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leopard at night

Private Photo Tour to South Africa with Penny Robartes – Part 1

Having joined me previously in both Botswana and Kenya, South Africa was first on my list knowing what my private guests’ photographic & preferred species of choice were. I hand picked MalaMala Game Reserve and Ngala Private Game Reserve for their 3rd photo tour with me as these two South African wildlife destinations offer near-unparalleled wildlife viewings and photographic opportunities thereof. This tour was delayed twice due to Covid, so for the near-end of May to come around with my guests finally being able to travel from Australia, it is safe to say that our photo tour was incredibly anticipated on multiple levels.

A fan of most wildlife & birds, my guests were specifically excited for Africa’s big cats. There was no doubt in my mind that both MalaMala Game Reserve and Ngala Private Game Reserve would show my guests high numbers of big cats, more than they could imagine, especially Leopard, with our predominant goal at Ngala Private Game Reserve being their wild white Lions.

lion in sabi sands

Our first stop was at MalaMala which we would be spending 4 nights at. Upon arrival at Skukuza Airport, we were collected by a MalaMala guide and transferred to Main Camp. On route, my guests got a good visual of this new area we would be traversing in, as well as some wildlife sightings. We counted numerous Lilac Breasted Rollers (a running joke from our time together on my scheduled Botswana – Savute & Khwai Photo Tour), Warthog (a firm favourite of one of my guests), Impala, Kuda, and a very specific treat; a Leopardess walking down the road towards us! She came towards us within meters before turning off the road and walking parallel to us for a few meters more. Scent marking as she went along, we watched her until she disappeared into which bush. What a phenomenal welcome!

Upon arrival in camp, we were each shown to our rooms were we had some time to settle in before meeting at Main Camp’s deck, having high tea and meeting our MalaMala guide that I specifically requested for my tour. After filling our stomachs and catching up on photographic goals, we commenced on our first game drive in MalaMala, and for my guests, the first game in South Africa as well as their first game drive in over 2 years! While we kept our eyes on tracks and eyes tuned to possible predator sightings, we spent relaxed and beautiful time with Impala in golden light as well as very photogenic Klipspringer which gave my guests time to settle into the bush, reacquaint themselves with their cameras as well as to photographing African wildlife again.

malamala photo tour
malamala photo tour
malamala photo tour

The call came in that there was a pride of Lion not too far from where we were, so we made our way towards them. Key to Lion behaviour, these cats were flat on the ground in long grass. Deciding to leave them and return after the sun had set, we drove towards the area where a pack of endangered African Wild Dog had made its den. The closer we got to the area, we heard the excited calls of the dogs and followed the direction of where they could be heard. A guest spotted one on the move! We saw the general direction they were heading, and waited in anticipation. Two out of four of my guests had never seen African Wild Dog before, so we were hoping to get some good viewing of them. The sun had set so the light was very soft and flat, but still we waited. And it payed off! The dogs were definitely on the move and seemed unsettled by the Lion pride so close by that their remaining pup was hot on the adults heels as they dedicatedly made their way to a new location. We managed to snap an image here and there though, and although it wasn’t a magnificent photographic sighting, it was a magnificent sighting, period! We ended the evening off with two male Lions that were in and out of dozing. My guests had never experimented with spotlight photography before, so this was a nice situation to test it out for them and get comfortable with the new settings.

african wild dog sabi sands
malamala lion

MalaMala Game Reserve is a visually beautiful and highly desirable 13 300ha (33 000 acres) tract of land that shares 19km (12 mile) with the world-famed Kruger National Park, and lies between it and the equally famed Sabi Sand Reserve. Wildlife move freely between these unfenced lands, with MalaMala receiving a lot of wildlife traffic on its property. This is due to its position between the Kruger and Sabi Sand Reserves as well as having 20 kms (13 miles) of Sand River frontage. The Sand River is a perennial river that draws in animals to this pristine and thrilling area. This river is surely the foundation to MalaMala’s unrivalled game viewing and wildlife experience.

MalaMala is one of South Africa’s largest private Big Five game reserves with sightings of our famed Big 5 are consistent and oh, so good. Leopard in particular are one such member that draw travellers, photographers, and nature enthusiasts to MalaMala’s doors. Easily holding the title of offering some of the finest Leopard sightings and photographic opportunities thereof, the population density at MalaMala is great with both resident and nomadic/transient Leopards being seen, as well as most of the Leopard here, specifically residents, being very relaxed around vehicles as they are habituated to them.

malamala leopard

Although my guests had preferred wildlife species of interest, we never wasted good photographic opportunities that presented themselves especially if we weren’t pressed for time to get to a particular sighting, or en route to one. With a strong appreciation for nature, my guests were more than thrilled to spend quality time with birds and other animals and build up their South African wildlife portfolio if the scenes proved to be good photographic ones. Even at sightings which were lovely scenes but not good photographic ones, I took the time to explain as to why the particular scene didn’t work, assisting my guests in broadening their knowledge and understanding of photography and animal behaviour.

sabi sand photo tour
sabi sand photo tour
sabi sand photo tour
south african wildlife
elephant in sabi sands

We had some incredible wildlife encounters whilst at MalaMala. A very memorable nighttime experience was with a large male Leopard who was patrolling his territory and scent marking as he went along. I mentioned earlier that my guests had not photographed at night before with specific reference to spotlight photography, so this situation was not only terribly exciting, but also potentially tricky! As we were making our way to this male Leopard as our guide had heard of the sighting being called in by another guide, I had already prepped my guests on their technical settings for spotlight photography, explained why the settings work, as well as where to focus with different spotlight directions such as side light, front and backlit.

