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On Safari: MalaMala Game Reserve, South Africa

(Written by Jen; Approved by Ian).  I still remember how I felt when we received our official itinerary for our first trip to Africa in 2007 about a month before our departure date.  It came in a pretty leather pouch, and I was so excited that I couldn't open it.  It was mid-week, and I convinced Ian that reviewing the itinerary was cause for celebration at our local Mexican hole in the wall . . . because nothing says Africa like strong margaritas and melted cheese.  So, we brought it with us to dinner and went through the itinerary word by word while we had more than a few margaritas (in the only correct fashion:  over ice, with salt).  That we were actually going on safari didn't seem real though until we were on the plane.  And, once we landed in South Africa, everything we saw, everything we did was new and thrilling.  I even got excited that South African Airways played Toto's Africa (a 1983 number 1 completely nonsensical hit in the U.S.) as we exited the plane in Johannesburg.  Going to Africa is still exciting and thrilling, but it's a different type of exciting and thrilling than that first trip.

When my mom and her husband, Ray, told us that they wanted to join us on our trip to South Africa in the Spring of 2014, I was surprised, a bit scared, but mostly excited.  Ian and I would be able to share what we love about safari and Cape Town with people who we love, and we would get to experience every one of their first sights through them.  But, what if they hated it or thought "that was fun, but not something we would do again"?  I know it's unrealistic to think everyone is going to love being on safari as much as Ian and I do, but I wanted them to be bit by the bug, at least a little bit, so that they could see the safari experience as we do.

Ian and I (with the help of our travel agent Jeanie Fundora at Travel Beyond) thought the perfect first trip for mom and Ray would be to South Africa with four nights on safari at MalaMala and then a few days in Cape Town.  South Africa is a great place to go on safari for many reasons, particularly when you are only spending a few days on safari.  South Africa is easy to get to from the U.S., and you are likely to see the Big Five--lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant, and rhino--particularly at MalaMala.  Rattray's at MalaMala is a fantastic place to stay on your first (second, third, fourth . . .) safari because of its luxurious accommodations, complete with his and her bathrooms and your own heated plunge pool.  The rooms are more like individual homes (and may be larger than our actual home).  Rattray's also only allows 4 people in a safari vehicle (where usually it's six to eight at other safari locations), has a bar with the type of barman you would expect to find at the Oak Bar at the Plaza in New York City (knows how to serve you a good drink with sophistication and seemed to be genuinely upset that he did not remember meeting us almost 6 years earlier), which serves home made potato chips (need I say more?), and is furnished as you would expect--Out of Africa meets the conveniences of the 21st century.  It didn't hurt that Ian and I had been to Rattray's before during our second trip to South Africa and knew we would have a great time with amazing animal sightings.  We were not disappointed.  Some photos to scroll through of Rattray's (some of which were taken by Ray and Ian; hover over the photo for a description):

Day 1.  After taking a short flight from Johannesburg, we arrived at MalaMala where we received an introductory tour and prepared for our first safari drive.  On the drive, our first sighting was an impala-the ubiquitous antelope of every drive.  Ian and I have probably seen hundreds, maybe thousands.  Unless there is something unique about the sighting, we would usually drive right past impala, and the guide would point and say "impala," while driving on.  So, when we stopped for these impala, I turned to our guide, Mike, to ask what was wrong.  But before I made that mistake, I  heard my mom asking what it was.  Right, first timers!!  Their excitement was contagious, and we enjoyed slowing things down to appreciate the animals.  During that first drive, we also saw two of the Big Five--elephants and buffalo--and some game animals--zebras and waterbuck.  Then, it was to the bar for some pre-dinner drinks (I would have been fine with those potato chips for dinner).  Some photos to scroll through (hover for description):

Day 2.  One of the best things about safari is breakfast.  You spend four to six hours driving in the morning fueled only by coffee and a biscuit.  And, it's hard work being driven around looking for the Big Five.  So, at the end of your drive, hunger is real and strong.  At Rattray's you can have your heart's desire for breakfast--sausage, bacon, eggs any way you want, omelettes full of meat, cheese and veggies, just to name a few options.  But don't worry, if that doesn't sound like enough food, Rattray's will also serve you lunch, happy hour snacks, and dinner (this eating schedule is subject to change, as is true at many lodges, depending on the time of year).  If you are concerned about your caloric intake (which you shouldn't be as you are on vacation), there is a small gym to help get your hunger up.

