Technically there cannot be be a ‘Big 7’ in the realm of wildlife and Safari. The term ‘Big 5’ was coined by big game hunters well over a century ago to collectively describe the five most dangerous animals to hunt on foot in Africa. It’s the ‘on foot’ part that wreaks havoc with the Big 7 hypothesis. You can hardly imagine hunting the great white shark and southern right whale on foot.
But despite this, South Africa has been dubbed the place to see the Big 7 for several years now. The then minister of environmental affairs Buyelwa Sonjica announced, as far back as 2009, that her country will be the first in the world to to officially have a Big 7 experience – adding the two above mentioned sea creatures to the existing Big 5: lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros and Cape buffalo.
Accepting that marketing exploits will always outweigh logic, I looked at the practicalities of actually seeing these seven creatures in one visit to South Africa. It proved near impossible. You do not merely book a Big 7 trip, hop on the airplane and there they are – all neatly lined up for you to enjoy over a gin and tonic.
This is where Epic Africa Travel came to the party. Known as a digital travel desk to ‘smooth’ travel between Cape Town and the Eastern Cape of South-Africa’s Safari experiences via the Garden Route on Africa’s southern coast, Epic Africa Travel’s Yvonne van Tol solved my problem after only one email.
I made it clear that I was not going to do the entire thing – start in Cape Town and work my way east, as they so often assist overseas guests – but was only interested in the Big 7. She suggested I fly directly to the city founded by British Settlers in 1820, Port Elizabeth. From there it was only a short drive to Addo, where the adventure started.
Yvonne warned me right from the very start that you need lots of luck – ‘being at the right place at the right time’ – to see all of the Big 7. She even warned that the chances of spotting leopard would be slim as she even know wildlife rangers working for years who seldom sport these elusive big cats.
But, she assured me, the entire region north and north-east of Port Elizabeth was ideal to spot the Big 7, it also offers various levels of luxury and price options. Assuming we would tick off the first five of the Big 7 on terra firma before we take to the water, we headed to the Addo Elephant National Park, which is by far the most cost-effective way to spot the Big 5 – although never guaranteed. In Addo’s self-drive sections around the Addo Main Camp, Spekboom Tented Camp and even the new Colchester section closer to the coast, your chances of seeing one of the over 500 African elephants in the park are really good. With perseverance you should also spot rhino and buffalo, as indeed we did during the first afternoon of our Safari.
Yvonne warned before we started, for lion and leopard sightings you will either need a proper dose of good luck, return to the park dozens of times, or build up loads of local knowledge to know when and where to be at the right time.
But better guaranteed sightings come with a knowledgeable professional game rangers on open top 4×4 bush vehicles and it’s the kind of experience you need to pay for – at times handsomely. While this service is also available at Addo, Yvonne advised I head to the N2 national road between Port Elizabeth and Grahamstown where the road is dotted with turnoffs to a multitude of luxury game reserves and lodges.
Almost all of them offer the Big 5 experience in a five-star environment – minus the dangers of malaria. I opted for Kariega Game Reserve between another Settler city, Grahamstown, and the coastal town Kenton-On-Sea. My choice? Not only because Kariega constantly receives glowing reviews from visitors, but also because Kariega offers excellent rates to both South African and overseas visitors between May and September of each year.
Kariega, like most of the private game reserves, is relatively small (9,000 hectares) which, of course, increases your chances of seeing the Big 5 but is not too small to ever find yourself feeling that you are stuck in a large zoo.
In fact Kariega is large enough to include five eco-systems: valley bushveld, savannah grasslands, fynbos, riverine forest and acacia woodland. Within one evening, superb accommodation and morning game drive I ticked off four of the Big 5, but had to be content with the knowledge that the leopards were in no mood to show themselves.
The focus soon shifted to the practicalities of spotting the large sea creatures. Yvonne assured me that with some luck we might be able to see whales from the coastal dunes of the Addo Park’s Woody Cape Section close to a town called Alexandria, but I wanted to be certain. So she left me in the hands – and in the boat – of Lloyd Edwards, who’s Raggy Charters takes care of the marine part of a tour known as the ‘Big 7 Experience’ in conjunction with Alan Fogarty of Alan Tours.
Lloyd’s twin-engine 30-foot catamaran Orca II leaves from the Algoa Bay Yacht Club in the Port Elizabeth harbour at 8.30am (weather permitting) with a minimum of four and maximum of 20 people on board. A second catamaran can take up to 12 people. The cruise to the St. Croix Island Marine Reserve and Jaheel and Brenton islands lasts at least three hours.
Lloyd knows Algoa Bay well and proved to be an expert at spotting dolphins, seals and sharks. Although his reputation for spotting whales precedes him, my cruise was in early June with southern right whales not expected in the bay before mid July when the large sea mammals calf and mate in the protected waters of the Addo Marine Section. Humpback whales migrate north through Algoa Bay from June to September and south from October to January. Bryde’s and killer whales can be seen all year round, with Lloyd showing us photographs of killer whales he snapped earlier near Sardinia Bay beach not far from Port Elizabeth.
I needed no luck to see great white sharks. St Croix Island plays host to the largest breeding colony of African penguins on the planet – around 22,000 noisy birds that feast on the smaller fish around the island. With the great white on top of the food chain, it’s easy to understand why they prefer to have their canapés here.
Bagging five of the Big 7 in less than three days was good going for me. But if you take into account all the other animals to be seen and the fun activities on offer when not game-watching, it makes a trip with Epic Africa Travel truly – well – ‘epic’.
To book your own trip with epic Africa Travel, click here.