Click here to read about visiting the Big Hole in Kimberley
I was in a Land Rover at South Africa’s MalaMala Game Reserve snapping photos of a pride of lions less than 10 yards away, when my guide Bruce suddenly started the engine.
"Hold on," he said.
The next thing I knew, he was gunning the Rover through tall reeds as our tires made slow progress in the deep sand of a dry riverbed.
Because of the reserve’s location, game animals are constantly passing the MalaMala camps.
We had come upon the lions in the reeds and were watching as a herd of 200 Cape buffalo slowly made its way in the direction of the pride. The buffalo were unaware of the lions but, judging by the pride’s behavior, it seemed unlikely they were up for an ambush. Still, if a young calf or a weak, older buffalo came too close, the lions wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to pounce.
That’s when Bruce noticed the elephants coming toward us from the opposite direction. Suddenly, there we were, surrounded by lions, Cape buffalo and elephants — three of Africa’s Big Five — at the apex of the action.
Knowing we were in soft sand that would make a quick escape difficult, Bruce immediately started the Rover and got us out of there.
"With elephants, you don’t mess around," he explained later.
This was just one of the many close-up wildlife encounters I experienced during my three days at MalaMala. Not only did I see the Big Five (elephant, lion, Cape buffalo, leopard and rhino), but we saw giraffes, hyenas, jackals, zebras, hippos, monkeys, antelope and more. The most memorable encounters were when the various species interacted with one another, like when we watched a pair of hyenas stalk a lion guarding its kill.
And through it all, Bruce continually got us close to the action. The guides at MalaMala are specially trained in driving their Rovers off-road while minimizing any damage to the ecosystem, and the animals are totally uninterested in the cars, so visitors can truly witness the animals in their natural state.
"We don’t interfere with the animals at all," Bruce said. "Honestly, it’s hard to stay out of it when you see a lion take down a baby animal or an animal that’s sick and defenseless, for instance. But that’s nature’s way."
Nature doesn’t stop at the resort’s gates either. Guests must always be accompanied by a guide when walking to their rooms at night because animals often roam onto the grounds. During my stay, there were elephants outside one cabin and two male hippos squared off for a fight on the lawn in front of another cabin.
Three Camps, One Philosophy
The MalaMala reserve is the largest tract of privately owned Big Five game land in South Africa and has been in operation since 1927. It shares a 12-mile unfenced border with famed Kruger National Park and about eight miles of the Sand River flows through the property, making for some of the best game viewing in the country.
There are actually three camps that share the MalaMala tract, all with separate lodges and dining facilities — meals are communal — and all of them are all-inclusive. The camps also share a private landing strip (code AAM) with flights to and from Johannesburg on Airlink, a small domestic carrier. There are also flights to Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport (code MQP) via SA Express, a domestic subsidiary of South African Airways. From there, it’s a two-hour drive to MalaMala
The main camp, MalaMala, has 18 guestrooms made up of luxury rooms and suites, with a total capacity of 36 guests. At MalaMala, kids of all ages are welcome (although there are certain restrictions for children under 4 years old), and the camp even offers special programs for kids, such as game viewing followed by a cookout in the bush. Outstanding features of MalaMala include its outdoor dining area and the infinity-edge swimming pool from which guests can regularly see game pass close by the resort.
Next is Sable Camp, with seven luxury suites and a total camp capacity of 14 guests. Even though Sable Camp is right next door to MalaMala, it’s intended for guests looking for a quieter stay, and there are no kids allowed. Sable Camp is ideal for small groups, however, and is often booked entirely by a single party.
Finally, the most recent addition is the upscale Rattray’s on MalaMala. Located a short drive from the other properties, Rattray’s has significantly upgraded accommodations and amenities. Each of its eight luxury suites has his-and-hers bathrooms, private heated plunge pools and outdoor showers, in-room dining, optional in-room Internet connectivity and satellite television. Total camp capacity at Rattray’s is 16, and there are no children under age 16 allowed.
While each camp has its own ambiance and accommodations, the wildlife viewing is top-notch at all three lodges. Game drives take place before sunrise and again in the afternoon to early evening. Armed guides and assistant rangers take groups out in the specially designed Land Rovers and provide blankets and refreshments to make the drive more comfortable.
The real advantage of a stay at MalaMala is the expertise of its guides and the quality of the game available in the area. Every group stays with the same guide throughout their stay, which makes it possible for guests to really get comfortable with their guides. Bruce, for instance, was a skilled driver and tracker, extremely knowledgeable about the wildlife and patient when answering our group’s constant stream of questions.
Camp Manager Tom Bloy runs a tight ship where safety is the foremost concern, followed closely by classic hospitality. The spirit of hospitality at MalaMala is truly impressive. Our group never felt rushed by the guides, and we were never lacking for anything either. The quality of the experience always seemed of utmost concern to the staff. For instance, on our final game drive, as we were driving down a dirt road at night, Bruce stopped the car and cut the lights.
"Look at those stars," he said, pointing up at the sky.
We all sat there in the dark, enjoying the sounds of the African bush, staring up at the starry night.