His eyes seemed to be everywhere all at once. Navigating the dirt roads as a trail of dust spewed from the tyres in our wake, on the bushes to the left and scanning the plains to the right. He was a tracker, one of the most skilled, though all the other rangers at camp swore that Berns was the best, at MalaMala Game Reserve, the base for my South African safari adventure.
Arriving just in time for the afternoon game drive, the retro fitted open-topped Range Rover waited for us and Berns’ trusty rifle was placed gently on the front. Yes, a rifle “just in case.“
Berns, our ranger and host for the duration of our time at camp, made sure we were settled in the open top Range Rover with blankets and water before we headed off into the great unknown, which he seemed to know like the back of his hand.
We were on the hunt for leopards, the camp being internationally renown for its sighting. A group of rangers had sighted one earlier in the day and Berns seemed determined to find them.
Hunt is perhaps the wrong word – MalaMala doesn’t condone hunting and were the first game reserve to introduce the photographic safari in 1962. Today, the photographic safari is by far the most popular type of safari in South Africa, though, unfortunately, there are still game hunting reserves.
After twenty-minutes on the road, Berns swerving to the side every to glance at the dirt road, tracking his prey, we crept along the waterfront; well ‘creeping’ as well as a pimped out Range Rover with guards and railings could.
My inexpert eyes were darting everywhere, taking in my surroundings: the slightest rustle of grass could be an animal, perhaps the animals was drinking in the river, maybe nestled amongst the branches of the trees. Then I saw something – “Over there” – I pointed at a bush we were nearing. Berns glanced in the direction I pointed and shook his head. I felt defeated, the wind rustling the trees had distracted me but still I saw on the edge of my seat glancing forward.
Directly in front of me, 20 metres away, he was walking straight towards me. Head down, that brilliant coat littered with black splotches a give away to his identity. This time I knew he was real.
“THERE! 1 O’CLOCK!!!“
I couldn’t contain my excitement as I inched further forward on my seat as he walked closer.
“Where?” Bernz asked as his expert eyes scanned the grass.
“There!” I had to resist jumping out of my chair as the group scanned the grasses looking for him. I wanted to stand as the excitement of the hunt filled every fibre of my being, but that would break our shape and we, as the bigger ‘animal’ on the reserve were left alone for this reason.
Berns spotted him and we began pointing out the leopards location, still walking closer, to the others in the car. The leopard sauntered closer to us.
10 metres – I admired his walk, his swagger, and the way his tail curved.
5 metres – that unmistakable coat gleamed, those dense whiskers framing his mouth, I wanted to pat him and cuddle him like he was some house cat.
3 metres – I began to freak out, what if he attacked? He didn’t look friendly and here I was taking photos of him.
1 metre – he was so close I could touch him if I just moved a few inches to my right as he walked past the side of our car, barely giving us a second glance.
As day turned into night, the warm weather gave way to the biting cold darkness that none of us were prepared for. I snuggled into the polar fleece blanket Berns had laid out for us and pulled the drawstring of my jacket, drawing it closer around my face and waist. We saw dozens of animals but the leopard was still on my mind along with one song that played on a loop in my head, perfectly describing my first afternoon at MalaMala:
I’m not a morning person; so the phone ringing at 5:30 am and Berns voice waking me from my dreams was not high on my “want to do every morning list“. What is high on that list is heading back onto the plains in search of the big five.
Settling his rifle into its holder on the front of the vehicle we pressed Berns again for information about if he’d ever fired it. The answer was no, but he was thankful to have it the one time he was stuck between a lioness and her cubs. He said it so casually but there was a look in his eyes.
Why the early start and night driving? Animals are most active at these time periods. By day they sleep and relax in the heat, by night they hunt and roam the lands they call home.
MalaMala runs on a similar schedule in order to give the guests the best chances of seeing animals. Waking up early at 5:30 am for morning game drive, breakfast around 9:30 am, and then the day to relax, nap, or take guided walks around the property. After an optional lunch – many choose to sleep through it – afternoon tea is where everyone gathers for snacks and a drink before afternoon game drive. Dinner begins at 8 pm and then you can either retire or head to the Safari Bar to chat with the rangers, enjoy a few drinks and hear the stories from the day!
Layering the bundle of jackets, jumpers and scarves in my arms, learning my lesson after the previous nights long, cold drive home – thankfully not feeling it quite as badly as my travelling companions – we bundled into the Range Rover again after a quick cup of coffee and some biscuits to tide us over until breakfast.
As the car roared past the savannahs dopey eyed creatures lifted their heads from the grasses, their eyes tracking us working out what to do – flight or fight. Many ran but we just kept trundling down the road, passing them as we went.
Driving down the now familiar dusty roads, the sun rising to our left and elephants ate to our right. Bens braked quickly and reversed, assessing the situation to see if we could drive closer. As we inched closer, though “metered closer” would be a better description, there in front of us were a group of four elephants grazing, including a beautiful calf huddled close to its Mum.
