Part 4: MalaMala Game Reserve, Sabi Sand Reserve

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We have been sending our clients to MalaMala Game Reserve in the Sabi Sand area adjacent to the Kruger Park, literally for decades.  Primarily because of the consistently good game-viewing which ranks right up there with the best in Africa.  No question about it.  Day after day, month in and month out, all of the so-called ‘Big Five’ mammals and much else besides, are seen at MalaMala, and close up.  Are there better safari camps in Africa for wildlife photography?  A few that may rival it, but none that are clearly better in my opinion.

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In an area that is known for its high density of wildlife, MalaMala occupies a prime position alongside the Sand River, with miles and miles of the river running through the property.  Year round when it hasn’t rained for a while and consistently in the dry season, the river acts as a magnet for the animals, many of them moving into the MalaMala area out of Kruger Park.  Even more so now than in earlier years because of the closure of several artificially maintained water holes in the Kruger Park.

Add to that a well-earned reputation for excellent guiding, one of the best and best-maintained road networks of any of the Sabi Sand properties, good communications, and you have a winning recipe.  With the recent change of ownership, with MalaMala’s land and improvements having been sold to the local community and the business operations now being owned and operated by Stephen Saad (no longer the Rattray family) there have been some changes and more to come.  So far it has been all good, for example doing away with the antiquated ‘bar bill’ silliness and including all local drinks in the rate, like practically everybody else at around the same price point.

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There are much bigger things in the pipeline such as the re-fashioning of first Sable and then Main Camp, to give them a fresh and slightly more contemporary feel, but retaining the classic Lowveld safari feel that is at the heart of the MalaMala experience.  Top management hasn’t changed either and that is good too, for the sake of continuity and to maintain and build on the already high standards.  With Kirkmans Kamp (formerly part of MalaMala) now back under the same ownership, MalaMala’s already massive traversing area has been enlarged even more.  Of course this means that Kirkmans vehicles will be – and already are – driving on the southern section of MalaMala (Charleston) but clearly there’s plenty of space for everybody.   From time to time vehicles will have to be cycled into and out of prime sightings but that happens everywhere and I do believe it will remain the exception rather than the rule at MalaMala.

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September 25 – Getting there takes longer than we thought it might. 

As it turned out our much anticipated direct flight from Mashatu to MalaMala was a non-starter.  We had a change of plans as the MalaMala Airstrip was apparently affected by bad weather with low ceiling and poor visibility making a landing attempt ill-advised.  So instead of heading from the Limpopo Valley Airfield to Pholokwane for customs and immigration clearance, we flew direct to Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport from where we would be driven to MalaMala.   The drive took about 2 hours, slightly longer than anticipated due to a short break for refreshments en route.

 

After checking in at MalaMala which was quick and efficient, we went on a short game drive with our guide Brendan.   We were all happy to see a couple of hippo coming out of the water – the first ones of the trip.  And then – surprise – yet another leopard.  This time it was the Piccadilly female. She momentarily seemed interested in some prey animals but then changed her mind.  Oh well.

We returned to camp for a multi-course dinner with a soup starter, a delicious buffet main course and dessert. There was a large group in MalaMala Main Camp so we enjoyed all our meals at the smaller and more intimate Sable Camp lounge and dining room.

 

September 26 – African Painted Dogs.

 

The morning game drive started off slow but got lively in hurry when we were told about the presence of a few African Painted Dogs on the Toulon property (Kirkmans).

For a while we followed a solitary dog as it ran at a fast pace away from the Sand River in a westerly direction but we lost it.

 

About 15 minutes or so later we regained contact with the dogs, seeing a couple of them running in the dry riverbed. Not long after several individuals ran right past our vehicle with bloody snouts;  they were just coming off a kill.  Soon we were able to view almost the entire African Painted Dog pack of 11 adults and 12 cubs.  As always it was interesting to observe some interaction and dominance/submission behavior.  African Painted Dogs have a complicated social structure with the pack usually headed up by a dominant Alpha female.

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Eventually we left the dogs there and proceeded to the central part of MalaMala hoping to find Rhino. It was not to be. It appeared that the change of weather- it had turned sharply cooler – may have driven them off road. After what seemed to be the longest time driving around seemingly aimlessly and not finding rhino, we eventually made it back to camp for lunch.  Not 200 meters from camp there was a white rhino in the river bed.   So it happens.  In the afternoon we saw plenty of general game, and then enjoyed another great sighting of the Piccadilly female as the sun was setting.

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Tuesday 27th September – Cheetah and Pangolin! 

 

 

We  were up at 6 a.m. for a drive which started along the Sand River in search of a female leopard – the Kikilezi female – and her two cubs.  We didn’t find her but would try again tomorrow morning.  What we did see was a drying pool in the riverbed with at least seven different bird species working the diminishing water for fish, frogs and whatever else edible they could find. I managed to get a couple of nice pics of saddlebilled stork and yellowbilled stork.

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We then drove to the far northeastern sector of the MalaMala property where more than an inch of rain had fallen the previous week. The terrain is largely flat and open and as close as one can get to open savanna habitat in MalaMala.  We found ourselves on the edge of Kruger Park from where grazing animals such as zebra and wildebeest were already moving into the area for its freshly emerging vegetation.

 

We were thrilled to hear that a pair of male cheetah had been seen in the area.  After a brief Rhino detour (two massive White Rhino feeding) we made our way to the two cheetah boys resting in the shade.  Superficially identical to the females we had seen earlier, they were bulkier though and clearly stronger. We stayed there with them for a good 20 minutes plus before heading to camp for breakfast.

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A solitary hyena led us to a hyena den which the local clan had just recently started using.  A second adult hyena female could be seen there, with two babies.  One perked up and looked at us briefly before lying down again.  There were also two white rhinos in the area and we got a few good pics of them.

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Our afternoon drive on Tuesday 27th September started on the high note with close-up views of the Eyrefield lion pride consisting of two males, three females and four sub-adults including Kleintjie.

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We then bumped into two large white rhino right in the road and literally had to detour around them. This was ironical considering that we had searched high and low for rhino on our second day at Mala Mala.

 

And then came a surprise announcement by Brendan that a Pangolin – also known as a Scaly Anteater and Ietermagog in Afrikaans – had been sighted and off we went to see it.  At MalaMala guests are allowed to disembark from the vehicle at a pangolin sightings.

 

So, as soon as we arrived at the site, we hopped out of the vehicle and walked up to where the pangolin had tried to hide itself under some tree stumps.  Much of its body was showing but its face was totally hidden. None of our group had ever seen one of these animals so we looked at this large elongated and heavily scaled mammal in amazement. It looks more reptilian or amphibian than mammal, which makes it unique. Very rarely seen –  even less frequently than Aardvark –  Pangolin is a real ‘once in a lifetime’ sighting for most visitors to Africa.  Actually for most visitors it is a ‘never in a lifetime’ sighting.  That rare.

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On the way out from the pangolin sighting we struck the jackpot again with a good look at a Serval, a sleek small spotted cat which stared at the vehicle for a second or two and then bounded off into the bush at speed.  What a day it was!

 

28 September – Off to Kruger National Park

Our last game drive in MalaMala was on the quiet side but nonetheless, we had good views of two young leopard cubs (belonging to the Kikilezi female, the leopard which we had been looking for the previous day) as well as kudu, giraffe and elephant.  I said goodbye to my traveling companions and in the afternoon embarked on a three-hour road transfer into Kruger National Park itself.  The mission?  To check out a few more properties: some inside the Park itself, as well as some in the northern and western parts of the Sabi Sand Reserve.  Hold on to your hat!

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