The accommodation has been updated and new camps have been built since the 1920s when MalaMala Game Reserve first started out, but the teeming wildlife, thrilling game-drive experience and unparalleled views over the perennial Sand River haven’t changed.
The size of Venice and more than double the size of Manhattan, MalaMala is a big, unfenced private reserve with a long river frontage bordering the unfenced eastern boundary with Kruger National Park, one of the world’s greatest safari destinations.
Twice-daily game drives in your own open game vehicle guided by a specialist field guide will bring you up close and personal with buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion and black and white rhino, plus a cast of hundreds of other animals and vividly coloured birds.
Let’s talk about the accommodation first. My favourite (because I’m the old-fashioned sort) is MalaMala’s Main Camp. One really gets the feel of the original safari experience here. You’ll stay in a well-appointed single rondavel (think a round chalet) or luxury suite, with a private deck, but you’ll probably spend more time on the expansive main wooden safari deck overlooking the river, where delicious meals are served.
Different species of antelope graze in front of you, warthogs trot purposefully by, elephants come and go and, on several occasions, I’ve seen wild dog, lion prides and solitary leopards pass by as I tuck into a homemade quiche or sip a sundowner at dusk. The historic bar with its evocative photos of the pioneers and early days of this unique area is one of my favourites, as is the beautifully appointed library with rare African books and works of art old and new.
If you’re in a small group or celebrating a special family occasion, then book out the five exclusive luxury suites or fabulous two-bedroomed Lion’s Den suite at Sable Camp, situated on a prime elevated position overlooking the river at MalaMala’s southern end.
And if you want to feel like the most indulgent of Roman emperors, then opt for the exquisite Tuscan villas of Rattray’s Camp. Dramatic, supremely elegant, the epitome of good taste and exquisite architecture, each of the eight luxurious free-standing and spacious suites or khaya (Zulu for “home”) is a haven of lush seclusion with spectacular views of the Sand River.
Watch wildlife come and go as you take a dip in your private plunge pool, cool off in the outdoor shower or enjoy a massage on the deck. Although Rattray’s combines tasteful opulence with romantic exclusivity, the unrivalled game viewing and your wildlife safaris are always the main priority.
MalaMala is also one of the few safari destinations with a fully equipped disabled suite in line with international standards.
Come hungry. The food is plentiful, homemade, delicious, tempting and you can choose the best wines to accompany the incomparable service.
But of course it’s the wildlife you’ve come to see. Very early every morning, you’ll be woken by your personal ranger, have coffee and muffins or a light snack on the main deck, then take off on the three-hour morning drive.
Giant spider webs sparkling with dew adorn bushes and the bushveld birds start their dawn chorus as you track the night’s leopard or lion kill, watch a herd of buffalo going down to drink at the river or matriarch elephants supervising their tiny babies, and hyenas dozing by their dens as the sun becomes stronger.
Spot the critically endangered saddle-billed stork, the world’s tallest stork, the kori bustard, one of the world’s heaviest flying birds, or the dazzling lilac-breasted roller before going back to camp for a hearty breakfast followed by a snooze, a swim in the lovely pools, a bush walk with your guide, checking your photographs or just chilling. It’s okay to wander around the camp, but don’t walk beyond the camp’s perimeter unless there’s a guide with you. Remember, you’re in the heart of the African bush.
A buffet lunch and later a high tea (yes, scones, cream and homemade jam and other goodies) precede the exciting three-hour evening drive with a memorable “sundowner” break, where you watch another glorious African sunset.
As darkness falls, your ranger will begin to use a powerful, game-friendly spotlight to pick up some of the nocturnal animals, such as the endearing little bushbaby, a hunting leopard, a civet or many of the night-time creatures of the bushveld. Now’s also the time to see stars ablaze in the sky, perhaps as you’ve never seen them before. Ask your ranger to point out the iconic Southern Cross and the Milky Way.
And later, after supper in the outdoor boma as sparks from the fire dance in the air, sit quietly and listen. The San of the Kalahari say it’s then that you will hear the stars sing.