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South Africa: Private ORYX Photo Tour to MalaMala Game Reserve with Daniel Bailey

From the 28th June until the 2nd July 2022, I hosted a private ORYX photo tour to MalaMala Game Reserve, South Africa. Once again MalaMala lived up to its reputation with great predator sightings. Over the course of four night stay we viewed, and photographed ten different leopards, two prides of lions, two male lion coalitions, a pack of African Wild Dogs on the hunt, the elusive and tenacious honey badger, and wonderful herds of elephants and the cantankerous Cape buffalo bulls. There was time to relax, slow down and fully immerse ourselves in the peaceful environment. Quite intimate moments were also spent with the smaller creatures that call MalaMala home, from the smallest Dwarf mongooses to an assortment of feathered friends.

The first afternoon at MalaMala Game Reserve there was overcast weather. As the days prior there had been some rain in the area. We arrived for afternoon high-tea and met with our ranger, Jonathan to discuss the plans for the next few days. We set out on the drive and within the first five minutes we had our first leopard sighting! We photographed the Ngoboswan male leopard resting in a large Jackalberry Tree. He had stashed an impala carcass in the tree and was sleeping, with a very full stomach. We captured some images of him in the tree and then decided to let him be.

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We continued our drive and searched along the Mlowati riverbed. We spotted a young leopard cub hiding on the riverbank. This was the six-month-old cub of the Tslebe Rocks female. It was special to see this leopard cub as we had last seen him on a previous tour. We viewed the den site on top of a rocky outcrop called Campbell Koppies when the cub was three-months-old. It was amazing to see how much he had grown in a short space of time. The cub was on his own, he had a small altercation with a Swainson’s Spurfowl which had discovered his hiding spot. He snarled at the ground bird as it alarmed at the young cat. This caused him to move off and eventually he posed beautifully along the riverbank. Curiosity got the better of the young cat, his inquisitive nature, allowed us to capture some great portraits of him. He explored the riverbank and played under the shade of an African Weeping Wattle tree.

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The night before some lucky guests had seen a Pangolin on the northern boundary of the reserve. My client had never seen this rare and endangered creature before. We decided to stop in the area for sun set drinks with the hope of maybe seeing the animal. We enjoyed a glass of wine and some snacks as the sun set. We had a brief look in the last area where the elusive creature had been seen but unfortunately, we didn’t manage to see it.

After dark we set off back south along the Mlowati river to where lions were feeding on a buffalo kill. The Nkuhuma pride had a buffalo kill. We arrived after dark to a scene where thirteen lions, 4 lionesses, 3 sub-adults and 7 cubs and the dominant coalition of two large male lions were feasting on the little remains of the carcass. We captured some interesting images of the lions feeding on the ribcage with the use of the spotlight as our artificial lighting source. The sights, sounds and smells of the lions feeding and fighting over the carcass was a great experience. The majority of the pride were well fed and most went to sleep and digest their full stomachs in the soft sandy riverbed.

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Whilst on our route back to the camp for the evening we stumbled upon the Ngoboswan male leopard. We were very fortunate that he had left the impala carcass and went to have a drink of water. He was thirsty and drank from a small pan within a few feet of the Land Rover. This allowed us to capture some beautiful images of him lapping up water. The use of the spotlight allowed for great soft lighting as the light bounced off the ripples of the water as he drank. We captured some beautiful images of him drinking with the rings of light refecting onto his face. The fact of being able to do night game drives with a spotlight at MalaMala opens a lot of new opportunities to not only view, observe, but create unique images of predators after dark.

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The next morning coffee was enjoyed on the MalaMala deck overlooking the Sand River. The temperatures are cooler in the winter months with mist often engulfing the reserve at sunrise. At first light we headed off on our morning game drive venturing into a mystical world draped in a thick blanket of mist. Strange silhouettes suddenly came into view. Two giraffe bulls were fighting on the MalaMala airstrip. We sat watching the mesmerizing back and forth of the giraffe as the sun peaked over the horizon. In the distance a lone wildebeest bellowed a single alarm call. The dawn chorus and still, crisp air was broken by the sound of thundering hooves of 100 impala as they skated across the tarmac of the airstrip. The herd of impala parted in the mist to reveal an African Wild Dog in hot pursuit of his prey.