As we came closer to the scene, we knew it was going to be an amazing opportunity for backlighting as the Leopard was walking towards us and another MalaMala vehicle was spotlighting him as they followed him. As the male Leopard breathed out, his hot breath caught the spotlight and looked like steam. It was magical! The Leopard was walking fast so we had mere seconds to shoot, but we followed him for a good amount of time and would reposition ourselves in front of him so that we could continue working and practicing on getting the images we envisioned. Once we finally lost him in thick bush, my guests let out their breaths and exhaled in utter joy! It was a beautiful experience!

leopard at night

Our predator sightings were varied and exciting. One such memorable sighting was of an interaction between a subadult female Leopard and a Hyena. One afternoon, we were scanning an area that a female Leopard had been seen in the afternoon before, and were hoping she hadn’t gone too far from this specific block of bush as we didn’t see her tracks crossing any of the roads. “There!” stated our local guide, and as we all turned our heads to the right towards where he was pointing, in the bush walked a smaller sized Leopard – which happened to be the female’s subadult cub. The night sky was already encroaching as we followed her winding her way through long, lush dry grass. She was very beautiful (but then again, nearly all Leopards are!) and she stood static for a while which allowed us to capture some front-lit portraits images of her. When we finally lost her in the thick bush, my guests were so ecstatic by the whole afternoon and this sighting, that they were happy to move on and slowly make our way towards camp. No sooner had we started we ended up turning back around as the young Leopardess was found and was stalking the Impala that were just off to the side of our vehicle. It was a group of rams, and our local guide and the other MalaMala guide weren’t confident that it would be a successful hunt as this female was pretty small and inexperienced. Then there was silence.

leopards of the sabi sands

The other vehicle did not have a sight of her. The Impala sounded as if they had moved off so we joined the other vehicle to look for her. We pretty much moved 5 meters behind us to the other side of a fallen tree when my guest exclaimed that “she is right there!”

And there she was, in the grass, with an adult Impala ram in her jaws. We were all taken by surprise that she was successful! After watching her kill the ram and begin to eat it, on silent and fast-moving feet came an adult Hyena that chased her off the kill. The Leopardess ran into the darkness while the Hyena dragged the carcass further away from us. As there was another vehicle waiting to enter the sighting, we decided to let them take our space as Hyena’s are quite gory eaters and we had had the sighting we wanted. As the other vehicle approached, we took some backlit images of the Hyena and its kill, which again gave my guests the opportunity to shoot a backlit scenario, but also create an image of a predator on a kill without having to see the gore that comes with it.

leopard kill
hyena at malamala game reserve
hyena sabi sands

Another memorable Leopard sighting was of an older female who had definitely, and is still going through, a tough and painful time. She is a gorgeous creature in good physical condition, but her ears are being ravaged by flies and potentially bacteria, leaving her with raw stubs for ears. She had lost her one eye a while ago too, but even these distraught aspects did not detract from the fact that she is a hardy fighter. She was reclined in a tree far from her territory. She wasn’t relaxed. A lot had to do with the flies annoying her as they landed on her ears, but also because she was in another Leopards territory. We drove around the tree to look at where she would potentially come down, found our angle and waited. And it paid off! Having discussed camera settings ahead of time knowing that she would come down the tree, my guests all banged a shot or two as she came down the tree and walked right passed our vehicle. We followed her as she trotted down the road and stopped ever so often to listen to the sounds of the environment. She found a dead tree to sit in and used the height as a vantage point to look at Impala in nearby thicket. We kept out of her way when we moved towards them ib order to give her the space she needed to hunt. Another vehicle was positioned on the opposite side of the thickets and could see her briefly. About 10minutes or so later, we heard the Impala alarm calling and looking at the Leopardess’ direction. The other vehicle confirmed that she had been see and had moved away. We decided to let her be and find a beautiful spot by the Sand River to stretch our legs at and have a delicious bush breakfast.

malamala leopard photo
leopard at sabi sands

Our Lion sightings at MalaMala ranged from spotlight photography on our first night of 2 large male Lions, to a mating pair that we nearly drove right past one overcast morning! On our last morning at MalaMala, I spotted the famous Maxims Male; a magnificent and large male Leopard that always seems to evade me. I saw him quite a distance off a road perched on top of a termite mound. As soon as we turned off the road towards him, he got up and moved into some thickets. Of course! Because he is the Maxims male and loves to evade me. We went in search of him, joined by another MalaMala vehicle, and only caught glimpses of him as she casually walked about in thick to thicker bush. Finally calling defeat, we stopped for a quick stretch of our legs when a vehicle from the bordering reserve drove next to us (we were on the boundary road, and the reserves aren’t fenced from each other) and confirmed that a male Lion was walking towards MalaMala property from their reserve.

lioness at sabi sands
lion at malamala
lion at malamala

Off we went and timing could not have been better! We met up with the roaring male just as he crossed into MalaMala’s property and captured both stills and video footage of him walking fast past us and roaring. He was heading to the open area by the airstrip so we took a calculated risk and drove ahead, hoping to get clean background, head on images of this male. Oh, and it worked. Making sure my guests were all lined up for the best angle and assisting them as the male approached, they captured some powerful shots of him as he walked towards us and then to the side where he then lay down and continued to roar. We drove down the back of the airstrip which afforded us lower angles of this magnificent male with Zebra and impala behind him. What a send off from MalaMala!

lion in sabi sands

Next destination: Ngala Private Game Reserve.

To be continued in Part 2…


To join me on a private ORYX photo tour to Africa & beyond, email [email protected].

To join me on one of my scheduled photo tours, email [email protected] or click here.


Until next time,

Penny Robartes

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