Animal Magic comes out of Africa
Safari is one of the greatest travel experiences on earth. Jon Underwood visits a game reserve where incredible experiences await around every corner and learn why a safari holiday might not be as expensive as you think.
BENS IS staring intently at the ground, scanning the dirt for any tell-tale signs. After more than three hours, he is a man on a mission.
We sit in reverential silence, watching a master tracker at work. Only the occasional bird cry from deep within the African bush breaks the silence. The tension is palpable.
“Female leopard. Crossed here. We’re close,” he says, circling a paw print with his bamboo cane. The word leopard is enough to make the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.
We’re in MalaMala, the first privately owned and commercially operated game reserve in South Africa. It was founded by Michael Rattray, who pioneered the concept of shooting animals with cameras, not guns, back in the 60s.
At more than 13,000 hectares, it is also one of the largest reserves and borders the famous Kruger National Park.
The day before we’d flown up from Johannesburg to the property’s private air strip, a glimpse of giraffe and elephant below whetting the safari appetite. Now here we were, in the thick of the action.
As Bens continues to scan the dirt, movement to the right catches my eye. There, about 20 metres away, I spot the leopard climbing the grassy bank of the dry riverbed we’ve been driving through. This is a favourite haunt of the spotted cat as it provides cover, water and prey.
Like an over-excited kid on Christmas morning, I yell “there, there, there!” and Ben’s guns the powerful Land Cruiser off in pursuit.
What follows is one of the singular most exciting moments of my life.
Leopards are notoriously shy, secretive animals and the hardest of the ‘Big Five’ to spot. There are 80 of them within MalaMala, but with 13,000 hectares to hide in, that’s a difficult and well camouflaged needle to spot in a very large haystack.
One of the advantages of a private reserve is that you can go off road during your three-hour game drive – and when I say off-road, I mean off-off-road! Bens skilfully manoeuvres the big green machine through prickly thickets and around thorny bushes, eager to catch up with the elusive cat.
He needn’t have worried. For there, nestled in the long grass, is the two-year old female we’ve been following for so long.
She doesn’t seem bothered, angry or perturbed by our presence and for the next 30 minutes, we follow her as she crawls, sprints and bounces through the African bush. At one point, she heads straight for us, walks around the front of the vehicle and passes so close I could reach out and pat her (I choose not to!).
It’s hard to put into words the emotions you feel when you are this close to one of nature’s true wonders.
When you’ve only seen such beautiful creatures in TV documentaries, pictures and on the occasional zoo visit, this is an almost surreal experience. No cages, no bars – just nature as she always intended it to be.
I really should go out and buy a lottery ticket because during our two-day stay at MalaMala we were blessed with three separate leopard sightings. It’s why this place is so renowned for the quantity of its wildlife and the quality of the interactions.
Here, they don’t do the ‘Ferrari Safari’ experience where you race around to try and tick off the ‘Big Five’ in a day. Guides like Bens and Mike take their time to give guests a genuine feeling of what it’s like to track big game…and the euphoria you feel when it finally happens is remarkable.
The previous morning we’d only been out about 10 minutes when we came across a basking pride of lionesses. They’d killed a zebra during the night and were totally satiated.
I ask Mike what would happen if, even in this docile state, one of us was foolish enough to exit the vehicle.
“They’d kill you instantly,” he says. Ask a stupid question…
As we sit and watch the slumbering cats, a couple of male lions break cover behind us. It’s slightly disturbing to know that just a couple of metres away might be something waiting to turn you into lunch. That’s probably why impala look perpetually nervous.
Both bear the scars of recent territorial battles with other male lions: clearly in this neck of the woods, it takes brute strength to be the king of the jungle.
“This is the best game viewing in South Africa,” says Mike, as we watch the lions move off into the bush. “You’ll never see the amount of predators elsewhere that you will see here.”
It’s hard to argue. Predators aside, we see rhinos, hippos, elephants, hyenas, giraffes, zebras and all manner of wild creatures over the course of just 48 hours.
Back at camp and tales abound among guests about their various sightings over sumptuous dinners and delicious lunches. The food here is five-star restaurant quality, all served with that genuine African welcome.
In between game drives you can relax in the pool, enjoy a massage or head to the gym. The rooms are large and luxurious, perfect for an afternoon nap before the evening game drive.
You can fall asleep listening to the sounds of the African bush and dream of your next life-changing animal encounter. At MalaMala, it definitely won’t take long.