We ended up having to change our original itinerary about 8 weeks prior to departure because the challenges of doing COVID testing between three countries was getting cost-prohibitive. We originally planned to visit Nxai Pan National Park in Botswana to witness the zebra migration, then Tswalu in the Kalahari Desert in South Africa, and end with a visit to Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe. Knowing that we were on the tail end of the zebra migration, and that no elephants lived in the Kalahari, we eventually gave up going to Botswana and kept Mana Pools. In the meantime, I discovered that changing our international flights would incur a significant cost. After anxious conversations with my daughters and Ale, I had a middle-of-the-night texting session with Tayla, who was out in the bush and just hearing about the situation.
Thankfully, the staff at WanderingThru are intimately familiar with the different camps and lodges throughout southern and eastern Africa and their advice proved invaluable. I felt an immediate sense of relief after Tayla suggested MalaMala Game Reserve as an alternate destination within South Africa. Now the only question would be whether they had accommodations for us, and then rebooking regional flights. With Ale’s help it all fell into place, and I couldn’t have been happier with our first destination!
MalaMala Game Reserve is a private reserve of about 33,000 acres. They are located within the Sabi Sand/Greater Kruger National Park area and have three separate camps (MalaMala Camp, Rattray’s Camp and Sable Camp). One of their claims to fame is that they offer a ‘classic’ safari experience. The lodgings at MalaMala Camp are newly refurbished, but still hold the charm of the lodges as they were back in the late 1920’s when most people went on hunting safaris rather than photographic safaris. In 1962, MalaMala Camp became the first photographic safari destination in Africa, offering luxury accommodations.
We stayed at the original camp, and from the moment we arrived, I was totally enthralled with the décor, the hospitality, and the energy of the place. The staff were very efficient, professional, yet friendly and welcoming! What a way to start our first safari!
And then we went on our first safari drive – after travelling over 33 hours to get to our first destination, my mind was a little numb, and I thought I would not even try to take any pictures. WRONG!! When your first sighting is a pride of 2 adult lionesses with about 5 cubs of varying ages, it’s amazing how fatigue just disappears! We stayed for four nights, and every day was met by moments of wonder, amazement and the desire to pinch myself and ask if this was all real?
Conservation is the key now, and wildlife are thriving at MalaMala. Not only that, the close encounters one has with the wildlife can only be described as epic experiences that are life-changing. Those close encounters only happen after decades of consistent work by staff to habituate the animals to the presence of safari cars. Once the animals learn to recognize that the cars pose no threat to them, they teach their offspring, and the knowledge is passed through the generations.
Imagine being less than 20 feet from a young bull elephant, peacefully feeding among the trees, or having 20+ elephants surround your car as they move towards the river, or sitting no more than 15-18 feet from four full-grown lions roaring simultaneously in response to another lion’s calls, or tracking young leopards for an hour or more as they move about doing what leopards normally do during the day. Yes, we experienced all of that and more during our four-night visit!
The benefit of having not one, but two capable guides was invaluable. Tayla has such a depth of knowledge about plants, insects, birds, reptiles and mammals across Africa. Her expertise, paired with Nic’s familiarity with the specific animals at MalaMala (particularly the big cats and their lineage), added so much to tailor our safari to meet our needs, which was to learn as much as we could about everything we were experiencing.
As far as the camp itself, the lodgings and the food, I would highly recommend MalaMala Camp to anyone considering a trip to the Sabi Sand area. Each suite was spacious, clean, beautifully appointed and luxurious. There’s nothing like coming back from a hot day on safari and being able to soak in a nice, deep soaking tub while you recall the day’s adventures, or to take advantage of the infinity pool that looks out onto the Sand River and watch elephants strolling by. Every time we came back from a drive, staff would be there to welcome us with a cool washcloth imbued with lemongrass, and our appointed dining table was all set up and ready for us to start a relaxing and delicious meal. We felt so well taken care of – we were spoiled!
The food and drink offerings were highly varied and lovingly prepared. You could just feel the effort put forth to make sure all your dining needs would be met. And, since I spent my working years as a dietitian, food is very important to me and I pay attention to the little things! My only criticism is that there was more food than I could comfortably consume in a given day. Starting with continental breakfast at 5:30 am, you could then count on a coffee break with snacks during the morning drive, then a sit-down brunch upon your return to camp, a few hours of free time in the middle of the day, and then afternoon tea prior to the afternoon drive, followed by sundowners and a full dinner around after dark! I particularly enjoyed the way the local foods and flavors were incorporated into familiar Western dishes. The fresh fruit, cheese platter and gammon welcomed us at every morning meal, and the daily smoothies and juice offerings were wonderfully refreshing. Just ask Tayla how much she enjoyed the peanut butter smoothie! LOL!
MalaMala Camp is a wonderful way to enjoy up close wildlife viewing in a most comfortable setting! It set the bar very high for the rest of our trip, and while I was sad to leave, I was excited to see what the next site would bring!