Written by Diane Churchill and David Labaree.
We knew we were no longer in Lansing when the single landing strip was the only pavement in sight, the airport terminal was a large thatched roof hut, and we had to share the road with an elephant that was leisurely munching at a tree for lunch. The birds announced our travel along the 2-track rutted dirt road as we rode for 45 minutes to Mala Mala Private Game Reserve and saw no sign of civilization, only the trees and brush of the veld- we are in South Africa.
There was no time for jet lag when we arrived at the main camp in time for the late afternoon ride into the veld. Paired with another couple, a ranger, and tracker, we headed out in an open land rover equipped with stadium style seats so everyone had a clear view, especially Johnson, our tracker who sat lookout in the highest rear seat. He is a native of this area and has a keen ability to spot even the smallest of creatures.
Mala Mala Main Camp is situated near the banks of the Sand River and is one of several of the Rattray Company’s camps on their 40,000-acre game preserve with open borders to Kruger National Park. The rangers keep in radio contact with the other Mala Mala land rovers with the goal of each guest being able to spot the “Big Five” of the wild kingdom during their stay- they are the elephant, lion, water buffalo, leopard, and rhinoceros. Within 48 hours, on 4 rides into the veld, we saw not only the Big Five but also impala, cheetah, zebra, crocodile, hyena, and monkey to name just a few. Besides the thrill of seeing these creatures in their natural surrounding, we were struck by the difference in appearance of these magnificent creatures in the wild with their thick gleaming coats compared to the condition of those animals seen in captivity.
By going on the treks in early, early morning and late afternoon on into the black of night, we observed all types of animal behavior. An old male rhino with visible wounds was sulking in a mud hole after losing a battle for mating territory to a younger male; an adolescent male elephant tried out his “charge” technique on us; two giraffe were playing by swinging their long necks against the others with a loud thumping noise; an adolescent leopard seemed oblivious of us inches away as he practiced “stalking” a herd of male impala; and a group of lions with full stomachs from a kill the night before were sleeping it off in the shade and not the least bit interested in us photographing them.
The animals have, for the most part, become accustomed to the presence of the land rovers and the rangers are careful not to interfere with life in the wild. We learned right away that we were witness to actual survival in the veld and not a planned Disney-like adventure ride. On our first night ride we were startled out of our jet lag when the headlights of our land rover caught the silent, split-second attack of a leopard taking down an adult impala. The leopard demonstrated his powerful strength by dragging his kill through the thick brush with us close behind. Our adventurous ranger drove us over small trees and through prickly briars so we could see the leopard drag the dead impala up a tree to keep it away from uninvited dinner companions.
Our most heart-stopping experience happened while tracking a herd of elephant moving through the brush and along a dirt road to the river. In an attempt to give us a better camera shot at the rear of the passing herd, our driver positioned us so that we did not see the elephant coming up behind us until our spotter gave the alert. We were standing in the way of the matriarch, between her and her herd! She trumpeted, raised her trunk and flapped her ears and the only way we could move was to back towards her before we could pull away! Her distance of probably 15 feet seemed only inches away from us and the sound of an elephant trumpet still can quicken my pulse! Our ranger offered little comfort afterwards by explaining she was giving us a warning and would not have charged. If an elephant plans to charge they give no warning!
Despite that excitement, we felt safe with a ranger always with us and armed. In fact, it was a requirement that all guests be accompanied by a ranger when walking about the camp after dark. Our assigned ranger was a gracious host, serving up our favorite drink in the cozy lounge where we gathered before dinner, serving us lunch on the deck overlooking the river and giving us wake-up calls to join our group for early morning coffee and sweet breads before going out. All the food was prepared fresh for our “adults only” part of the camp with our own outdoor eating areas. Dinner is an adventure from the call on drums to the local entertainment around the open fire inside the “boma”, a tall circular area enclosed by bamboo type woven fence under the stars where dinner is served.
With 6 to 8 hours in a day spent on rides in the veld, there is still some time to take in the beauty of the Mala Mala Main Camp’s manicured grounds and blooming flowers, relax in the lovely pool, also in the adults only section of the camp, or select unique hand-made items from the gift shop. The charge of shipping the beautiful woven Zulu basket home was outrageous but worth it! The deck off our hut facing the veld was a tranquil place for writing post cards. The thatch-roofed circular “hut” is comparable to a 4 star hotel room complete with his and her (nice soaking tub) bathrooms, minibar, and air conditioning.
This was only the beginning of our adventure in Africa, but probably the most memorable. From Mala Mala we flew to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe via Johannesburg. A Brendan Tours representative met us at the local airports and ensured that we were always escorted, even discretely while shopping. Life at the Victoria Falls Hotel was like a step back in time and the incredible falls are in their natural state to be taken in without the distraction of tourist trade. We had the good fortune to then spend a week in Cape Town, which was an adventure in itself and well worth the long, long flight back home.