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It goes without saying most people visit South Africa with the hope of seeing the Big Five: lions, leopards, buffalos, rhinos, and elephants. And while animal viewing possibilities abound, the reality is there's no guarantee you'll see each one while on safari. Knowing animals' habits -- as well as where to stay and what to do while on safari -- will greatly increase your chance of success.

You don't have to stay at a private game reserve in order to navigate your way through the national park (it can be cost-prohibitive to do so). However, it's important to know that a self-guided experience is a different ballgame entirely. When going it alone, you're prohibited from traversing off-road in parks. By contrast, many private reserves, such as Kirkman's Kamp (Kruger National Park, Sabi Sand, tel. 011/27/11/809 4300 or 888/882-3742; www.andbeyondafrica.com), are connected to parks and have agreements that allow them to use park land. During a guided safari, rangers -- who take guests out on morning and afternoon game drives with a dedicated tracker in tow -- are allowed to go off-road. So, visitors make their way into the bush via open-air vehicles in pursuit of herds and are far more likely to see kills (and all manner of natural phenomenon) take place.

Should you decide going solo makes more sense, you should arm yourself with the following knowledge about the Big Five.

  1. Lions -- who hunt for wildebeest, buffalo, giraffe, zebra and warthog alone or in prides -- seek prey during the day. Kruger National Park (www.krugerpark.co.za) is considered lion country. Sightings are not uncommon between the Orpen and Satara camps south of the Olifants River, in the grasslands of the Tshokwane, in the woodlands of Skukuza or at the Crocodile Bridge camps as well. And black-maned lions can be found at Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (www.sanparks.org) in the Northern Cape.
  2. Black and white rhinos, which in reality are both grey in color, are prevalent throughout in Kruger National Park, but the south portion of the park is best for viewing. However, some argue that Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park (www.drakensberg-tourism.com) in KwaZulu-Natal is ground zero for rhino viewing. White rhinos hang with families, preferring open plains near water, while harder-to-find black rhinos stick to thickets and like to be solitary.
  3. Leopards tend to be active at night, so they're more likely to be spotted during early morning or late afternoon/early evening game drives. Checking out the Sabi Sands region of Kruger National Park will significantly increase your chances of spotting the creatures. Other areas to try within Kruger include Satara, Olifants, Skukuza, Tshokwane, Letaba and Punda Maria as well as along the Sabie River.
  4. Herds of buffalo populate Kruger National Park and sometimes travel in groups as large as 500. Often, they're seen along the banks of the Shingwedzi River near Skukuza, Mopani, Satara, Letaba, Berg-en-Dal, and Lower Sabie. When grazing, however, they gravitate toward open plains.
  5. Surprisingly quiet, elephants slip through the bush with little more than a rustle of leaves. To increase your chances of seeing them, you'll want to go to Kruger National Park. On the short list of spots within: the Shingwedzi, Mopani, Olifants, and Letaba areas. Also, keep your eyes peeled between Skukuza and Tshokwane. Opportunities to see elephants at Addo Elephant National Park (www.sanparks.org) in the Eastern Cape practically a given, while Natal elephants reside within Tembe Elephant Park (www.tembe.co.za).

Talk with fellow Frommer's travelers on our South Africa Forum today.