Private Photo Tour to MalaMala Game Reserve with Daniel Bailey
I have recently returned from a six-night private ORYX photo tour to the world-renowned MalaMala Game Reserve, in South Africa. From the 19th to 25th April 2022, I led a private photo tour for a guest to MalaMala. The goal for my client was to learn more about camera settings, work on her composition and learn to predict animal movements and how they correlate with camera settings. We wished to capture a unique portfolio of images. Our focus was to learn how to predicting animal behaviour, and try be as prepared as possible, to have the correct camera settings to capture erratic moments of our subjects in action packed sightings.
MalaMala is a large, pristine, thriving tract of land sandwiched between the Kruger National Park and the surrounding Sabi Sands Reserve. It is well-known for offering some of the most exciting wildlife encounters south of the equator. There is an abundance of life around every corner, from the famous Big- 5 to some of the smaller, rarely seen creatures. MalaMala is considered the safari industry’s blueprint for the luxury photographic safari.
MalaMala Game Reserve spans across 33 000 acres and it shares a 12-mile unfenced boundary with the Kruger National Park. The Sand River flows through the length of the reserve. This perennial river is the lifeblood of the reserve and supports an abundance of life along its banks. There are very few wilderness areas that fill one’s viewfinder as quickly and as frequently. MalaMala having access to one of the largest areas of frontage on the Sand River arguably offers the best photographic opportunities of the entire region. MalaMala is renowned for its excellent predator photography.
Leopard densities and sightings do not get better than at MalaMala, and the drawcard of these habituated spotted cats is reason enough to visit. Add to this large lion prides, plentiful Spotted hyena, and good chances for African Wild Dogs. It really is a truly incredible photographic and safari experience. Another one of the aspects which I love about MalaMala are the nighttime sightings where one can experiment with different lighting sources and create unique wildlife images to include in one’s portfolio.
After a short flight from Johannesburg to Skukuza airport, in the Kruger National Park. I was met by the MalaMala transfer vehicle. A short 40-minute transfer into the camp. On arrival I met with my guest already in camp, eager to head out on game drive. It had been a very wet Easter weekend in the lowveld and with the rain subsiding she wished to get out and maximize the photographic opportunities.
The first afternoon there was a little rainfall and cold game drive conditions. It was lovely to be out, on an open Land Rover, searching for the inhabitants that call MalaMala Game Reserve home. There was the fresh scent of petrichor, the entire bushveld seemed to be rejuvenated. We received intel from our ranger that a transport vehicle had seen a female leopard on the western boundary. We made the decision to try get there in the hope she would cross into the MalaMala Game Reserve traverse.
This area of the reserve is where a younger female leopard, known as the Three River’s female, has a territory. She is a firm favorite to observe and photograph. She is a mother of a young male cub. We saw them a previous trip to MalaMala in March. She is a beloved leopardess to my guest and undoubtedly my favorite leopardess. We managed to get to the sighting, in time, and had her walking down the road, scent-marking territory after the rains. She walked straight down the dirt track and pass our vehicle within a few feet! Almost as if she knew we had arrived and came to welcome us back! The first leopard sighting within twenty minutes of being on the reserve. MalaMala offers some of the finest, and most relaxed sightings of leopards in Africa. These cats have grown accustomed the vehicles over generations. There is a long-standing agreement of respect with rangers’ operational practices always ensuring the animals well-being. She crossed out of the MalaMala traverse into a neighboring property. From a distance we watched her ascend a tree and heard her rasping, advertising her territory. It was assumed that she had a recent altercation with another leopardess known as the Nkoveni female. Due to the cold weather and rainfall, we decided to head back to camp for the evening. Affording time to freshen up, before enjoying a glass of red wine, and a lovely dinner.
