This follows on from the first part of Pascal's trip, around the central Kruger Park region where he visited Hamilton's, Imbali and Hoyo Hoyo.
Chad from MalaMala picked me up from Skukuza Airport SZK, and we headed towards the game reserve’s private entrance into the Kruger National Park. The route winds along the boundary between MalaMala and its neighbor to the south, Sabi Sands. Also to the south is Kirkman’s Kamp Lodge, while Londolozi lies about an hour’s drive along unnamed dirt roads to the west. I've included the map of Sabi Sands from our website below, for convenience.
MalaMala Game Reserve, which takes its name from the Xitsonga word for Kudu due to the ubiquity of the antelope within its borders, is one of the largest private Big Five game reserves in South Africa. Nestled between the Kruger and the Sabi Sands Reserve, and spanning approximately 130 km2, it is one of the oldest reserves in the greater Kruger Park region.
In 1926, following the passing of the National Parks act, and the formation of Kruger National Park, much of the land to the west was put up for sale to private owners, who recognised the opportunities offered for game viewing, hunting, and other recreational pursuits. In 1927, MalaMala was purchased by William Campbell (also known as Wac) for £3 656 pounds, worth about £200 000 today. Campbell originally set up his camp at the confluence of the Mlowathi and Sand Rivers, but after finding that the summer rains made fording dangerous, he moved it to its present location on the western bank of the Sand. After Wac died, his son, Urban sold MalaMala to a company called MalaMala Ranch (Pty) Ltd, which was under the control of Michael Rattray.
In November 2013, in a ground-breaking land restitution transaction, the South African Government transferred ownership of MalaMala from Michael Rattray to the Nwandlamhari Communal Property Association (CPA). In March 2016, Rattray entered into a long-term co-management agreement with the CPA. Following his and his wife’s retirement, the business was placed in the hands of Mr Stephen Saad, in partnership with the Nwandlamhari Community
Lauren, the lodge manager, was there to meet me when I arrived at the main camp at lunchtime on the first day.
After introductions and a welcome drink, we filled out forms indemnifying the lodge in the event of any mishaps. MalaMala had been through some off season touch ups in preparation for the busy season and I was now scheduled to stay at Sable camp, which forms part of the main lodge.
Chad gave me a tour of my suite, which was spacious, but cozy. It came with a king sized bed fitted with a mosquito net, and an ensuite bathroom complete with Victorian tub. There was also an outside shower, a fully stocked mini bar, a coffee station and most importantly, a view of the ever flowing Sand river. Moments later, on the deck, I saw a herd of elephants on the opposite side of the river bank, and when a bushbuck sauntered out onto the grass in front of me, I realized I was now again in wildest nature.
My guide, Jayson, or JJ, was from Stellenbosch, in Cape Town. He was also guiding an adventurous Singaporean nature enthusiast called George Foo, with whom I became fast friends. We enjoyed a delicious lunch, served by the warm and accommodating MalaMala staff, all of whom belong to the local community. Then JJ offered us a quick game drive. I was still in need of rest after enduring the bumpy roads earlier in the day, but promised to join the late afternoon drive. As it turned out, the rain would resume shortly after they left, forcing them to turn back.
One thing I particularly enjoyed about my time at MalaMala, was the absence of any hard scheduling of game drives and other activities. JJ was always willing to take us out when we asked, which is the norm at the lodge. Generally speaking, the staff were always willing to go the extra mile when it came to activities at the camp. Soon after 4pm, JJ reported a sighting of lions just a few minutes drive from the lodge. As a lover of lions and certified nature enthusiast, I quickly grabbed my sun hat and camera, and rushed to the meeting area. We were soon on the hunt for lions, but it would only be our cameras shooting.
On our way to the lions, we came across a tower of giraffes, a waterbuck and some fearless warthogs, who trotted alongside our vehicle like a military escort. Then a troop of baboons was spotted as we crossed the MalaMala bridge. The baboons were in fact observing the lions we’d been looking for, from their vantage point in the trees. We too would soon spot the male lion, and then two females accompanying five sub-adults. The pride was later identified as the Nkuhuma pride, one I know quite well.