Ian enjoying breakfast at Rattray's.  And, he knows the rules.  If he purposefully makes a face in a photo, it will find itself on the internet for public viewing.

But I digress.  On our two drives on day two, we saw three of the Big Five--elephants, buffalo, and white rhino--along with zebras, hyena and giraffes.  But the cats seemed to be hiding, unusual for MalaMala. Our guide was particularly concerned about not being able to locate a lion as all good guides take the inability to find one of the Big Five personally.  I shared our guide's frustration.  When asked by a guide on any safari that I've been on what animal would you like to see, I always respond cat, predictable.  But being on safari with mom and Ray did give us some perspective during these "troubled times."  Their enthusiasm for every animal that we saw reminded me that every sighting is special--a gift, as it should be.  Some photos to scroll through (hover for description):

After such a successful day of game viewing, we were parched.  So we stopped for the requisite safari tradition of gin and tonic and snacks in the bush, a tradition mom and Ray took to quickly, though mom pretty much only drinks white wine, which does the job as well.  Some photos to scroll through (hover for description):

Day 3.  The third day started out crisp and bright, but a bit slow on the animal sightings.  Apparently, they don't show up on demand.  So, in the morning, we stopped to do what we do best--eat a snack.  And, Ian played safari ranger . . . .  Some photos to scroll through (hover for description):

Though the cats just couldn't be bothered to come out of hiding for us, we did have excellent elephant sightings.  Photos to scroll through (hover for description):

We  were having a great time with all of the amazing things we were seeing that we (I mean everyone else but Mike and I) hadn't given it much thought that we had yet to see a lion or a leopard.  And, I knew that as we were at MalaMala, it would happen.  But our ranger Mike took it personally.  When I saw the scoreboard (below) that evening, I noticed that lion had been crossed out.  I confronted Mike.  He admitted that yes, he was the culprit because "there were no more lions."  It made for a good laugh (fueled by a number of drinks from the bar).

Day 4.  I gave away the punch line with the cover photo.  Of course, we saw lions; we were at MalaMala.  On our fourth day, we started the morning drive taking a path that would cover, according to Mike, an area of the reserve where it was likely to see lions or their tracks if they were coming back into the territory.  The first person to spot them was Ray.  As we were driving, Ray yelled out "hey, what is that!?"  If you've never seen one in person outside of a zoo or a circus, it takes a few minutes for your brain to register that you are looking at a lion.  Their overall size is impressive, but what is even more shocking is the sheer size and definition of their muscles in their shoulders, the muscles used to strike and pounce on their prey.  And, how close they get to the vehicles, ignoring us but at the same time gazing straight into your eyes, can be down right heart stopping. What we came upon was three lions, a lioness and her two sub adult (almost adult) sons.  As lions tend to be, for the most part, they were lying around, yawning.  But, we didn't care; we had put lion back on the board, scoring 55 points for the team (rules of the game dictate a lion sighting, regardless of the number of lions present or how many you saw that day, only counts once). Some photos to scroll through:

We topped off our perfect morning with a casual bush breakfast.  Sure, the endless supply of breakfast foods at the lodge is wonderful and perfectly gluttonous, and though I can't speak for all of us, I prefer a cold breakfast off the hood of the vehicle and a picnic blanket on the ground, with the permeating sounds and smell of the bush.

Bush Breakfast.

From there, the day only get better.  We also had very special white rhino sightings.  Photos to scroll through:

Then, for our afternoon drive, we decided not to go in search of the lions again as another ranger reported that they were still in their lazy state, and, we still had one of the Big Five to locate--the leopard.  Given our morning bounty we had reason to be optimistic.  FYI-Ray is actually in the photo below but you can't see him with the camouflage.     

Ian and Ray getting ready for the evening drive.