On the first morning we set out on game drive with the plan to return to the area where we had seen the leopard the night before. The rains had finally subsided, and we enjoyed the chance to bask in the morning sunshine. After finding fresh tracks we zoned in, and found not one but, three leopards! This time the Nkoveni female and her two 14-month-old female cubs. The three of them were on the move and provided excellent photographic opportunities as they walked down the road together, playing, practicing stalking one another, and exploring their mother’s territory. They eventually settled in a drainage line, and we decided to let them rest and continue with our game drive.
We set off further south, towards a dry riverbed in the central parts of the property. As we crossed the Matshaphiri river and ascended the rise we stumbled upon another leopard. As if it was scripted, we found the Island female. On our last visit, a mere month back, we observe the Island female and her soon to be independent daughter. At first glance we noticed that she was now in-fact heavily pregnant. This is exciting news as it means she will soon give birth to her next littler. She at nine years of age has finally achieved the major milestone of raising her first offspring to independence. Since she was walking towards the Matshaphiri river we decided to enter the riverbed ahead of her and waited for an opportunity to photograph her at a lower angle. She stopped on the rise of the riverbed and posed beautifully! This allowed us to capture a unique series of emotive images at eye-level. We followed her for some time, as she patrolled her territory scent-marking and utilizing various trees as scratching posts.
There was a good sighting of a lion pride with a few sub-adults and seven older cubs. The lions were watching impala in the bush line. One of the young lionesses climbed onto a termite mound to get a better look at her potential prey. The lions eventually lost interest and went to sleep in the shade. We had a unique sighting of a Long-crested eagle. It was perched on top of a dead tree trying to dry off after the rains. The overcast sky allowed us to practice some high-key imagery of the raptor. This is by no means a common raptor to view in this area. It was a special sighting of a very wet, and bedraggled eagle. They have a beautiful crest, and it provided an interesting subject to photograph as it also took the opportunity to dry out its feathers in the sunshine.
In the afternoon we set off with the idea to look for active lions. It took no longer than 5 minutes of crossing the river, from the camp and we found a lone lioness on the move. She is known as the Marthly lioness, the only surviving member of her pride. She is a younger lioness and has adapted to hunting during the warmer daylight hours to avoid competition with other predators. We watched her move along the banks of the Sand River. She eventually found a herd of waterbuck. She began to stalk two females and their newborn calves. We positioned ourselves, as not to disturb the hunt. She ran in at full pace, across an open patch of sand in the riverbed! The water buck saw her, and luckily for their sake crossed the water channel to safety.
We decided to leave the Marthly lioness in the thick reeds as we heard audio of Spotted hyena calling in the distance. We searched the area and came across some members of a clan. We were informed that they had been seen mating. The “whooping” calls of the hyena attracted two large male lions which came to investigate all the commotion. These two large males chased off the hyena and eventually settled in a large open grassland. We couldn’t get closer as the ground was saturated with water after the rains. The off-roading driving was limited as not to get stuck and cause damage to the environment. We waited to see if the two male lions, would drink form a pan of water close to the road. As we waited two White Rhinos as if out of thin air appeared and walked past the lions. Content with the sighting we set off for a sunset drink.
It was the first opportunity to see the sunset after the rainfall over the Easter weekend. We enjoyed a glass of wine, some prepared snacks and listened to the lions roaring. We discussed that we should wait for dark to practice and experiment with different lighting sources to capture unique images of the lions for our portfolio. We packed up after the sunset and went straight back to the area of the lions. Only to find that the two males had moved towards their pride. We watched the Nkuhuma pride, 3 lionesses, 5 sub-adults and 7 cubs join and greet the two large Avoca male lions. We enjoyed the experience of having the entire pride of 15 lions walk within a few feet of the open Land Rover. We then captured great images of the lions utilizing the other rangers’ spotlights to our advantage. We practiced both side-lighting and back-lighting the lions for a short period before they started to move. In complete darkness we sat, waiting, until we heard impalas alarm calling after an unsuccessful hunt.
