Spotting the Big Five: Safari Game Drive in Tanzania Part I

Spotting the Big Five part 1

What is there to do after hiking up Mount Kilimanjaro? The safari game drive, of course! This post will take readers through 1 out of the 3 days my friends and I spent on the safari game drive in Tarangire National Park. Part II will take you through Ngorongoro Conservation Area and Lake Manyara National Park in days 2-3.

So if you are ready to have a taste of driving on the wild side, buckle up and bring out your binoculars…

Rules of the game

Before we get started however, we need to understand the rules of the Game Drive.

  1. No smoking is allowed
  2. Picnicking is only allowed in desginated areas (unless you really want to be some animal’s lunch)
  3. All visitors must remain within the vehicle except in designated area
  4. No flash photography.

That leaves us with one more question…

What is the “Big Five”?

Animals that make up the “Big Five” include the black rhinoceros, lion , African elephant, Cape buffalo and leopard. Contrary to popular belief, these five were chosen to be part of this exclusive list due not to their size or rarity but their difficulty of being hunted on foot.

It must also be said that some of the animals in the Big Five are more easily found than others. Case in point: we saw plenty of elephants and cape buffaloes but barely had one rhinoceros sighting. This could be due to some national parks having more of one than the other. For example , of the national parks we went to, only Ngorongoro National Park had a sizable black rhinoceros population.

Introducing an Innocent fellow…

Our Game Drive was done by a certified guide and this came in the form Mr. Innocent.

That’s his name, honestly.

Besides being our guide, he is also our driver and walking encyclopedia of seemingly all the animals we saw and more. Throughout the safari, he would identify the calls of various animal and mimic them. He was also just a hardworking person trying to make an honest living doing something that he loves.

Besides knowledge, he also provided gear – binoculars (one for spotting and one for fine-tuning, he says) and naturally, two encyclopedias – one for plants and the other for animals. These we would be fairly well acquainted with for the next few days.

One great thing about having a certified guide is that he is able to leverage fellow guides’ knowledge of current locations of animals through the radio which was constantly crackling throughout our trip, providing insight into where the animals were.

Before we set out to find the big five however, we need a ride. To that end, we got a typical 4 WD Landcruiser with a flip top.

The view from our vehicle

With a flip top, you are able to balance the unobstructed view with safety. There are no rules dictating whether to stand or sit but often times, the roads would get too bumpy and we would come down sitting.

Tarangire National Park

You would imagine that in a national park with free-roaming animals generally walking about would not be a good idea. Amazingly, we saw children playing football on one side of the road with the National Park on the other – they were so at ease with the environment.

Playing football
Football on one side, wild life on the other

In the safari game drives, there are no barriers between you and the environment. This is in contrast the zoo where you’ll see animals behind a moat or a pane of glass. What this meant was that everything was fair game – including you.

Before long, we were rumbling along the dusty road and Innocent called our attention to the left. Cameras were switched on as we saw our very first wildlife in a Safari Game Drive. Presenting … the wildebeest.

I am wildebeest. Hear me roar.

It is at this point that I will attempt to answer a frequently asked question: why not Serengeti National Park?

Basically it came down to one thing – cost. Going to Serengeti National Park was very much more expensive compared to going to other less well-known parks.

To add salt to the wound, whilst we were there, the wildebeest from Serengti National Park were migrating to Maasai Mara Nature Reserve for their greener pastures. If you have seen the documentary, “Planet Earth” and the grand scale of these migrations, I think words fail at this point in describing it.

Though there was no guarantee of us seeing a migration on such a grand scale, we were essentially giving up the chance of a sighting.

“Cheetah sighted”, Innocent declared after listening in to the radio. The chase was on.

At points during the game drive after coming to a site with a star attraction, he would stop the engine of the vehicle and we would slowly inch our way ever closer toward the animal and then the radio would come alive and the cycle repeats itself again, with us bumping around wildly at the back.