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The Impala managed to escape the chase. The rest of the pack, thirteen wild dogs arrived shortly afterwards and had an amusing interaction with the two giraffe bulls. As they peered over the pack and observed their movements. From this point the pack moved onwards and continued with their morning hunt. They moved rapidly northwards, and we eventually lost sight of them entering a drainage line behind the camp. Later we found them with a fresh impala kill. They had already devoured most of the meal and a few Spotted hyena had arrived to crash their party. The was some great interaction and altercations with the pack and a lone hyena that wished to steal some scraps.

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That afternoon we headed out to work the central parts of the reserve, the Matshapiri River and the Sand River with the hope of spending time with a large herd of elephants. The reserve is still very green. The vegetation is very lush, uncharacteristically for this time of the year. The weather patterns have been unpredictable and as a result there’s been more rainfall into the middle of winter. We encountered, spent time with and photographed some lone elephant bulls. We also practiced photographing the beautiful Lilac breasted roller in the attempt to capture it in flight.

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We knew that the Island female leopard had new cubs and this was a big reason to return to MalaMala in the hope of seeing, and photographing her new litter. My guest had followed the life and progression of the Island females previous litter. The daughter of the Island female which has recently gained her independence. This leopardess was heavily pregnant on our previous visit to MalaMala on the 21st April 2022. She likely gave birth to her new litter shortly after our departure. We had heard the reports from the reserve that she had given birth to a litter of two cubs. We waited for later in the afternoon to go a search for the Island females den site.

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We arrived at the den site; a set of granite boulders hidden in thick vegetation on the bank of the Matshapiri river. As we rounded the bend, we laid eyes on the two cubs exploring the area. They had ventured away from the rocky outcrop and together had found a Jackalberry tree that had been pushed over by elephants. At ten-weeks-old they were very playful and confident exploring the environment. They were full of energy! They climbed, played, wrestled, and chased each other up and down the fallen tree trunk. It was a beautiful sighting of very young cubs and my guest, and I captured some wonderful images of the two cubs.

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The following morning, we headed out in the aim to find the Ngoboswan male leopard. He had been seen the previous night with a kill in a tree. We found him in a Large Leadwood tree shortly after sunrise. It was another misty morning with beautiful golden light through the mist. He was sleeping, and basking in the warm morning sun. We decided to defrost ourselves and waited to see if he would descend the tree on completion of eating the carcass. As we sat with him, we noticed his behavior change as he started growling from within the tree. There were three spotted hyenas lurking at the base of the tree.  He wasn’t at all bothered by the hyena previously, so we suspected there was another leopard in the area. As we scanned to grass around us, we saw another leopard, well in fact two.

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The Tslebe Rocks female and her six-month-old cubs had been hiding in the grass the whole time. They got up and started grooming each other in the morning sunshine a few feet away from the tree. The Ngoboswan male had likely stolen the kill from the Tslebe Rocks female in the night. It was in incredible sighting, with three leopards in the immediate area. The story was even better as it was the whole family, the presumed territorial father, and then the mother, and their cub in one sighting. The male paid no threat to the cub and simply wished to eat his fill of meat. The mother and cub eventually got up and started walking away from the area. The mother realized that she wouldn’t be able to retrieve any more of a meal and led her cub away to the safety of a steep drainage line system. We managed to capture a few images of the mother and cub moving together through the long grass before they managed to disappear into an inaccessible area for the Land Rover.

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In the afternoon we explored the Sand River, spent some time photographing elephants, general game from zebra, impala, giraffe, and abundant birdlife. There was an opening in the afternoon for us to try our luck with the Island females’ cubs. We arrived in the best afternoon light, but we searched for a while to find the leopards. Just as we were about the leave the den site. We got intel from another ranger on the radio to look up into the top branches of a Russet-Bush Willow tree. There we saw one cub sleeping quite comfortably in the tip-tip branches. There was a large herd of elephants feeding around the rocky outcrop so potentially they had disturbed the leopards and caused the one cub to seek shelter high up in the branches of the tree. The island female wasn’t present or visible with the elephant’s presence, so we left the one cub in the tree, as not to place unnecessary pressure on the young predator. We decided to stop for sunset drinks, overlooking the Sand River. We enjoy a cold beverage as the day faded away, rich oranges danced on the surface of the water at sunset. We listened to all the night sounds and the heard the call of the African Scops owlet. We managed to locate the tiny owlet and even photograph it. Shortly, afterwards we found the impressive Giant Eagle Owl. The largest owl specie in the area. There was also a unique sighting of a relatively relaxed African Civet marking its’ civetry site. Unbelievably, African Civet poos are enormous! Which we observed first hand!