After checking the weather report the night before, we were delighted to see that finally, it would be a warm sunny day. On our second morning we met for a quick coffee and set off at sunrise. On our previous visit to MalaMala in early March, we observed a pack of African Wild Dogs of which, the alpha female was heavily pregnant. We knew she would give birth in a matter of days after our departure. We followed the reports from the reserve and were thrilled to hear that she had given birth on MalaMala. The den site had been established and was officially open for viewing on the 15th of April as the pups had reached 6 weeks of age.
Our plan was to drive to the northern section of the reserve to the area of the African Wild Dog den site. We knew that the area was very wet, and that off-roading was not a viable option. The African Wild Dog den was in a termite mound, in a steep drainage line surrounded by clay, seep lines and very thick foliage. We decided to take a chance and worked the area to see if the pack would be on the hunt. We watched a large herd of elephants close to the entrance of the Wild Dog den. It was a very large herd and there were multiple big bulls in must. We sat quietly as the herd, peacefully surrounded the Land Rover and eventually dissipated into the bush line. Our route was blocked by a large bull, feeding on a Marula tree. While watching the elephant bull we heard the herd vocalizing. A low rumble was emitted by multiple older females announcing distress and bringing all the members of the herd together for safety. The vocalizations were incredible, as the matriarchs’ contact calls, “rumbles” revibrated through the Land Rover and up our spines. It was a special moment and sensory experience. It was not photographically a good sighting but in was a surreal sensory overload.
We presumed that maybe they had, either pushed a member of the pack away from the den site or simply the picked-up scent of the African Wild Dogs. We drove off in search of the pack and trailed the Mlowathi river, to a large dam where we viewed a hippopotamus. There was no sign of the pack on the hunt. After two hours we decided to check the surrounding roads on route back to the den site for any sign of the pack. Finally, we found tracks of the pack returning from the hunt. We sped up with anticipation of hopefully seeing them on the road ahead. We, however, were too late! They had already entered the drainage line and were back at the den site. We sat and waited for a while; until eventually we heard the pack vocalizing. They must have regurgitated meat, for the puppies and the babysitter at the den. This is all part of the process, the search, the tracking, and merely listening to them was a reward in itself! It now cemented our desire to see the puppies at the den site at some point during our stay.
We decided to go and stop for a morning coffee and have our packed continental breakfast out in the Manyelethi riverbed. Moments before we were about to stop for our breakfast break, we received a call on the radio of a leopard sighting not too far away. We made the decision to delay breakfast as we had the luxury of staying out longer with no time constraints in the field. An older leopardess, known as the Emsagweni female had been found. This is a remarkable leopardess, as she is the oldest know leopard on the property at a proud age of 14 years old. She has a face full of character, showing the hardships of life in the wild. She has tattered ears to the point where they are almost non-existent and is functionally blind in her right eye. When we first saw her see was resting on a termite mound, basking in the morning sunshine. She eventually began to stir, yawned, and climbed off the mound. She set off on a later morning territorial patrol, we photographed her walking past the vehicle on several occasions. She scent-marked on trees and even drank from a small pan of water. We captured intense portraits of this beautiful, battle scared veteran. We hoped she would lead us to her two cubs but after two hours of trailing her, she disappeared into a thicket, and we left her to go and enjoy our breakfast in the bush.
After our brunch we started heading back towards the Sand River. We decided to have a quick look for the Nkoveni female and her two cubs from the day prior. We found the one cub resting in a large Marula tree. It was a beautiful scene inside a gigantic Marula tree. She was sleeping but eventually curiosity got the better of her when she noticed an impala ram approach the tree. She intently watched the impala and it offered us the opportunity to take some high-key images of her inside the forked branches of the ancient Marula tree. At 14h00, we went back to camp to refresh and prepare for the afternoon safari after a very successful 9 hour “morning” safari. The incredible idea that at MalaMala there is no time constraints for the game drive hours during the day. There is flexibility when it comes to catering for wildlife photographers which is vital for ensuring the most opportunities to captures and better yet experience everything that the property has to offer.
