles, impalas, and more bounding by our truck. It was a beautiful landscape of amazing creatures, and it was SUCH an amazing experience to watch them in their natural environment.

Later that day, after passing through innumerable zebras and wildebeest, we saw several marabou storks, secretary birds, and a few jackals. At one point, our driver stopped at an area in the open plains because he suspected there was a cheetah lying behind this mound of grass. We stopped and waited for awhile, but could BARELY see its tail out to the side, flicking in and out every so often. So Nico told us that cheetahs are really hard to spot, so maybe we should wait awhile to

Our patience paid off, as we got to see this elegant creature emerge from his hiding spot!!

see if he’ll come out of his hiding spot. Meanwhile, a bunch of other safari vehicles popped up next to us, and the waiting game began. We must have waited 10-20 minutes, all wondering if it was worth the time to sit and wait for an animal that may never appear, but soon enough the wait paid off: the cheetah slowly climbed up the mound, looked around, then sat down for awhile. Soon thereafter, it decided to leave the area and bounded away RIGHT IN FRONT OF OUR CAR! What a beautiful creature… I’m sure glad we waited.  James got a great photo of him running past us!

That night, we set up camp in a remote area in the Serengeti, but we were all feeling a bit unsettled as there were NO FENCES surrounding the campsite, and we were the only people staying there that night.  You would think that a campsite in the middle of the Serengeti would be somewhat protected from animals, but that wasn’t the case here. Our guide ensured us that we shouldn’t worry, and just make sure if we have any food or snacks with us to leave it in the locked cars, NOT in our tents! After dinner and some card games, James walked with me to the bathroom and peered his flashlight all around us… and off in the distance he could see THREE pairs of glowing eyes!! Oh my!!  We assumed they were hyenas, which are mainly just scavengers, which means they usually won’t attack larger, living creatures… they only feed off of animals that are already dead. Either way, I quickly washed my face and brushed my teeth and we hurried back to our tent. Before we headed off to sleep, we peered up above us… what a GORGEOUS night sky! The sky was SO black and the stars were SO bright, it was absolutely incredible.

James in our tent out in the Serengeti

When we woke up the next morning, our whole group was buzzing with stories of crazy happenings from the night before. Apparently two HUGE elephants were roaming through our campsite and eating grass all around the tents!!  They were primarily right outside the tent of one of the couples in our group, who woke up to a LOUD ripping and crunching (of grass) sound sometime after midnight very close to them. When the guy zipped open the tent to take a peek, he was face-to-face with a huge elephant whose ears shot out at the sound of the zipper.  The guy (who happened to be on his honeymoon with his wife) frantically closed the tent back up and laid there most of the night in fear! Meanwhile, another guy from our group got up after 2am to use the bathroom and walked out to see a hyena running by, dragging a garbage can from one side of camp to the other! Hah… quite an eventful night! Fortunately, nobody was harmed in any way, just a bit shaken up from it all. [Click here to see a video summary of day one in Ngorongoro and Serengeti.]

Waking up to a beautiful Serengeti sunrise… after an INTERESTING night!

On day two, we woke up and enjoyed a beautiful sunrise that morning, watching a small elephant grazing nearby our camp. We left early and explored all throughout the Serengeti and back into Ngorongoro. As we headed out of camp that morning, we spotted a lion up on some rocks wandering around… and realized—this area is PRETTY close to camp. Lions THAT CLOSE!??  Wow… we continued on that day and had quite a lot of amazing animal sightings: tons of giraffes, many herds of elephants (with cute little baby elephants!), warthogs, many different exotic birds, a ton of hippos, more baboons, a few hyenas, a group of vultures, and we actually saw THREE different leopards!—which is rare, as leopards are hard to spot. For awhile, we paused to watch a hyena and a bunch of vultures fighting over some kind of dead animal…

A bunch of lions napping in a tree!

that was pretty cool to watch! But the highlight of the day had to be when we came across SIX lions napping in a tree! We were actually able to drive pretty close to the tree and just watch them for awhile, which was spectacular.  [Click here to see a video summary of day two in Ngorongoro and Serengeti.]

On our last day, we woke up to another gorgeous sunrise over camp and proceeded to drive around Ngorongoro Crater (which is quite spectacular itself!) searching for more animals. We were specifically on the hunt for a rhinoceros, since it was the last of the “Big Five” animals that we hadn’t seen yet.  Along the way, we saw a few just-born wildebeest, which were amazing since they are able to walk on their own within a half hour of birth! We also came across more elephants, hyenas, jackals, warthogs, and had a fun time watching some zebras playing and “flirting” for awhile. [Click here to see a video of these zebras!] Then, Nico heard something over his CB radio and suddenly screeched the car around and started SPEEDING like crazy to get somewhere very fast!  We asked him, “What is it!?” and he just replied, “Something very special,” but we pretty much knew why he was rushing: somebody must have spotted a rhino!! We raced around corners and turns, sometimes wondering if the car would flip to the side since Nico was driving so

He was pretty far away, but we DID spot a rhino!!

fast, but we arrived to the spot in record speed and joined two other cars (from a different group) at a location where you could see a rhino in the distance. Fortunately, we had a zoom lens and captured some photos of the rhino, but it was pretty far away that we could mostly just see his silhouette. It was still pretty cool to spot our last animal from “The Big Five” and for the record, the other cars with people from our group took another 5-10 minutes to arrive at the site, and missed out on the closer/better photos of the rhino!

Up close to a bunch of hippos!

As we headed out of the park, we were excited and satisfied with our experience… but just when we thought it was over, we came upon a watering hole where a TON of hippos were bathing very close by! [Click here to see a video of James and the hippos!] We got out of the car to snap photos and videos and were amazed just HOW CLOSE we were to them!!  They were grunting and making funny noises and going down under the water repeatedly and showing their faces every now and then. It was truly spectacular to get up so close, even though they are actually known as one of the more dangerous creatures! . [Click here to see a video summary of day three in Ngorongoro.]


Those three days of safari game drives were definitely one of the highlights of our travels, and we really were LUCKY to have seen all the Big Five animals, plus so much more!


Click here to see (some) photos from our amazing Serengeti safari! (more photos will be uploaded soon!)

Click here to see many videos from our Serengeti safari!



2 responses to “Searching for the “Big Five” in the Serengeti”

  1. Ann says:

    You saw so many amazing animals! I love the lions in the tree, that is a very cool find! The daily digests are fun to watch, we can see the whole day in a snippet.

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