In February, we headed off to one of the few continents I had yet to visit, Africa. I am an ardent animal lover who has passed that love on to my 5 yr old son, thus a safari excursion was the perfect birthday present for me and the entire family. If you read our planning a trip to South Africa post, you will know that it was not easy to find a hotel that would allow our young son to fully participate in the safari experience. Luckily, our diligent research paid off and we found MalaMala Game Reserve in Sabi Sands, on the outskirts of Kruger National Park.
Sabi Sands is known as one of the finest Big 5 areas in all of Africa. There are no fenced borders between the reserves and Kruger National Park, so the animals move freely, making their way to the two year round rivers in the area. Due to the near constant water supply, it is almost guaranteed that you will see the Big 5 during a visit, and often even during a single day.
Our trip was all that we had imagined and even more. Exactly what I had wanted for my monumental birthday. Being in the bushveld as a visitor to the animal kingdom was awe-inspiring. It’s taken me months to digest it and try to put it into words. It put in perspective how insignificant we are in the scheme of life on earth but also how detrimental our short existence has been to those who were here before us.
After flying on 3 flights and for more than 30 hours, we finally landed at the small MalaMala airstrip. I loved flying low over the bush spotting animals far down below. But that excitement was nothing compared to seeing our first animals up close and personal. Get ready to fall in love with one of the most majestic places on earth. I really hope it wasn’t a once in a lifetime experience because I am dying to return!
MalaMala Main Camp & Rattray’s
MalaMala has two ‘camps’, MalaMala Main camp and Rattray’s, both offering remarkable encounters with the wildlife, while each offers up a slightly different atmosphere. MalaMala Main Camp is the oldest and most historical lodge in South Africa. The MalaMala reserve was the first to make the transition from hunting to photographic safaris in South Africa, serving as the blueprint on which the South African safari industry was built. Moving on from it’s past history of hunting the Big 5, the reserve is now designed for visitors to appreciate and enjoy the experience of being in the wilds of Africa.
The main camp itself follows in the tradition of an old fashioned British hunting lodge in terms of decor. Animal pelts and horns line the walls of the the main room. If I were anywhere but Africa, I think the abundance of these would be off-putting, but somehow here it feels like it’s meant to be. You also recognize quickly that these animals are now worshiped, revered and adored, rather than sought out for killing.
The main camp has 18 villas, with most over looking the Sand River below where animals come and go throughout the day. The camp is unfenced, which means animals will likely be seen on the grounds of the hotel at any time of day. Caution is advised while roaming the grounds at any time. At night, you will be escorted to and from your room for safety. During our visit we saw a hippo peeking it’s head around the villa as well as many antelope and warthogs roaming freely on the grounds. Exhilarating, but also a little scary sometimes!
Children of all ages are welcome at the main camp, however children under 4 are not permitted in the boma for dinner or on game drives unless a private vehicle is reserved.
The villas are quite spacious, with most having an entry area, sitting room, large bedroom as well as ‘his and her’ bathrooms. Yes, two full bathrooms! Each villa also has a deck over looking the river, which provides hours of entertainment when you aren’t on drives. In all honesty, the rooms are not as luxurious as I expected given the price. The bathrooms are a little dated and took us back to our days in India, but we did not come on safari to lounge in luxurious surroundings. We came to see the wildlife!
Rattray’s on the other hand is the more upscale, luxurious feeling of the two camps at MalaMala. Rattray’s is a bit more like what I had expected. The freestanding Khaya (Zulu word for home) provides guests with seclusion and spectacular views of the Sand River. Just like at the main camp, visitors are rewarded with an amazing array of wildlife sightings right from the decks of their homes. In addition to the extraordinary animal sightings, Rattray’s also has a gym, infinity pool and steam room available for guests. Children under the age of 16 are not allowed at Rattray’s in order to keep the tranquility of the space in tact.
A stay at MalaMala is all inclusive. Your meals, extra activities, snacks and of course 2 game drives per day are included in the price of accommodation. Granted it is not cheap, but you will be well taken care of during your stay. Meals are buffet style, however special requests can be made for particular diets. However, overall I will say the food is definitely geared towards meat eaters, with less options for vegetarians, even with special requests.
The reason you pay the big bucks at MalaMala is not for the accommodation or meals, it is for the animals and the extraordinary guides you will have leading the way. The game drives at MalaMala ensure that your adventures into the bush will be intimate and unforgettable. An experienced and extremely knowledgable ranger serves as a guide and host, providing exceptional service throughout your stay. Your guide will join you for meals, escort you to/from your room and act as your main source of information on everything you could ever want to know about the reserve and the animals who call it home.
For guests staying at the main camp, each vehicle takes a maximum of 6 passengers. For those staying at Rattray’s, game drive vehicles will have a maximum of 4 guests for a more private experience. For our entire visit in February, we had our own vehicle and were one of very few guests at the main camp which made it feel very intimate. I am sure this is not the case year round, but if you can manage to go in the shoulder season, you will be rewarded with a private guide and unfettered access to the vast reserve grounds.