MalaMala produced.  That evening we saw four different leopards.  I've heard stories on safari of people going years without seeing one leopard.  So, we were definitely experiencing good safari karma with seeing four leopards in one drive.   First, we got a sight of a female leopard.  The light was low and the grass was high, but I was able to get a couple of decent shots.  Photos to scroll through:

The leopard had with her 2 cubs--one female and one male.  This was a first that Ian and I shared with mom and Ray.  The lighting was getting darker, and the first cub we spotted was pretty well obscured in the high grass, but I was able to get one passable shot that I'm willing to share:

The sun set, and we stayed with the female leopard. I took some shots using light from a spot light (it's common when on night drives to use a spot light in viewing predators and nocturnal animals).  It is not a method I've tried before, but I was able to get a few good shots of mom and her kids.  Photos to scroll through:

The fourth leopard we saw that evening was a first for all of us.  Leopards don't have a pride or hang out in groups or form a coalition.  They are solitary animals, and ordinarily, you only see adult leopards together when they are (1) mating, (2) trying to mate, or (3) fighting (and the second is a lot like the third).  It is these facts of the life for the leopard that made our fourth leopard sighting that evening so memorable.  A male leopard approached the female leopard with her two cubs.  As it turns out the male leopard is the father of the cubs; a male leopard plays no role in raising the cubs.  The female leopard left her cubs, greeted the male leopard, and walked with him side by side down the dry river bed we were in.  There was no mating and no fighting, debunking conventional wisdom of how adult leopards interact.  Apparently, this had not been the first time these leopards had been seen together in this manner.  Eventually, the male leopard went on his own way, and guides everywhere went back to the mating, trying to mate, and fighting mantra.

Day 5.  It was our final drive.  Mike asked us what we wanted to see.  I responded for the group: "lions."  Mike looked a bit shocked, but genuinely happy as it seems that every other vehicle had responded leopard cubs.  Well sure, they are really adorable, but divide and conquer is the way to go.    The morning was hazy with a thick mist and a slight chill to the air.  We found the same three lions we had seen the day before not far from their previous location.  And, as Mike predicted, we were the only vehicle on location.  We had this special sighting to ourselves.  The lions were posed for action, playing, drinking, and hunting.

Indeed, the brothers played a game of intimidation.

First, they size each other up by walking around each other.

Second, the intimidating stare.

Third, the handshake.  Let the game begin!

Fourth, one brother makes his move with an intimidating snarl, while the second flinches just a bit.

And, then he back downs.  The game ends as quickly as it began.

That morning, the lions also made a very quick and unfruitful attempt at hunting a young female kudu.  It was a perfect end, to a perfect safari.  And, after one more breakfast, which could have counted for our lunch and dinner as well, it was off to the air strip.  Included in these photos are some arial shots from the plane, which will give you a good sense of the topography, the vastness of the reserve, and despite our numerous amazing photos, just how hard it is to find animals in the dense bush.  Photos to scroll through (hover for a description):


I've had many water cooler conversations where a co-worker feels the need to tell me why they can't yet visit someplace they have always wanted to and will when [insert any number of reasons including when it doesn't take that long to get there to when the kids are out of college].  I'm never quite sure what to say in response.  Usually, I want to respond that's a crap reason because in most instances it is, at least from my perspective.  Sometimes, I feel sad for them.  What if I had waited to take my first trip to Africa, my first safari?  My life may be very different, or at least I would probably be very different.  Safari has had a profound impact on how I see the world from how I look at birds in my backyard to my view on conservation.  It has been the basis of my love for photography.  It has taught me how to really unplug for hours at a time.  It has given me a plethora of amazing memories with Ian.  I could go on, but I don't want to rub it in too much.  For so many, when it comes to travel, as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, it seems that “we are always getting ready to live but never living.”  Well, I say, carpe diem!  And, mom and Ray would agree.  Going to Rattray's at MalaMala was life altering for them.  So much so, that they joined us for an eight-day safari in South Africa this past year.  A willingness to get up at 5am for eight days straight while on vacation can mean nothing but love for safari!

A few of our favorite photos from our first trip to Rattray's at MalaMala in 2008 (hover for a description):

*FYI - This trip was planned by our wonderful travel agent, Jeanie Fundora at  My brother, Steve (who should go on a safari with his awesome wife Ashleigh), provided editorial support, i.e., finding my numerous typos.  And, of course, Ian provided invaluable content for this blog and is my favorite travel companion in life!