October 25, 1981 was the exact date I was introduced to Mala Mala, the premier South African safari. A small article in the New York Times travel section about safaris in South Africa by esteemed author Joseph Lelyveld entitled Mala Mala: Posh in the Wild would come to embody my idea of the perfect luxury safari for the next few decades. That yellowed, crispy article is still stuck to my fridge by my Welcome to Venice magnet purchased in Italy at roughly the same time I was reading this article.
I had discovered the joy of traveling upon that first trip to La Serenissima, a love has lasted the test of time. Europe was close at hand, but Africa seemed so far away, becoming the stuff of dreams. Yet, somehow I always knew that Mala Mala would be my first stop.
When invited to join a group of journalists and bloggers to South Africa, to my surprise and delight, there it was, in pen and ink, on my itinerary: two nights at Mala Mala.
“What matters here, ultimately, is the encounter with game…you are in an open Land-Rover with six or seven other dudes, cruising on dirt roads, sometimes on mere paths or, when game is sighted, driving directly into the bush -through high grass and dry river beds, or into thickets of acacia trees whose thin, supple branches with their menacing white thorns scrape along the sides of the vehicle.” I am happy to say that little has changed since Mr. Lelyveld wrote those very descriptive words, but it can’t capture the wonder that unfolds for a first-timer who has spent her life dreaming of this moment and then touching down on her first safari.
This was my moment:
The Welcoming Committee
Arriving from Cape Town into the very chic Skukuza airport, we were whisked away in one of the jeeps that would be our second home for the two days. The almost hour long ride was bumpy and dusty, our necks craning to make sure an animal sighting does not pass us by.
I felt like the Joan Rivers of the Animal Kingdom. Like celebrities on the red carpet, they were lined up one after the other, seemingly waiting for us to stop and interview them. Where did you get that fabulous fur coat you’re wearing this afternoon?
Some of them I knew by name and almost said hello as if we were friends, but I realized that I had only ever seen them on screen: Dumbo, Melman, Nala. All had a quick peek at us, then went back to eating or sleeping, confident that we were just those annoying fans intent on papping them. You can imagine what it was like for me! This wasn’t even one of our proper game drives! I could have spun the jeep around and gone home happy, except I was intent on being face-to-face with a hippo, my favourite animal.
Rondavel Sweet Rondavel
It’s not just about the animals. There’s a reason Mala Mala is consistently voted one of the most luxurious safari camps in the world, topping every list. Divided into three camps, Sable for larger families, Main Camp for 50 guests, and the more intimate, Rattray’s at Mala Mala, which only holds 16 guests, there is something for everyone. Our home for the two days was Main Camp.
Designed to look like a traditional African Hut (the rondavel), open up its doors and you gasp at the size. I had one of these all to myself and the Best Bit was my luxurious all enclosed outside shower. This shower was in addition to the two other inside bathrooms and everything else you would expect from a luxury hotel – amenities galore, comfy bed topped with down pillows and…
…most importantly, a deck with an unobstructed, unfenced view of the bush outside. Upon return home from dinner one night, there was a definite paw print! I found out later it was a baboon – probably enjoying the outside shower.
We were invited to lunch at Rattray’s at Mala Mala which has more of a colonial feel to it and is for those who want to encounter fewer humans.
“We’ve had guests return every year for 15 years who’ve never seen a kill.”
It wasn’t planned and it happened so fast. Greg, our trusty ranger, had just pulled the jeep out of the camp driveway and there she was. Using his extra-sensory powers, he knew something was about to transpire. In the distance, a family of impalas was looking like a tray of canapés to the lioness we had just sighted. There was only one thing on her mind. Which one to chose from? Then she was off, going in for the kill, literally.
Then we were off, following the lioness, then following the impalas, then hiding behind a tree as the impalas fled towards us. These Hunger Games lasted maybe five minutes, ending with an eerie calm as one impala became lunch for several lions. (Thank goodness we didn’t see the actual teeth going in.)
Two shared quite nicely but when a third tried to join in, they grabbed their dish and moved to another table.
She stood there a little deflated but waited patiently, like a super-model, while we grabbed our photo ops and was off.
The others frolicked in their fullness and then went right to sleep.
We left them dozing, resuming our explorations and delving more deeply into the bush. Coming upon troupes of monkeys, clans of hyenas, journeys of giraffes, but nary a pod of hippos was to be found. A few cape buffalos, rhinos, klipspringers, nyalas and running steinbecks crossed our paths making this one of the most exciting days of my life. Seeing these lovely mammals on their own turf, not imprisoned by bars, gates, and electric fences, is more touching than you can imagine and can only be described by one cliché, amazing, in the true sense of the word: to cause wonder.
Our night would not be complete without a leap of leopards and there she was, as we made our way back home in the dark. Greg had just pointed out the stars in the nighttime sky, which included my first sighting of the Southern Cross. We followed her for about ten minutes and then her ears went up, her nose sniffed the air, and she surreptitiously disappeared into the bush with her haunches raised.
A wild chase ensued and, when we found her, she was dining with her boyfriend on a freshly killed impala. This fellow had been seen with her a few times and they were quite happy to share from the same plate.
On our way back to camp, Greg couldn’t believe our luck – to see one kill is incredible, but to see two, on the same day, well, it never happens.
As I bemoaned the death of such lovely creatures, Greg assured me that impalas were the MacDonald’s of the veldt, over 100,000 of them roamed the property. I don’t think that made me feel better.
Sunset & Sunrise in the Bush
I thought I spoke English when I arrived in South Africa, my vocabulary was sorely lacking in safari-speak. The Big Five, I quickly found out, were the five most difficult game to hunt on foot: the lion, rhino, leopard, elephant and cape buffalo. Now that hunting is illegal at most resorts, that term is still used to describe the animals that the tourists feel shortchanged if they haven’t seen by trip’s end.