Regardless of which lodge you stay at, you will have the same access to the reserve. Once your vehicle leaves the hotel grounds, all rangers are in contact with one another, helping each other and their guests see the most they can during their bush adventure.
The reserve is next to Kruger National Park with no fences in between. This means that the animals who live in the national park can roam freely between the park and the reserve. Since there has been a terrible drought for the past few years, many of the animals at Kruger make their way daily to MalaMala’s many watering holes.
The benefit of going on safari at a private reserve like MalaMala is that vehicles are allowed to go off-road. In Kruger, you must stay on designated roads, which means when you see an animal cross your path, you cannot follow it. You must stay where you are and watch until they disappear. At a private reserve, the guides are allowed, and encouraged to take guests off road. On our of game drives, we spent almost half of the drive following a few leopards. It’s a breathtaking experience. Most of the animals have been raised with the jeeps around, so they are not scared. They know that the jeeps nor their passengers are not going to hurt them, so they carry on with their regular business, almost totally ignoring the human presence. This sort of access to the animals feels like something straight out of a National Geographic show.
On our first game drive, we saw a rhino right outside of the gate. That first sighting was just a teaser of all that was to come. Within minutes we had seen baboons, a giraffe and several leopards. Our first game drive would prove to be one of the most exciting of our 4 day stay with an abundance of animal sightings as well as witnessing a lion pride take down a buffalo. This was the number one wish on my son’s list, so he was ecstatic to have that taken care of on his first outing!
Even though that drive was the most exciting, throughout our next few days, we continued to be overwhelmed with the number of animal sightings. Rhinos, hippos, giraffe, zebra, elephants, buffalo, leopards, crocodile, beautiful birds, hyena, kudu, impala, wildebeest, waterbuck, warthogs and on and on. We were unfortunately not lucky enough to see the final two animals on the MalaMala 7 list (cape hunting dogs and cheetah), but it just gives us a reason to return!
For the Kids
One of the main aspects of MalaMala that appealed to us was their children’s programme. I have to say that overall, during our visit, there was no children’s programme! This is most likely because we were one of the few guests and there were no other children at the hotel during our stay. Our visit did not coincide with any school holidays and was outside of the busiest tourist seasons. The benefit of this was that we had uninterrupted access to our guide, the reserve and the hotel. The negative was there were no official children’s programming options during our stay.
That said, our guide was amazing at keeping our son entertained. This was my son’s element. He was around park rangers, in the wild bush of Africa. He was living his very own Wild Kratts episode! The 8 hours of game drives every day still wasn’t enough for him, so our guide would take him (and us) to do other things during the day. One day we did a bush walk, which was fantastic and terrifying! We saw a rhino, buffalo and giraffe while walking around on foot. My son also got to participate in scat spitting (ewe!). He learned how to hold the rifle our guide carried with him and how to track animals through their prints and scat.
On another day, he was able to go fishing in the river – just feet away from where several hippo would be relaxing later in the day. He caught his first fish here! Spending time chatting with the park rangers, learning about the environment and being able to ask his many questions was all that he needed.
For a child of 5, who is obsessed with all things nature, this was his dream vacation. He could sit on our deck and observe the animals coming and going. At one point, he saw in just one ‘picture’ a giraffe, elephant, hippo, rhino, warthog and impala all within feet of each other.
If you are visiting with a child who isn’t obsessed with nature, you might want to visit when there are other children around for a more interactive experience. However for our visit, it was perfect the way it was.
There are several ways to get to MalaMala, but by far the easiest is by flying into their private air strip. This was an easy transition in Johannesburg where our international flight arrived. Within an hour of landing, we were whisked away to the Federal Air offices and quickly loaded unto our 9 seater plane for the ride. Our flight stopped at a few other private air strips to drop off other passengers but it just provided us more time to check out the terrain below in search of animals!
There is also a government airport called Skukuza that is about an hour drive from the reserve. Flights from Skukuza typically go to/from Johannesburg and Cape Town.
Guests can also drive to the reserve, but I am not sure how easily signposted the roads to MalaMala actually are. It is a 6 hour drive from Johannesburg.
Would I go again?
You bet!! You can imagine the excitement of going to Africa to see animals we have only seen in zoos or on TV. It was a magical experience that is difficult to even describe. The up close encounters with these impressive animals was breath taking, literally. It’s scary in some ways to be so close to them as you really do not know what they will do. But it’s also an honor. I would repeat this trip in an instant if I could. We had discussed if we returned to Africa for a safari whether we would go back to MalaMala or try somewhere else. As much as I hate returning to the same places, I would undoubtably return to MalaMala. I know that I would get the animal experience I flew across the world for! If you ever have the opportunity to go on safari in South Africa, I highly recommend MalaMala.
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