The male, named Mohawk, is the last of three brothers, known as the Northern Avocas. His older brother, Blondie, succumbed to TB and an injured leg in late October 2022. His other brother, Dark Mane, was trampled to death by buffaloes in mid November 2022. Having lost his brothers so quickly, Mohawk was now under pressure from coalitions of males belonging to the Black Dam and Dzhenga prides. JJ filled us in on goings on in the Lion kingdom while we watched Mohawk and his companions resting beneath a tree.
Then we set off to find more animals, and soon came upon another group of lions, only about 600m from the other one. These lions, a female with two sub-adults, were in fact also part of the Nkuhuma pride, which is made up of 15+ lions. We counted 11 in all. We headed back to the MalaMala airstrip for sundowners after about thirty minutes.
Zebras, Impalas and Wildebeest form the bulk of the animals on the airstrip. The elevation provides a vantage point from which they can better see their main predators coming. These include hyenas, wild dogs, leopards and lions. We had a few beers and snacks (biltong, nuts, fruit salad and cocktail pies) while taking in the sunset, before heading to the lodge, where a three course dinner was waiting. Some butter tomato soup as a starter and later on a hearty steak, grilled herb potatoes and a green salad to go with it. I had to turn down the dessert because I felt I had been indulgent enough for one day.
We retired to bed after dinner, with an escort of security personnel seeing us safely to our rooms. Animals like lions, leopards and elephants are frequent visitors to the lodge, especially during the summer, when food in the wild is scarce. The warthogs and bushbucks who dwell near the lodge, having grown accustomed to the human presences and the relative safety it seemingly provides, make for an easy meal for a big cat.
I relaxed in my suite overlooking the river, and listened to the sounds of the wild. I could hear owls hooting, hyenas laughing at a distance, the chirring of insects and other nocturnal animals. It felt so good to be surrounded by nature.
When I woke up the next morning, again to the continuum of natural sounds, it was raining heavily and we had to cancel our drive. The water levels were rising in the river and a flooding alert had been issued around the Kruger National Park. It continued to rain until about 11 am.
JJ called me and George for a quick breakfast where he told us that a leopard and her cub had been spotted on the reserve by another ranger. We grabbed our cameras and went in search of the leopard. Just outside the lodge, we were greeted by a herd of impala clearly accustomed to the sight of a safari vehicle, and not at all bothered by our intrusion. Around the next bend, a line of giraffes swayed languidly across the road, briefly impeding our progress.
When we came to the area where the leopards had been spotted, the bush was so thick, it seemed it would be impossible to spot them. JJ said to listen for impala or squirrel alarm calls, which would alert us to the leopards’ location. After a few minutes of silence, a nearby herd of impalas began an agitated barking, and we headed in their direction. And there she was, ambling gracefully along with her near adult cub, on a heading towards Londolozi, the most beautiful leopard you can imagine. JJ identified her as 'The Three Rivers Female'. We watched the two leopards cross the border into the Londolozi private game reserve, where we unfortunately could not follow them.
Our drive was cut short by the rain, and we spent much of the day in our rooms. By 4pm, the sun was shining through the clouds again. It was time for the sunset game drive. After driving for some time without any major sightings, we passed the Rattray's Camp, MalaMala’s sister lodge, which was closed for renovations. The lodge is also immaculately beautiful, and also perched on the banks of the Sand river, which we now sought to cross via a small bridge. After the ever attentive JJ noticed that water levels were rising fast, we were diverted back towards the lodge, where we would be safe if the car became stuck in the muddy roads.
We later enjoyed a picnic of sorts on top of a nearby hill with gorgeous views of the river and surrounding bush. More biltong, nuts, dried fruits and alcoholic beverages were served, while we took in the sight of an elephant and her tiny calf, clearly only a few days old, drinking from the river on the opposite bank. A few meters away, a herd of impala quietly grazed. As we enjoyed our snacks at sundown, everything seemed as mother nature intended it to be.
After watching the sun set, we made our way back to the lodge for the evening. An exquisite three course dinner was served alongside some of the finest wines from all over the world. We gathered in the bar to discuss the day’s sightings, before calling it a day.
We departed the next day, George heading to Cape Town, while I was off to Sabi Sands for the next leg of my journey. I opted to skip the morning game drive, so I could pack and eat a leisurely breakfast. Before leaving, I took a quick final tour of the lodge, and its surroundings, to consolidate my memories of a most enjoyable stay.