Sundowners is another word I had not heard before entering the confines of Mala Mala. The OED defines it as “an alcoholic drink taken at sunset.” (British English).
Here at Mala Mala, sundowners is a proper ritual. We ordered our drinks before we left in the morning and, close to sundown time, Greg parked us in a photogenic, relatively safe spot hidden from our four-footed friends. Acting as bartender, Greg rustled up G&T’s, Margaritas, and Amarula on ice served with a variety of salty nibbles. How luxurious to sip while watching the sun disappear into the African horizon.
Eating at sunrise is also a Mala Mala happening. Breakfast in the Bush is pretty self-explanatory, but here you have to expect a mammal or two to pull up a chair. An elephant might pass through, having smelled some peanut butter on toast, or a monkey tries to grab everything he can before being shooed away.
Cooking old school with fire and wood, Greg produced a restaurant quality brunch out of what appeared to be his hat! Dining on eggs and bacon with white and brown bread, while sitting in the middle of the African landscape, was surreal in a way. Who sips their everyday tea or coffee with the knowledge that a hippo could be right behind that tree? It was, however, lovely to sit and feel that we were here to stay, not just passing through on a bumpy jeep.
As most of us are aware, rhino numbers are diminishing quickly due to certain parts of the world believing their horns hold fictional properties that provide imaginary cures to ailments that modern medicine now treats with over-the-counter concoctions, such as aspirin.
Save the Rhino reports that 749 rhinos were killed in South Africa already this year! It is heart-breaking to see the pictures of Rhinos whose horns have been torn off and left to die a slow death.
Thus, it was incredibly exciting to see rhinos, where they are relatively safe, basking in the sun and spending time with their loved ones. The thrill never subsided and each time we came upon one, my stomach was filled with butterflies.
There are about 20,000 rhinos living in South Africa at the moment and they are never safe from poachers. They first emigrated here when they has been hunted to extinction. From those first 50, they have grown into 20,000 White Rhinos. Unfortunately, the Black Rhinos numbers are not as good with less than 4800 left in the wild.
So turn your phone cameras off, no Snapchat here, as you wouldn’t want to alert the poachers to their location.
A Walk in the Woods
When ensconced in a 4×4 metal container, it’s difficult to see the birds in the trees and the snakes below foot, therefore, it was with some trepidation that we went for a walkabout with Greg and his trusty rifle.
Our first call to action was to see who was around, this was done by doing a poo-check – not an official word. Poo told the story – and this was old enough that this animal was long gone.
Still, around every bend could be a dangerous animal and we were taught a few silent hand signals to get us out of a jam if a meat-eating mammal came out of nowhere.
Only Miss Nyala was disturbed by our meanderings through the brush. Other than that, we were free to enjoy the flora of the bush without fearing for our lives.
The bright, chipper ground morning glories with their vibrant blue hue.
The spiny, spiky acacia on which the giraffes love to nibble whose spikes get longer the more long-limbed lovelies chow down on them.
Not Just the Mammals
Vultures can’t help but chill the heart (Maybe if they has been voiced by the Beatles in the Jungle Book as Brian Epstein had proposed to Disney that would be another story).
This one tree held not only the Beatles, but also the Rolling Stones and the Who all together on one stage. A Cape Buffalo had been killed a few days before and you could smell it without even seeing it. What was left had been thoroughly picked clean by these hooded avian Dysons.
Other birds dye the South Africa scenery day-glo: the glamour girl of the bush is the Lilac Breasted Roller.
This lovely Woodland Kingfisher, high above our heads with the reddest of all beaks.
These little scarlet-billed Oxpeckers have one job only – to peck as many little bugs off of the Cape Buffalo as they can. I don’t imagine it feels good and, once in a while, the buffalo can’t take it anymore and waves them all off with his tail.
We are Family
Even the hardened luxury travel bloggers can be touched when seeing an animal baby. The sight of a true family reminds us that there is very little difference between humans and mammals. The love they feel for their children is the same as ours.
These rhinos have got it going, sorry J-Lo and Kimye – you just have nothing on them. It’s all about the bass, here at Mala Mala.
A baboon mother and child in the trees, waiting to cause havoc.
Teenagers at play.
A whole herd of Elephants of all ages waiting to check into their rooms.
The cape buffalo and her daughter eyeing us up and down to make sure we have the right motives.
We counted 13 hyenas enjoying the morning sun by taking a dip in this muddy pond.
The young ones are just as interested in us as we are in them…
All I wanted was to see a hippo out of the water and I did! Unfortunately the image remains in my memory. Our last morning as the sun was rising, a hippo emerged out of the water and disappeared into the woods before cameras could come out. They are surprisingly fast for their size. We saw a few ears popping out of the water but, alas, there is nothing to share. Next time I hope to have more, but for now there is always Hyacinth!
One cannot forget, that although your main mission is to see the animals, the humans are the ones who have made this all possible. Our Senior Ranger Gregory Baldwin had the perfect combination of knowledge, kindness and seriousness. We never felt in danger and his enthusiasm for showing us the Best Bits of Mala Mala was palpable. Although he studied zoology, he was a perfect bartender as well, pouring those Sundowner cocktails with charm and pizzazz. There was always a smile in his voice, even when acting as alarm when waking us earlier than the sun.
I don’t think much has changed since 1981 and that’s a good thing. There is certainly a sense of the awe that everyone feels by sharing this land with some of the greatest creatures in the animal kingdom and I feel lucky to have been invited. Everyone made this a trip that was not only unforgettable but a lifetime experience.
- Mala Mala, South Africa
If you want to read about another safari that you might love, check out Emily Luxton’s trip to Thanda Safari Kwazulu-Natal!