We set off later in the afternoon, after a well needed rest. We headed out with the hope of capturing a subject closer to sunset in the “golden light” window. We started searching the Mlowati riverbed where a female leopard and 4-month-old cub had been seen the day prior. We search and tracked her for a while but to no-avail. Just as we were starting to lose hope, we heard monkeys alarm calling. One of the other rangers, radioed a precise location and we set off to assist. The Tslebe Rocks female had been found. Thank you, monkeys! Our eyes in the sky!
She was resting at the base of a Leadwood tree in which she had stashed an impala ram carcass. We were ecstatic and waited for her to start feeding. We watched her climb the tree, reposition the carcass and start feeding. This all started to take place as the sun set in the backdrop. It offered incredible photographic opportunities. We experimented with the assistance of side lighting from the other ranger’s vehicle. He side-lit the leopardess in the tree and allowed us to capture beautiful imagery of her with the deep oranges, reds, and eventually blues of the setting sun accentuated behind her. The scene was gorgeous and photographically a wonderful sighting, of which my guest captured unique images with a variety of focal lengths. Both prime and wide-angle lenses were used portray the sunset scene and the beauty of the animal in its environment at dusk. She dropped the carcass out of the tree and was lucky to descend and retrieve the kill before two spotted hyenas arrived at the base of the tree. It was an awe-inspiring sighting, with the magnificence of the setting sun. It was a striking visual experience one we had hope to experience and capture. We headed back into camp with full memory cards, happy hearts, and a series of truly unique imagery.
On our third morning we set off after hearing lions roaring close to the camp. We crossed the famous structure that is West Street Bridge. A large, 15-meter-high concrete bridge which spans across the Sand River. This high vantage point offers breath taking views of the Sand River and is a vital route across when the water levels are at their highest. It is not only used by the Land Rovers but by the resident lion prides and leopards! On the far side of the bridge, we found a pair of mating lions. It was one of the Kambula lionesses and an Ndzenga male. We watched the lions mating and captured a few images of the action. Whilst we were waiting for a second bout of mating, we heard thrashing of water in a pool from the other side of the bridge. The lioness also heard the commotion in the water. She went and stood at the edge of the river close to the bridge. We decided to go and investigate. From the bridge we positioned and waited for a moment were the lioness stood directly under the bridge, below us and we captured some incredible images of her looking up at us. These were undoubtedly unique images, as if we were photographing from a vulture’s perspective looking down at the lioness!
After crossing the bridge and positioning ourselves we found a large Nile crocodile feeding on a carcass. This was another unique sighting for the area, and it allowed us to capture images of the crocodile, as it rolled, thrashed, ripping off parts of flesh from an impala ram carcass. We got a few series of the crocodile feeding and then decided to continue with our morning drive as we had planned to go explore the 20 kilometers of the Sand River. On our route south we found tracks of a different pack of African Wild Dogs. The tracks indicated this was a larger pack and different to the pack with a den site in the northern parts of the reserve. We found a lot of vulture activity, with the impressive sight of Lappet faced vultures perched in trees. We didn’t find the pack and stopped on the banks of the Sand River where our ranger cooked up a delicious breakfast. It doesn’t get better than eggs and bacon on the banks of the Sand River! After a delicious breakfast we started our route back north. On or way we found fresh male leopard tracks. We discovered that the leopard had dragged a kill across one of the dry Kapen River. We could smell the scent of carrion on the air, eventually we found that the leopard had stashed a kill inside a deep hole within a Gardenia tree. We initially couldn’t see the leopard responsible. Until, eventually a large male leopard, known as the N’weti male showed himself. He walked out of some long grass past our vehicle and lay down on the sandy riverbed. This is a large male leopard in his prime, and he posed perfectly before settling in for a snooze.
We had now found a male leopard, a sighting we had been after. We had only seen seven females up until this point! We set out later in the afternoon with the intention to photograph the N’weti male leopard in good light and at night. On route to where we had left the Nweti male we found a termite mound being utilized by a family of Dwarf mongoose. There is always time to enjoy and photograph the smaller inhabitants that call MalaMala home. We spent close to 45 minutes photographing and simply enjoying the antics of these curious little creatures.
