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penny robartes big 5 photo safari

Private MalaMala Photo Safari with Penny Robartes

In 2023, I lead a private photo safari to MalaMala Game Reserve for my two guests who had yet to go on a safari to South Africa. I was extremely excited for this tour, especially as my guests are Leopard and Elephant lovers, and Leopard sightings and experiences at MalaMala are well-known for being some of the best in Africa.

Unfortunately my one guest hurt herself badly enough on the first day of our Ngala & MalaMala Photo Tour, that she had to miss out on all the game activities.

Bring forth 2024, and my guests and I are back again to experience and photograph MalaMala like we should have last year; all together.

I truly believe that your mindset and energy you give out will determine what you receive, even under the expertise of the local guide. Going into the safari with open hearts, excited eyes, and just simply breathing in the natural air around us, I could see the happiness radiating from my guests. We were already on the best foot forward.

While lovers of wildlife, predators and Elephant are definitely animals that my guests resonate the most with, so we focused our attentions on Leopard, Lion, and if we came upon sightings of Elephant, them too.

While we were treated with some magical Leopard sightings in 2023, this year was absolutely phenomenal! Not only were the sightings beautiful, but what makes these moments standout and sink deeper is when one gets to witness animal behaviour playing out before your eyes, with the animals not being affected by our presence whatsoever, and we could have not been there at these scenes for how the wildlife acted.

Over 5 nights, everyday presented a key moment that left us smiling, heart-pounding, and completely absorbed in what was occurring before our eyes.

The Island Female

The Island female is a beautiful Leopardess who had a cub that was roughly 3-4 months old. Our guide drove us to the location of where she had been seen that morning, and on a little hill under a beautiful tree with Elephant grazing at the base of the hill, was the Island female. Sitting in the dappled light, I assisted my guests on different techniques to best use for enhancing the dramatic light. To the left of the Leopardess lay her slumbering cub at the base of the tree. We couldn’t get a clear view at that stage, so we kept on watching the mother and creating images of her when we saw something that pulled at us singularly to capture.

Not too long after our arrival, the cub woke up and went to where the mother had moved to some long grass and was feeding on the remains of an Impala. Laying flat on the ground, facing its mother, the cub positively screamed at her under it snuck in and took the very little Impala remains. For me, this was not a photographic scene due to a lot of distractions, but I did capture some video and then just sat back and watched these beautiful wildlife moments play out around us.

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African Wild Dog

These sure-of-foot and quick moving dogs are a firm favourite of mine. African Wild Dog are listed as an Endangered Species. The have large home ranges which can take them out of an immediate area for days at a time. Seeing these painted dogs is not a given at any destination really, even if they are commonly seen at that specific place. It all depends on their hunting movements and if they are denning and where. We, however, had a very lucky morning.

The pack of Wild Dog was called in and apart from my guests having never properly seen African Wild Dog before (only a pile of them sleeping under a tree on our safari in Botswana), this was our opportunity to potentially see a hunt as the dogs were on the move! If you have ever followed dogs on the hunt and on the move, they cover ground quickly!

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We spent the better half of the morning watching, photographing, following, getting ahead and waiting, with the dogs. 

We spent the time with the when the light was too soft to when the light became too harsh on their dark faces. And it paid off. After we decided to leave, we heard that they had moved into a neighbouring reserve, and we were incredibly thankful for the time we had with them. We didn’t see the Dogs again over the remainder next 4 days.

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Was it 13 Lions?

Oh yes, the Kambula pride at MalaMala were at full-force, and with cubs adding to the large numbers of pride members! Three adult females had split off and were nursing 3 very young cubs. Too young, in fact, that as soon as the light got too soft in the late afternoon and into evening time, we left them to continue nursing as you are not allowed to spotlight them, and we needed to be very sensitive around the sighting. We had some incredible encounters with this pride over the 6-days at MalaMala.

From peaceful and playful sightings of the cubs playing with one another and trying to get the adult females involved, to spending the late afternoon with the sleeping pride in its full number of individuals, watching them wake up and start getting ready to welcome the night. We heard and saw fleeting shapes move in the night as they tried and failed to hunt Waterbuck. 