I’d never seen an elephant up close before, only in photos that friends had taken from Thailand’s Elephant Nature Park so to actually experience them up close – throwing dust on themselves with their trunks to swat away insects, the quiet strength they use to move bushes to get to the best grasses to snack on, the deep wrinkles and fold in their skin, not merely grey like I thought but varying colours of grey and brown – was something else entirely.
As we pulled away, giving other rangers the chance to show the elephants to their guests, what we didn’t realise is that we would encounter an even bigger herd of elephants later on during the drive, and even get charged; just a few steps to tell us it was time to move on.
A new song had replaced ‘Hakuna Matata’ in my head and I kept humming it as we geared up for our afternoon safari.
In the jungle, the mighty jungle The lion sleeps tonight
In the jungle, the mighty jungle The lion sleeps tonight
Lions had been seen earlier that day and Berns asked us if we’d like to try to track them – a resounding “yes!” echoed throughout the group – their current location unknown, though the spotter car was trying to hunt them. Berns floored the jeep as we bumped our way along the dirt road, at one point all of us getting hang time, as we raced to where the spotter’s car was clumsily driving over bushes along the river’s edge.
For a reason we didn’t know Berns pulled a U-turn and headed back the other way, again putting his foot to the floor as we bounced along the dirt roads. He was in tracker mode, following his instinct and every so often swerving onto the grasses in order to get a better look at markings on the dirt roads. Our car stopped. Berns got out, pulled his rifle from the holster and walked along the dirt road – I questioned if this is a time I should be afraid – but he walked back to the car after examining a series of tracks and pulled away again.
The five of us seemed to want answers to the same question: what could he see that we couldn’t? One question remained unanswered though: would we see lions today?
For a good 40 minutes, we continued this routine as Berns followed the tracks finally leading us off into bushes and trees. Any normal person would have seen the trees as a barrier, a defence that to be gotten ‘around’; Berns preferred to drive right over any tree that stood in his way, providing they weren’t endangered or used as food for the animals.
Our journey had slowed but running over trees, darting logs, almost getting stuck in the sand, and even going down – and then back up – a steep embankment had me wondering if Berns was fearless.
As we crawled along the grasses, his eyes scanning the trees in front of us, a sure sounding “there they are” escaped his lips. I craned my eyes, staring at the mess of greens and browns in front of me wondering what I was meant to be seeing.
Leopards are easy. Their coats give them away but lions blend in so naturally to their surroundings – the ultimate predator. It took me a few minutes until landmarks were called and I saw black circles suspended in mid-air; those weren’t rocks.
Berns metred closer and we saw ears prick up, all eyes were on us. A pride of lions, around twelve adolescent males, watched us closely. One stood, glancing at us before turning his back and walking away. He didn’t want to face the paparazzi today.
As the sun began to set again, our second day at MalaMala almost over Sundowners and snacks were produced much to our excitement. As we watched the lions relaxing in the long grasses we relaxed in the Range Rover, sipping and nibbling, enjoying this perfect moment.
We followed the lions until well after dark when Berns turned to ask to ask if we were okay with leaving to head back to Main Camp to relax before dinner.
MalaMala tries to ensure the animals don’t feel threatened or stressed by allowing no more than three cars to approach the same group of animals. We all agreed that we would be happy to leave the lions. The next morning we did get to see them one last time as they crossed the fenceless border between MalaMala and Kruger National Park.
MalaMala was an eye-opening experience. Not only did we get to encounter the illustrious Big Five, something MalaMala prides themselves on being able to show 99% of guests, but we were at the home of the photographic safari.
In an interconnected world like ours, more and more travellers are in search for the next authentic experience. As leaders in safaris, holding the titles of first private game reserve in South Africa, MalaMala provides authenticity and history in every aspect of the safari experience.
Now it’s over to you
Which animals would you want to see when going on safari?
MalaMala Game Reserve
Ehlanzeni, South Africa
Prices for MalaMala Main Camp:
Luxury Rooms US$740 p/person.
Luxury Suites US$800 p/person.
Children under 12 years, sharing with full paying adults AU$440.
All prices can be found here.
Rate includes accommodation, all meals and snacks, two game drives per day, nature walks, transfers to and from the MalaMala Game Reserve airstrip (not from Nelspruit!), and laundry.
Rates exclude: bar purchases, use of phones, transfers to/from other camp or airports other than MalaMala airstrip, US$12.50 p/person community levy (only applicable from 01 February 2015.)
How to get to MalaMala:
- Daily 1 hour Federal Air flight directly into MalaMala from Johannesburg – O.R Tambo International Airport (ORT)
- Daily 1 hour SA Airlink flight from Johannesburg to Skukuza and a 10-minute charter flight or a 1-hour road transfer to MalaMala.
- Daily 1 hour SA Airlink flight from Johannesburg to Nelspruit and a 20-minute charter flight or 2-hour road transfer to MalaMala.
- Via road – 5 ½ hour drive from Johannesburg
- Private charter flight
My trip to MalaMala Game Reserve was arranged by South Africa Tourism.
All thoughts and opinions are, as always, my own.