That was how we found ourselves in front of the cheetah.

Cheetah sighted

Actually, not really. In this photo, I was near the extreme end of my 20x zoom of my Sony DSC-WX300. We were in actuality safer than the photo would lead you to believe. I have never been really fond of extreme zoom in my cameras but I saw the reason for it now. It was the only way you could take decent pictures of animals.

Well, it was that or take the pictures through the binoculars.

We caught our first sight of one of the Big Five not too long thereafter. The African Elephant.

Right profile – African elephant (big five 1)

Now, you must be wondering about the difference between an African elephant and an Asian one. Why, I’m glad you asked.

The difference between African and Asian elephants


African elephants tend to weigh more than Asian elephants.

Head shape & lower lip

African elephants have a rounder head with a single dome while Asian elephants have a twin-domed head with an indent in the middle.

The lower lips on an African elephant are short and round while it is long and tapered in Asian elephants.

Size of ears

Ears on an African elephant are huge – like a map of Africa while on a Asian elephant they are smaller – like a map of India.

And this was more of less the gist of what Innocent told us during our stop in front of the African elephant.The radio cackled and we found ourselves in front of another one of the big five – the Cape Buffalo. This was turning out to be a bountiful day for a game drive.

Cape Buffalo
Cape Buffalo with visitor (big five 2)

The case for mutualism

Our visitor friend on the Cape buffalo’s back is the yellow-billed oxpecker.

While the oxpecker gains a rich food source from the buffalo’s body by eating it’s ticks and cleaning its wounds, the Cape Buffalos also benefit in having less parasites. It is this symbiotic relationship that keeps the oxpecker on the Cape Buffalo even though the link between the two animals may not be clear initially.

Familial ground

Animals in the animal kingdom usually stick together in a group for safety and for good cause. Be it sleeping or having an extra sets of eyes to look out for danger, sticking together makes a lot of sense.

We had a quick lunch stop-over at one of the designated spots with a take-away. Essentially it was box of food with fried drumstick, fruit juice, hard-boiled egg, biscuits and banana and then we were off again.

Snack time

At first we saw much of the same animals. But the radio cackled once more and Innocent drove through the thick grass, as though in a hurry. Tarangire National Park was not a small place but he knew it at the back of his hand.

When we reached the area, many other vehicles like ours were already there. They were crowded in one area and soon after we realised why – there were 2 lionesses around. And they were feeding. To see lionesses in their natural habitat was rare enough but to catch them while they were feeding was even rarer and we are grateful for the chance to see them in that raw state.

Lioness having a snack (big five 3)

We spent a good amount of time observing these lionesses claiming their stake on the animal and basically taking a bite of it.It felt almost like I was at a live National Geographic shoot with David Attenborough just waiting to speak. The experience was inexplicably amazing.

Soon after sighting the lionesses, we ended the day and proceeded back to Twiga lodge.

This was a good day. A very good day!


At the lodge, meals were cooked by a dedicated cook and the expectation is they were to be tipped at the end of your stay. The food was comparable to the food we had in the mountains, if not better as the cooks have access to better equipment.

A typical meal at the lodge

Our guide joined us for dinner and told us that he was also staying in the lodge with us, albeit in a tent outside our rooms. This just highlights how much of a living he scraps by doing his job.

Thus far, we have met some who take us around and help us only to want our tips and I can say Innocent is not of that sort. And that is the way we should conduct ourselves – to be honest , hardworking and leading by example.

Tips for surviving the wild

  1. Bring a camera with a high zoom factor (20x or more).
  2. Keep yourself hydrated.
  3. Buy snacks for the game drive. You don’t know when your lunch might be.
  4. Be humble and open to learn. The world is a big place and it can be overwhelming at times but take your time to observe as your guide reads lion tracks or teaches you another animal call.

In the next post, I’ll will take you through Ngorongoro Nature Reserve and Manyara National Park in days 2-3.



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