We arrived at the sighting of the N’weti male to find him resting in the same position with a very full belly. He allowed us to capture some great portraits. We waited for him to stir and get active after dark. He was positioned nicely, in the open, and with assistance from other ranger’s spotlight side-lighting we captured some powerful portraits of him. The N’weti male is named in the local Shangaan language. N‘weti means moon. He has the most beautiful light-colored eyes that resemble the moon. We played with the darkness, the cast of shadows to accentuate his eyes.
On the fourth morning, we made the decision to try see the African Wild Dog den site. We spent a good amount of time searching the Mlowati River. After tracking for two hours, we decided to abandon the search and try our luck at the actual den site. We planned on arriving a little later in the morning as we knew the pack would be on the hunt in the early hours of the day. We arrived at the entrance to the den site. It was a difficult viewing position, parking the Land Rover across a drainage line, through thick foliage to see the entrance of the den.
We managed to find a small window in the foliage to see a game path which we suspected was the hole to the den with the puppies inside. After waiting for a few minutes, the alpha male appeared at the den. He scanned the area as if checking in on our presence. Shortly after the alpha female appeared and she called at the entrance. She called out two tiny, 6-week-old pups! We couldn’t believe our eyes! She then regurgitated meat for the puppies. We watched them feed, play and interact at the den. This was a very special sighting and one we had envisioned for the trip. It was so special to see her with pups after seeing her so heavily pregnant on our previous visit. We were so happy to experience the sighting of a den. We were the first MalaMala guests to lay eyes on them! It was difficult photographically through a narrow window of thick foliage. This, however, was a good challenge and helped create an idea of a mysterious, secret den site, a fleeting moment in nature with Africa’s second most endangered carnivore.
In the afternoon, we set off with the plan to go and see a different pack of African Wild dogs that had been found. This was the larger pack we attempted to find the previous morning. We wished to find them active and on the hunt. We had an incredible sighting of the entire pack, of 13 African Wild dogs running down a dirt track past our vehicle. The pack combed through the tree lines in search of a meal. As the ran though the bush towards a series of pans along the Kapen river we encountered numerous large herds of elephants. It was quite the experience maneuvering through all the elephants and trying to maintain sight of the pack. We eventually lost sight of the pack as the crossed the Kapen river. We looped around to try and get ahead of their movements. We raced around and as we came around a bend in the river, a single impala ewe was running head on down the road towards our vehicle with the entire pack of Wild Dogs in hot pursuit. The pack caught the impala in the bush line right next to our Land Rover. It was an incredible sighting of a successful chase, hunt and kill. This was the first time my guest had experienced a successful African Wild Dog kill. The pack made short work of the impala and within a matter of minutes had devoured the entire carcass. Photographing the pack feeding can be difficult, we were parked a mere 6 feet from the feeding frenzy! There were a lot of white tails in the air! Sometimes a video on an iPhone suffices!
On our way out of the sighting we stumbled upon a large male leopard moving with intent to the position of the African Wild Dogs. He had heard the commotion of the pack feeding. The Inyathini male, a 14-year-old male, crept closer, stopped, and watched the pack from a small termite mound until night fell. We captured some interesting sidelight portraits of his aged, mangled face. He has a very torn bottom right lip, a souvenir from a territorial fight in his youth. After dark he sniffed around the kill site with the hope of securing a something to eat. Finding that there was nothing left he disappeared into the darkness. On our way back to camp we stopped for a late glass of wine under the star lit sky. We needed to take a moment, to digest what we had just experienced! It was an African Wild Dog Day! From having the opportunity to see the puppies at the den, to being a part of a successful African Wild Dog kill all in a single day!
