Ultimate Safari Experience | Rattray’s on MalaMala

Jonathan and Sophie visit the iconic MalaMala reserve bordering Kruger National Park and come away enthralled by its magic.

Rattray on MalaMala needs no introduction. It really is the oldest and largest Big 5 private game reserve in South Africa, boasting the highest density of habituated leopards in Africa. Not to mention their unprecedented 20km of pristine Sand River frontage offering possibly the most sought-after game viewing in Southern Africa.

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We drove up to Rattray’s on a hot summer afternoon with this forefront in our minds. The managers Leon and Hilda, and our guide, Mike were there to welcome us. MalaMala has an aura about it – the name alone has a romantic magnetism, synonymous with the wilds of Africa. Step into the colonial lounge, adorned with leather armchairs and hunting logs from the 1920s, and it feels like stepping into the past.

The wonderful private suite.

Mike accompanied us to our Khaya. A stand-alone private suite decked out in lavish luxury. We can say that this is the first 2-person safari suite we’ve ever seen with two bathrooms, and the best outdoor shower for rinsing off in after a dip in the private pool. All right on the banks of the infamous Sand River, with total privacy. Just before we head off to lunch, a herd of elephants meanders by.

MalaMala really is a family affair.

To understand the ethos of MalaMala, you first need to understand the intricate connection to the Rattray family, the owners of the Reserve since 1964. Mr Rattray himself, now 84 is frequently around and even when he’s not around the staff speak of him with great respect. MalaMala is stamped with his particular style, from the guiding culture to lodge’s etiquette. Some of Mike’s first words to us were “We do things differently here”.

Lunchtime in the bush.

One special difference is immediately evident at the delicious lunch, throughout your stay your guide is also your host. They accompany you at meal times, take your drinks orders – and even your Big Five orders! Lunch is delicious lamb curry with salad and lemon meringue for dessert.

It’s all about immersion – in this vast, pristine wilderness.

Your guide will regale you with stories from the bush at breakfast, lunch and dinner. You can request a private meal, away from your guide and fellow guests at any time and some guests do choose this option. However, we really do feel that to get the most from MalaMala you need to embrace its unique culture.

The Rattrays are unapologetic about the policy of your guide always being present and rightly so, as your guide is also your teacher. The Rattray message is simple, this is how we do things and we take pride in being different. In the end, their motto is true – it really is all about the wildlife.

The game drives are great.

We head out in great anticipation on our first game drive. Sure enough, barely 15 minutes into the drive we spot Dudley Female, a tiny, 16-year old veteran lazing on a termite mound in the afternoon sun. We enjoy a long and peaceful sighting, one of the benefits of so few vehicles on this huge estate. We set off to search for some cheetah, but unfortunately, it is a fruitless search. However, we are rewarded with some fantastic elephant and rhino encounters, and a side-striped jackal snapping moths on the airstrip.

Leopards at MalaMala

Game viewing here is phenomenal, although it’s specifically leopard that many people come here to see. The meticulously recorded sighting statistics speak for themselves. In 2013 for example, leopards were sighted on no less than 345 days, with ten individual leopards sighted in just a day. Put this in perspective – 2013 was considered a relatively poor year for leopard sightings.

Dinner under the stars.

Dinner is a boma affair, the whole camp seated under a big table under a vast Jackelberry tree. We chat with Mike about the recent land claim MalaMala was subject to. A controversial, compulsory repurchase by the government recently for an astounding R1.3billion ($118m), with the ownership of the land being transferred to a local community.

The details were murky and rife with rumours about the future of the lodges, but Mike is keen to put the record straight. “Under a 20-year lease-back agreement, nothing is going to change in the foreseeable future,” he says. “We are continuing to manage the lodges in exactly the same way and the MalaMala philosophy will not change”.

Our leopard sightings.

The morning game drive is even better than the last. We start with watching the Styx lion pride passed out in the riverbed. Soon we encounter the Newington Male leopard, who rears his head above an acacia bush and not 200m away we encounter another leopard. The Tree House Male leopard is showing interest in some impala.

He starts to stalk the Impala just metres away from us, before disappearing into thick bush where we can’t follow, hunting his impala away from our prying eyes. It’s absolute magic to be allowed so close. This is how leopards behave when humans are not around. MalaMala’s leopards are so used to vehicles, that one can drive right up to them and they scarcely acknowledge the vehicle.

MalaMala really is magical.

MalaMala feels like its own little universe. For the brief days of our visit, we felt encapsulated by the bush. We were absorbed, intrigued, and awed in turn. It truly is the kind of place you look back on, blink, and wonder if it was really real.