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We went to a lion sighting after dark. Three lionesses of the Kambula pride and one Ndzenga male had been found. The began to stir and then started their territorial patrol. We had a nice walk-by from the large Ndzenga male lion. He walked within a few feet of the Land Rover. A sighting and a moment that just never gets old!

The last day we had a full day out in the bush. We made the decision to maximize our time in the bush and go and explore the southern reaches of the game reserve. MalaMala prepared and packed brunch for us to have out in the bush! This gave us the chance to go and explore and have no time constraints.

The day started with a sighting of the Nkoveni female leopard. We followed her for a short while whilst she was patrolling her territory. We left her and started heading down south, we covered some good distance and worked beautiful riverbeds in the south known as the Kapen and the Tjellahanga. We observed some great sightings, of smaller creatures such as Dwarf Mongoose. There was an entertaining sighting of Grey Go-Away birds mobbing a Verreaux Eagle Owl. They eventually flushed it from its roost, and they proceeded to celebrate their victory or chasing away the predatory bird. We had brilliant sighting of an elephant herd in which there was a very young calf. The herd walked past the vehicle and allowed for a very up-close and intimate sighting.

We stopped and enjoyed our brunch on the sand bank of the Sand River. We set up the spread which compromised of a selection of coffee and teas, yoghurt, sliced fruit, muesli, croissants, ham and cheese platter and chicken mayo pitta breads. There was no shortage of food! We kicked off our shoes and enjoyed the sunshine, dipped our toes in the Sand River and had a nice, relaxed brunch surrounded by nature. It was utter bliss!

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In the afternoon we made our way back northwards. We received a call on the radio that the Island female had been found. We looked to get into the rotation and got there just before sunset. She had apparently had her impala kill stolen by a male leopard, and eventually by the one Ndzenga male lion. She had moved slightly away from the lion. We could hear him chewing and crushing bones in the bushes. We focused on the opportunity to photograph the Island female. She was resting on a large termite mound with the most enchanting backdrop of the setting sun. The leopardess, resting in that light with the red, orange, glow of the setting sun was exquisite. My private guest captured some beautiful imagery of which I cannot wait to see the final edits and results. It was the perfect ending to on last full day at MalaMala Game Reserve. The sunset was astounding, as the light, and the colors only improved with time. It was incredible to see the Island female after having had such an incredible sighting of her two ten-week-old cubs the day prior.

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On the final morning we had a short game drive. We enjoyed a sighting on the one cub of the Island female at the den. The cub was resting, grooming, and playing with a branch in the golden morning sunshine. We did not see the other cub or the Island female, so we left once again and carried on with the drive. We crossed West Street Bridge and managed to see the Three Rivers female leopard. She was also basking in the sunshine. We captured some images of her from the elevated vantage point of the bridge. This was the best option as she was lying in tall reeds. It was nice to see this leopard again as she is a favorite leopard for both my guest and I.

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A MalaMala photography tour is always unbelievable, there is such a diversity and density of life, unlike anywhere else in South Africa. The predator sightings are world-class. The leopards seem to fall out of trees! We encountered ten leopards on this tour. The undeniable highlight being able to photograph two ten-week-old leopard cubs. We enjoyed so many wonderful moments out in nature, from large elephant herds to the tiny Pearl Spotted Owlet. The photographs my ORYX guest and I captured were testament to this truly incredible destination.

I hope you will join me at MalaMala one of these days, and together we can explore the reserve, from its spellbinding riverbeds, to ancient trees, and secretive koppies for the abundance of wildlife that call this unspoilt corner of African home.

Trust me! You won’t be disappointed!

Stay Wild

Daniel Bailey

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