On the fifth morning, we had heard lions roaring in the riverbed in front of camp. We set out at first light. We came across a male lion on the causeway “a small bridge” in front of the MalaMala and Sable Camps. He was vocalizing and in search of other lions. He moved up the ridge line on the opposite side of the Sand River. This was an Ndzenga male, with an abscess on the left side of his body. He is a part of a coalition of 4 males new to the area. He was roaring and responding the other males. He moved with intent, roaring constantly with condensation of his breath in the brisk morning air. There were three Ndzenga males present in the area, and they were responsible for chasing another coalition; the two Avoca males back to the northern reaches of the Mlowathi river. We captured great images of these males on the move, and unique backlight images showing the condensation of their breath. Three lionesses of the Kambula pride had a waterbuck kill stashed within the reeds, right in front of the MalaMala camp swimming pool. It was a spectacular lion morning!
In the afternoon we set off to see the pack of 13 African Wild dogs. On the way to the last area of the pack we found a large hippopotamus grazing alongside a large herd of elephants. The elephants had pushed him out of his waterhole. It was nice to photograph the interaction between the two species and to see the hippopotamus outside of water during daylight hours. The pack disappeared and after seeing a few vultures descend we located the pack with little remains of a carcass. It was a beautiful scene in which some of the members of the pack were resting on a large termite mound as the sunset behind them. This was our final evening safari, so we decided to go for a sundowner. We enjoyed a glass of wine and watched a huge, towering cumulonimbus cloud and electrical storm developing into the night. On the game drive back to the camp for the evening we came across a rare sighting. A personal first for me and my guest alike, a completely black White-tailed Mongoose. It has an increased amount of melanin, black or nearly black pigmentation causing the ‘white’ tail to be black. As we drove along the MalaMala airstrip a single lioness came running past. She was moving with intent, and we heard a male lion roaring to her north. He was in pursuit of her. We located the male lion on the Airstrip. He was roaring incessantly! With the help of another MalaMala ranger we were able to backlight the male lion. My guest captured an incredible set of rim light images of the male lion’s breath condensation as he roared. We could not have asked for a more powerful send off for a last night safari! I love the nighttime sightings at MalaMala where one can experiment with different lighting sources and create unique wildlife images to include in one’s portfolio.
On the final morning we set out to look for the Nkoveni female and her two cubs. We had a shorter amount of time to work with due to our departure to the airport. We headed out early into a misty morning safari. The storm had brought in cooler temperatures and the reserve was draped in a thick blanket of mist. We found that the lions from the morning prior had stolen the leopard’s impala ram kill during the night. We found two Ndzenga males, and three Kambula lionesses resting in the area. The Nkoveni female and her two cubs were within a Marula tree close to the kill site. She eventually led her two cubs away from the area of the lions. She to our amazement led the two cubs to another impala ram carcass stashed in a Marula tree. It was a wonderful sighting! The Nkoveni rested on a broken branch forming an arch in the foreground and her two cubs climbed into the same tree to feed on the kill. There was even a herd of elephants browsing in the background. The one cub eventually dropped the impala carcass out of the tree. After an incredible show of strength, the one cub couldn’t reposition half an impala ram carcass within the branches. With a thud the carcass hit the ground! We then realized the time! We had to say our goodbye to the leopards and headed back in for breakfast before our departure to Skukuza airport.
This was a very productive, action packed, six-night safari in which we experienced and captured incredible moments in nature. We got to experience the MalaMala magic! To wrap it up we saw 9 different leopards, seven females, and two big two males. Two large lion prides, and two different male coalitions. The privileged opportunity to see two different packs of endangered African wild dogs, a successful hunt, and the new young pups at the den site. My guest learnt a lot about image composition, the importance of predicting animal behavior, and managed to get a better grasp on what can be considered the starting parameters for camera settings to capture the dynamic movements of her subjects. This six-night safari provided some of the finest wildlife experiences and my guest walked away with 1000’s of images. I cannot wait to see more of all the unique photographs captured in her portfolio.
To join me on a private photo tour, email [email protected] and we will design and craft a photo safari tailored to your specific goals and objectives.