We heard crashing branches in the darkness and upon arriving at a tree, a Leopard jumped out from the tallest branches and sprinted away as the sub-adult Lion cubs had climbed into the tree (hence crashing branches) as well as an adult! There were 7 Lion are squished on a single branch, trying to get to the Leopard’s kill. You can only imagine the sounds of furious and anxious Lions reverberating through our bodies. It was actually quite unbelievable and incredibly powerful!

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Two cubs, their father, and a Jackal

We were following tracks of a young Leopard one morning. We were hoping to find 2 siblings; a male and a female, by a specific area that it’s mother leaves them when she goes hunting. Old enough to go exploring in the nearby areas, these cubs are at the age where they are full-blown personalities and habituated to us viewing them. 

Tracks leading us back and forth, our local guide gets on the vehicle to look at the tracks closer on foot. He walks about 4 meters in front of the vehicle towards a dried up mud pit, then turns around and walks to the back of the car. As I look up to the dried mud patch, I lock eyes with a curious cub, peeping its head just high enough over the bank of the mud pit to take a look on what is going on. Back in the car our guide comes, and we drive about 4 meters to where we can see the cub is laying calmly in the dried mud patch.

The light was quite tough to work with at this scene. The dried, greyish brown mud was very reflective, as was the light on the light areas of the cubs coat. After discussing these points with my guest and the importance of light and the brightness/colour of it on our intended subjects, he photographed the cub implementing and being ware of the concepts we had discussed. Not all beautiful wildlife scenes make good photographs, but they are incredibly special to be around to witness.

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The cub saw an impala ram and decided that this was a great animal to practice its stalking techniques on. Not surprisingly, the ram saw the cub not too much later and alarmed called. Tail up and resigned to having been noticed, we followed the cub where he climbed up a small tree. We were alerted by another guide that the female cub was laying on a dead tree trunk slightly down river, so we went to spend some beautiful time with the gorgeous girl!

We noticed her staring across from where we were. She was incredibly intent and her body froze. We look and walking towards us across the sandy river bed was an exquisite, large male Leopard.

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“Here comes their father, likely looking to see if the mother had made a kill,” said our local guide. Walking directly towards us, this male was definitely looking for some feast that he was hoping was around. He started chuffing the closer he got to the tree the female cub was laying on and she bolted up to the highest, paper thin branches. Coming to the base of the tree, he looked up, sniffed around, and then continued to walk in the direction where we had left the male cub. We set off in that direction, hoping to get to the male cub before the father. We made it just in time. The male cub looked curiously at its father, only 2 meters below him. The adult male looked into the tree, went about some territorial spraying, and then walked away.

This was not the end of it! Springing down the tree, the male cub started to follow its father, although keeping a distance as the male would growl to warn him off. The male started chuffing loudly again, and like hearing Lions calling, it is a primal, raw sound that sends electricity through your veins! Our primal side recognising the predator. So thrilling!

The adult male climbed up a large mound and lay for a while. The grass was long and the viewing quite difficult, but we manoeuvred the vehicle until my guests got a position they were happy with. As the male cub approached, the father sat up and growled with impatience and warning, until the cub stopped and found somewhere to sit and watch his father. The timid female cub appeared close to her brother, clearly her curiosity besting her fears!

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Finally the male continued walking and started patrolling his territory. We lost him in a large stretch of water reeds, so we went back to the cubs and spent some last moments with them before they too, disappeared elsewhere.

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A lone Jackal was witness to this all and bayed its warning to all around who would listen.

Our private photo safari to MalaMala was again, one filled with utter abundance and rewarding wildlife scenes, moments, and photographic opportunities.

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“Go where you feel most alive”

Penny Robartes

Penny Robartes, ORYX Senior Photo Tour Leader


If you are interested in joining Penny on a photo tour where we are guaranteed that your photography and wildlife experience will be focused on, then do get in touch!

For a private photo tour, please get in touch with us at [email protected].

To join Penny on a scheduled, small group photo tour, please get in touch with us at [email protected]

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