Ngala & MalaMala Private Game Reserves with Penny Robartes
Part 2: MalaMala Private Game Reserve
While we had a great wildlife and photographic experience at Ngala, I was extremely excited to be back at MalaMala and to show mu guests exactly why this reserve is one of my ultimates to travel to for wildlife photography. As with Ngala that lies north of MalaMala, the landscape was lush and green, the sky a summer’s blue, and the wildlife in beautiful condition. After meeting up with our local guide, a gentleman who I always request for his phenomenal knowledge and experience, we began our first afternoon photo safari. Now, the Leopard density at MalaMala is so high that generally sightings of them don’t need to be shared with other vehicles from the lodge. Apart from a healthy population of these spotted beauties, Lions are a top viewing species as well as Elephant, African Wild Dog, and of course, other South African species that call to the hearts of the individual traveller.
On our first afternoon, we were told by our guide that a Leopardess had a den site with two young cubs. They had just opened the site to vehicles and viewing, and so far only one other vehicle had seen the cubs, and at a glimpse. The Lion pride also had cubs, so we had arrived at a perfect time! Instead of heading straight to the Lions or the Leopard with cubs, we decided to first look at another female Leopard that had made a kill that morning, with the hopes that she will be on the kill feeding, or getting ready to hoist it up a tree.
The afternoon was hot, as one would expect in Summer, and we found her lying in the shade of a tree just a handful of meters away from the Impala kill. Finding some shade to stick our vehicle under, we wanted to wait with her for the activity that was sure to come once the heat of the day subsided enough. She looked very interested, though relaxed at a point in the distance, and we saw a large male Leopard approaching. He went right up to her kill without her showing any aggression. While he took it deeper under a tree, we waited patiently while he fed as the grass was pretty long. Not every wildlife sighting relays into a photograph or video, so we watched nature unfolding in front of us, pretty humbled to know we were in the company of two of Africa’s apex predators.
After some time he left the kill and started looking up at trees. “That’s the tree he is going to take it up to”, our guide said, so we made our way about 20 meters to a tree, drove around it to see where the Leopard would climb up from, situated our vehicle accordingly and waiting. This beautiful boy did what we had hoped and brought the kill to the base of the tree. Instead of taking it up though, he move off from it and lay nearby, waiting for the dark of night to continue. My one guest was not well and had stayed at camp, so once it became dark we made our way back to camp to have dinner with her and rejoice on a wonderful first afternoon.
Early the following morning, we decided to head to the Leopard den site and try our luck. On route though, one of the vehicles called in confirming that they had seen a glimpse of the cubs and nothing more before the cubs went into hiding. Understanding the unpredictable nature of wildlife and that no sighting is guaranteed, we decided to go to the density anyway to look at the area and spend our allotted 20minutes waiting to see if any spots come to play. As we approached the site, we saw the cubs briefly as the took to hiding in between some granite boulders. The mother was lying just on the other other side of the boulder so we couldn’t get a clear view of her. Finding a place to settle in, we did just that, and were rewarded. After a handful or so of minutes, the female moved her position and lay on top of one boulder, and this is exactly what we wanted. Having her at the den site means that the cubs are more likely to come out and be with her, having confidence in her presence. As this was the first time the den site was open for guest viewing, the cubs were still nervous so we had to be very delicate with our time with them. Slowing the cubs came out and walked over to their mother. The one cub scuttled quickly from bush to boulder to bush, while the 2nd paused by its mother to give us a good look before slinking away. That was all we had for this sighting, and we were so thankful for the gift that we received! Apparently no one else saw the cubs that day or for the next two days, and only my guest and I were able to capture images. One always needs to be thankful to nature and her gifts!
We had multiple encounters with Leopards that were truly extraordinary. One such sighting was early one morning where we came across a young leopardess who was in her mother’s territory. After spending some time photographing her in a tree, we decided to move out of our position and reposition for her coming down the tree as we knew she wouldn’t linger long in her mother’s territory. As we moved to the road, we saw a Leopard walking down the road towards us. Here was the dominant female! We looked to our left towards the tree and out jumped the young leopardess. We stopped the car immediately and waited to see what would unfold.
