Jonathan and Sophie visit this iconic reserve bordering Kruger National Park and come away enthralled by its magic.
MalaMala needs no introduction. Which superlative should we start with? The oldest, largest Big 5 private game reserve in South Africa? The highest density of habituated leopards in Africa? The unprecedented 20km of pristine Sand River frontage offering possibly the most sought-after game viewing in Southern Africa?
This and more was forefront in our minds as we drove up to Rattray’s on a hot summer afternoon, to be greeted by managers Leon and Hilda, and our guide, Mike.
MalaMala has an aura about it – the name alone has a romantic magnetism, synonymous with the wildest of wild Africa. When you arrive in person at the place, this sense is stronger than ever. As you step into the colonial lounge, adorned with leather armchairs and hunting logs from the 1920s, you step into the past.
Mike accompanies us to our Khaya (in other words, our stand-alone private suite), decked out in lavish luxury. The photos here speak for themselves but suffice to say this is the first 2-person safari suite we’ve ever seen with two, not one, bathrooms, and the best outdoor shower we’ve ever seen to rinse off in after a dip in the private pool. All, of course, right on the banks of the infamous Sand River, in total privacy. A herd of ellies meander by before we head to the lodge for a fantastic buffet lunch.
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. Even when he’s not around (and he frequently is), you can almost sense the presence of Mr Rattray himself, now 84, and staff speak of him in hushed tones, with great respect.
His very particular style – everything from the guiding culture to etiquette – is stamped all over MalaMala. “We do things differently here,” was one of Mike’s first words to us – MalaMala prides itself on sticking to the old-fashioned family traditions, and this further heightens the sense of timelessness about the place.
One difference is evident already at lunchtime as we tuck into our lamb curry, salad and lemon meringue. Throughout your stay at MalaMala, your guide is also your host – accompanying you at meals and taking your drinks orders as well as your Big Five orders. It’s all about immersion – immersion in this vast, pristine wilderness. When not out in the bush with your guide, he’s regaling you with stories from the bush at breakfast, lunch and dinner. For some, this constant interaction with the guide (and, therefore, the other people on your vehicle) can get a bit much. The Rattrays are unapologetic about this policy and rightly so. Indeed, they are unapologetic about everything they do differently and the message is simple – this is how we do things and we take pride in being different.
Of course you can request a private meal, away from your guide and fellow guests at any time and some guests choose this option, depending on the group dynamics. But to get the most from MalaMala you need to embrace its unique culture and in particular its motto: ‘It’s all about the wildlife’. Your guide is also your teacher.
It’s all about the wildlife
With this in mind we head out in great anticipation on our first game drive. Although all game viewing here is phenomenal, it’s specifically leopard that many people come here to see and the sighting statistics, which are meticulously recorded, speak for themselves. In 2013 for example, leopard were sighted on no less than 345 days and ten individual leopards were sighted on one single day… and by the way, 2013 was considered a relatively poor year.
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. With so few vehicles on such a huge estate, we were guaranteed a long, peaceful sighting. After a fruitless search for some cheetah we were rewarded by some fantastic elephant and rhino encounters, and a side-striped jackal snapping moths on the airstrip.
Spot the difference
Dinner is a boma affair, the whole camp seated under a big table under a vast Jackelberry tree and I chat to Mike about the land claim. MalaMala was the subject of a controversial, compulsory repurchase by the government recently for an astounding R1.3billion ($118m), the ownership of the land being transferred to a local community. The details have always been murky with rumours rife 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”.
The morning game drive is even better than the last, starting with the Styx lion pride passed out in the riverbed before another well-known leopard, Newington Male, rears his head above an acacia bush. Not 200m away we encounter another leopard, a magnificent specimen named Tree House Male, showing interest in some impala. Would there be a confrontation?
MalaMala’s leopards are habituated to the extent that you can drive right up to them and they scarcely even acknowledge the vehicle. For most of us used to a distant glimpse at best of these magnificent beasts this seems almost unreal. As he starts to stalk the impala, metres away, it almost feels like he’s showing off for us until you realize you’re merely treated as an invisible observer. This is how leopards behave when humans are not around, and that is what gives it it’s magic. He disappears into thick bush where we can’t follow, hunting his impala away from our prying eyes.
MalaMala’s main camp and Sable camp are close to Rattrays, without the same level of luxury but with the same unbeatable location, top guides and philosophy.
MalaMala feels like its own little universe and for the brief days of your visit you feel encapsulated into it, absorbed, intrigued, and awed. It’s the kind of place you look back on, blink, and wonder if it was really real.