On our odyssey through the southeastern territories of South Africa, we’ve heard a lot about the big five. In many cases, those making such references assumed we knew who, or what, they are.
So as not to appear uninformed, I tried to figure the answer out for myself. In Capetown, we had visited a public square populated by four statues, one each for three Nobel Peace Prize winners—Desmond Tutu, F.W. de Klerk, and Nelson Mandela—and a Nobel Literature Prize winner, John Coetzee. Much is known about these men, and I thought they would be worthy members of such a group.
Drawing on my distant study of history, I supposed the fifth member of the big five might be Jan Smuts, a Boer commando who fought the British before becoming prime minister of the country in 1919, and a staunch defender of the Commonwealth, serving in Churchill’s Imperial War Cabinet during WWII.
But I was wrong, not only about Smuts, but all of them. Despite the reverence and admiration in which they are held, none is part of the big five.
Perhaps, then, I wondered if the reference might be to cities—Pretoria, the administrative capital; Capetown, the legislative capital, home to the nation’s parliament; and Bloemfontein, the judicial capital. To that august list, I figured I could add Johannesburg and Durban, for example, to round out the group.
Wrong again. Cities are not referred to as the big five, either.
Still determined to demonstrate my knowledge of the country, but somewhat anxious now about my misfires, I seized upon what I should have known from the start. The country’s top tourist destinations must surely constitute the list. There is no question about the plenitude of such attractions; the dilemma would be narrowing them down to only five from a list that includes, among others:
- Table Mountain, looming high over Capetown;
- the Cango Caves, stretching beneath the mountains near Oudtshoorn;
- the Cape Point Nature Preserve, almost the southernmost tip of the country;
- the Addo Elephant National Park;
- the wild animal safaris of Kwandwe Nature Preserve;
- Robben Island, a former penal colony where none other than Mandela was imprisoned, and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site;
- the Kwa-Zulu Natal battlefields, including Roarke’s Drift, a magnet for history buffs such as I;
- Boulders Beach, with its colony of African penguins; or
- the highest bungee jump in Africa, off the Bloukrans Bridge.
Once again, however, I was mistaken. None of South Africa’s geographical or historical wonders are part of the big five.
Finally, I swallowed my pride and asked someone who would know, a friend and fellow-traveller who has visited the country on several occasions. She was only too happy to solve the puzzle.
The phrase originally referred to wild animals native to Africa that are considered by big-game hunters the most difficult to hunt…on foot. The term has been co-opted by tour operators who conduct wildlife safaris for eager tourists, although the danger is much less for us than for hunters.
In no particular order, the big five includes: the African elephant, the Black rhinoceros, the Cape buffalo, the African leopard, and the African lion—none of which I would like to come upon while on foot.
In a safari truck, however? Well, that’s a different matter, and it’s exactly what we’ll be doing as we enter the fourth week of our travels in this marvellous country. And I’m hoping to shoot every one of them during our early-morning and early-evening game-drives over three days. But I’ll be shooting with a camera, of course, not a gun.
I could never fathom the fascination for taxidermied heads, mounted on a hunter’s wall, as if to trumpet the bravery of a man or woman with a gun, up against an unarmed animal—even if one of the big five.
But I’ll be happy to show off any photographs I might get right here in this blog!