There, the young Leopardess walked towards its mother who had stopped dead in her tracks, eyes trained on her daughter. A deep growing, warning noise came from the mother as her daughter came right up to her in a submissive posture. Heads together and bodies lined up, they trotted off into the thickets away from the tree were we heard explosive growing and noises! Into gear we went, and into the bushes we followed! Listening to the cacophony of noises, we tried to located the two cats, until “STOP” I cried, as there, 2 meters in front of us in this grass, the two lay in a kind of Yin and Yang circle, breathing heavily. We immediately stopped and drove away to give them space. After some minutes passing, the dominant female, still yowling, sat up and started walking away back down the slope we found them at. Her daughter sat up and watched her mother. Interestingly enough, we stood up and followed her mother at a distance. Her mother would stop and turn her head back to her daughter and growl, but then continue walking, with her daughter shadowing her every step.
We followed the pair for the next hour, where the daughter would keep following her mother, and her mother would keep trying to walk away and lose her daughter. She finally succeeded in losing her shadow, leaving her daughter scouring the area and finally giving up on her quest
Next memorable sighting was with the same young Leopardess who was feeding on an Impala kill that she hadn’t yet moved off the ground. We waited for her to sit up and lift her head as the beautiful, soft green grass was too long to get any proper photographs worth taking. So we sat and watched her in pure delight of being in this beautiful creatures company again. When she got up, she didn’t take her kill up the nearby tree but instead, went to lay on a branch as the yellow afternoon light deepened into gold. Our local guide got a call from a colleague saying that the Lion pride with cubs were walking on the road directly towards the Leopard tree. As if the Leopard could hear us, she suddenly sat up, and stared at the landscape behind us. We turned to look but couldn’t see the Lions yet, knowing that they were close by. She could definitely smell them.
We looked towards the road and there we started seeing 3 Lionesses with a beautifully large number of cubs in tow! The Lionesses looked up and two sprinted towards the tree. Up the tree the Leopard sprung in seconds to the tallest, thinest branches. Up the tree two Lionesses went in pursuit! They couldn’t go further up than the first V of the trunk and branch, with one Lioness balancing on the branch and the other balancing on the V. At this point the light had gone so we were just soaking up this incredible interaction! With very young cubs around meowing and a kill close by, we couldn’t light up the scene with spotlights as it would draw too much attention from other predators and scavengers to the scene.
Finally one of the females called softly to the cubs after looking up at the tree for a while, and proceeded to move on. The Lioness in the V jumped down with a heavy “thunk” after a couple of minutes finding her feet and courage. The last Lioness to come down took a long time as she was not confident coming down as she was going up! Lions are also not built for tree-climbing, and their thick, heavy stature can often cause them harm when jumping from such heights. We heard her breath come out in a big “woooffff” as she finally jumped down, leaving the young Leopard staring fixated at them.
We met up with the pride the following morning after following their tracks which lead us to a wide open beach of the Sand River. The light was beautiful on them and we got to see all 9 cubs and the three females. Its amazing how timing is so important with wildlife sightings, as we had about 20 minutes in their company before they moved off into the reeds by the river to spend their siesta in shade and comfort. If we hadn’t arrived when we did, we wouldn’t have seen them come out of the reeds, walk down the beach and relax for the short time before heading back into another section of reeds.
Our final sighting of the tour may have been my guest’s best. In the 5 nights we spent at MalaMala, so far we were the only guests to have spent photographic time with the cubs before they weren’t seen for the rest of our time there as their mother left them to go hunt. We decided to try out our luck on our last morning and see if she had returned. We arrived at the den site and there she sat on a granite boulder with the most beautiful and rich colours of green behind her, a perfect backdrop. She lay down and looked around, a beautiful and calm creature. Not too far from her, we saw one cub popping its head up from around the boulder to look at us, and then another face appeared! Our hearts were bursting with elation at the scene! How could they not? We could not have dreamt of a better end to our photographic safari at MalaMala Game Reserve, and finally end to my Private South Africa Photo Tour.