South African Wildlife: Beyond the Big 5

south african wildlife baboon tree

When you think of South African wildlife, what’s the first animal you think of?  Elephant?  Lion?  Or a rhino perhaps?

These are part of the “Big 5” a term originally coined by game hunters that identify the five most difficult animals to hunt on foot, but today the “Big 5” usually refers to a check list that tourists on safari are looking to tick off.  (The other two are the Cape buffalo and leopard.)

During my trip to S. Africa I saw lots of wildlife, but not a single one of the “Big 5” – not one, although I did see leopard poop!  Contrary to popular belief, lions and elephants are not freely roaming around the country.  They are enclosed in national parks or private game reserves.  Given that the purpose of my trip was to hike in Golden Gate National Park and the Drakensberg, I found it rather reassuring to know that I wouldn’t be running into any lions or cheetahs while hiking.  My time in South Africa also opened my eyes to the abundance of wildlife that goes way beyond the Big 5:

Herd of Black Wildebeest in Golden Gate National Park, South Africa
Herd of Black Wildebeest in Golden Gate National Park.

Golden Gate National Park is a great place for hiking and is famous for its golden colors(see Hiking in Golden Gate National Park).  It’s also home to an abundant of herd species, including the Black Wildebeest.  I love the idea that you can be hiking and come across a herd of wildebeest, although I saw these ones while we were driving.  Note, when in South Africa, keep your long camera lens nearby at all times.  You never know what you’ll see.  Unfortunately mine was packed away for this shot.

Sprinbok in Golden Gate National Park.

Springbok are also frequently seen in Golden Gate National Park as are a variety of other antelope species and even the occasional zebra! I did see a zebra while we were driving, but it was outside of the park.

south african wildlife termite mound
Termite Mound

I couldn’t believe the size of some of the termite mounds we passed, they were huge!  Like most of the world’s most impressive buildings, the mounds are built by the low ranking worker termites, defended by the soldier termites.  Naturally there is also a king and queen termite who enjoy the fruits of the other termites labors.

Ostrich in South African wildlife, South Africa
Ostrich in South Africa

I saw this ostrich somewhere between the Drakensberg and Johnesburg.  Ostriches are famously known for the false fact that they put their head in the sand to avoid danger, but with predators like lions these birds are so much smarter than that.  They have even been known to kill lions in self defense, especially if there are chicks around.

Cobra hole in South African wildlife, South Africa

Look real hard at the above photo.  See anything?  Look harder!  Just kidding, there’s nothing there, but inside the hole is a different story.  On our hike to Orange Peel Gap in the Drakensberg we saw several snakes, including three cobras.  I am petrified of snakes, especially large, venomous ones like cobras.  But even I can admit my fear was unfounded.  On each occasion the snake wasn’t too happy to see our group either and slithered away.  My apologies for the blurry photo, my hands were shaking with fear as I took it and I took it quickly in case the cobra should make a dramatic reappearance, which he thankfully didn’t.

Baboon in South African wildlife, South Africa
Just one of the many baboons I saw, much to my delight while in South Africa.

It should come as no surprise to you that someone who has named her blog “Monkeys and Mountains” was beyond thrilled to see so many baboons!  I saw them in Golden Gate National Park, while hiking in the Drakensberg Amphitheater, while driving through the Drakensberg and even at mother and baby baboon at the Didima Chalets.  I have the proof in over 300 baboon photos if you want to see them :).

I loved South Africa so much that I’m going back in August to dive with sharks, see more monkeys and maybe this time even spot one of the  Big 5.  But if I don’t I know there are lots of other species to observe.  Oh who am I kidding, I really want to see an African elephant…and a lion….and a cheetah…

Thank you to South African Tourism (for hosting me during my visit to Golden Gate National Park and the Drakensberg.  Visit Dein Südafrika for info in German.

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About Author

Laurel Robbins is the founder of Monkeys and Mountains Adventure Travel. She's passionate about getting outdoors as often as possible and helping travellers do the same on their vacation in a sustainable way. She's Canadian and grew up in the Canadian Rockies but now lives in Munich, Germany. You can find her skiing or hiking in the mountains most weekends, hanging out with her cat or with her nose in a good book.


July 11, 2012
I guess it makes sense that the "Big 5" are hard to spot and like you said, aren't roaming around freely (which is probably a good thing?). Like if you go to Australia, you won't see that many kangaroos outside the true outback and zoos!
July 11, 2012
What a trip and to think you can return again so soon - just a long bloody flight. As much as I love the Big 5, I also think it's great to see any animals (or birds). The sheer number and types of antelope is something else. I have great respect for the ostriches.
July 11, 2012
I think I'd probably scream like a girl if I ran into a cobra!!! OMG that is scary but this sounds like a fascinating trip. I think anyone going to Africa would be disappointed if they didn't see one of the Big 5 but like everything else in life its the small little ones that are just as beautiful!
July 12, 2012
I'm not an animal person, but I've discovered I love safaris. Even when there's no Big 5 in sight, I can follow your fascination with termite mounds and snake holes.
July 12, 2012
@Zhu - It seems obvious, but I don't know why it surprised me. I was lucky enough to see wallabies in Australia, but it was in the Outback, not downtown Sydney :) @Leigh - Fortunately from Germany it's not too bad and there's no time change so no jet lag :). I'm hoping to learn more about all the different species of antelope when I return in August. @Debbie - I did scream like a little girl the first time I saw a cobra. I learned real quick that the trick is to walk closely behind someone so that they'll see the snake first :) @ItalianNotes - I haven't done a safari yet, will be doing my first one in August, can't wait!
July 13, 2012
I am a big fan of wildlife photography and you have provided exactly what I was looking for. Cheers mate and thanks a lot.
July 13, 2012
I've been around a fair bit of South Africa but didn't get to the Drakensburg, to my chagrin! Your posts have been great and confirmed I really need to get there!
July 13, 2012
Very cool! Love the picture of the baboon! When I was little, I loved visiting the Tamarins at the zoo and every night I would sit looking out my bedroom window waiting for a shooting star. If I spotted one, I would wish for a Tamarin of my very own! Of course now, I actually know Tamarins come from South America. But back then I just thought all monkeys came from Africa.
July 15, 2012
I am happy to see that you are interested in more than the Big five when you visit South Africa. Baboons look very timid but the males are formidable combatants and can if they stick together even kill a leopard. Whenever tourists to our country see the baboons in groups when they come here on safari, they will likely be busy with some grooming activity. I see you have a degree in Primatology - so you will know that is a key way for them to form bonds with each other as well as keeping them clean and free of external parasites. Hope you have a great trip later in the year.
July 15, 2012
I love monkeys too! Although, I have to admit, when it comes to close encounters, I would rather play with a tame monkey than, say, a wild vervet monkey. We had a troupe of vervet monkeys break into our cottage once while we were sleeping and help themselves to the candy and chips on the bed between us. I opened one eye and told my friend Lesa to keep very, very still and absolutely quiet. They are know for attacking humans with very little provocation! I squealed a little bit when I saw your photo of the springbok. <3 One of my favourite boks alongside impala and kudus.

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