August, 2003 -- As our plane lifts off from Johannesburg International Airport and turns toward the northeast, I feel a surge of excitement -- mixed, I admit, with the slightest hint of apprehension. My wife, Alexis, and I have just completed a week of luxury travel, first motoring around the coast and vineyards of Cape Town, then making a leisurely 27-hour journey across the sun-baked expanse of the Karoo (South Africa's semi-arid interior) on the legendary Blue Train (www.bluetrain.co.za), capped off by an overnight stay at the elegant Grace Hotel in the leafy Johannesburg suburb of Rosebank. After days of basking in the superb service of South Africa's finest hotels and restaurants, sampling the country's famous wines, and dining on a wide variety of delicacies ranging from broiled ostrich to freshly picked papaya, we've become quite spoiled.
That's about to change, however. The next leg of our trip will take us deep into the bush of southern Africa, where we will spend six of the next seven days exploring some of the last truly wild places on earth. For neophytes like ourselves, feeling a touch of nervousness at the prospect is unavoidable. The African bush -- an archipelago of protected parkland stretching across sub-Saharan Africa, from Kenya in the east to Namibia in the west, and to Zambia, South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe in the south -- is one of the only remaining traces of the prehistoric world. In the African bush, lions, leopards and hyenas still roam free, living on impalas, buffalo, warthogs, and the other unlucky herbivores who wander through their territories. Going into the bush for the first time, they say, changes you forever. Alexis and I are about to find out for ourselves if this is true.
Our first destination is MalaMala (www.malamala.com), the largest private game reserve in Africa. Spanning 45,000 acres, it is located squarely in what's known as "Big Five Country" -- the lowveld region of northeastern South Africa, home to the most diverse animal population on the continent. Besides its size, it has the advantage of sharing a 26-mile open border with Kruger National Park, a huge public game reserve where South Africans have been flocking for decades to get a taste of wild Africa. Kruger covers three million acres (about the same size as the nation of Israel), and a large variety of animals are continually drifting across its borders into MalaMala. The game viewing here is so good, in fact, that three out every four visitors come back from MalaMala with a piece of paper certifying that they have personally laid on eyes on each of the "Big Five" species: lion, elephant, Cape buffalo, rhino, and the elusive leopard. The "Big Five" are the creatures considered to be most dangerous when wounded -- a distinction left over from the early and mid-twentieth century, when hunting with a rifle was the recreation of choice in these parts.
In addition to its animal population, another great appeal of the lowveld region is its accessibility. The drive from Johannesburg to MalaMala, for example, takes only five to six hours. By air, the trip can be done in an hour. It is hard to believe that it is only an hour's journey from one of the world's most vibrant cities to the hunting grounds of the world's great predators.
Far too soon, it seems, our plane begins its descent, touching down finally on a strip of Calcrete -- the ubiquitous hard white surface used to construct all of the air strips that connect Africa's various game lodges to the outside world.
The plane rolls to a stop as Alexis and I stand staring at the trees and bushes that line the airstrip, half- expecting an elephant or lion to come charging through the underbrush. Within a minute or so, a pair of Land Rovers pulls up to our group. A large man dressed in khaki steps out of the first vehicle and walks over to us.
"Hello, I'm Leon," he announces. "Welcome to MalaMala!"
Leon quickly piles our bags into the back of the vehicle, and we all climb aboard. "We'll be at the main camp in less than an hour," he assures us, and then he roars off down a dirt road. After a couple of turns, we find ourselves pointed toward the entrance to the camp. The ride has taken all of five minutes. "I told you it would be less than an hour," Leon chuckles.
Passing through the stucco wall surrounding the compound, we roll to a stop in front of the reception building. On the way, Leon informs us that he will be our personal ranger for the next two days. This means he'll be taking us on our game drives each morning and afternoon, and eating all of his meals with us as well.
We arrange our lunchtime, then Leon departs and we open our door and walk inside. Immediately, any doubts we had about "roughing it" in the wilds of Africa vanish into cool air when we enter our room at the MalaMala Main Camp. The space is as comfortable as any hotel room and more spacious than most (which is comforting since it is $500 a night for each of us at the Main Camp). A large double bed sits beneath a high, rounded ceiling, with "his and her" bathrooms on either side (a nod to the fact that guests have to get up in the pre-dawn darkness for their morning game drives -- not the time to be fighting over who gets to use the facilities first). Opposite the bed, two comfortable armchairs face a sliding door that opens onto a wooden balcony overlooking a stretch of downward sloping lawn and the resort's swimming pool. Some fifty yards away, the Sand River glitters in the sunlight. The decor is a bit on the bland side, but then, we don't plan on spending much waking time indoors anyway.
Thus reassured, we head back to the main building to take lunch on the veranda, which also looks out over the Sand River. We sit down at the table and notice some movement in the mid-distance: it's a family of giraffes, browsing in the treetops on the far side of the river! The graceful, sweeping movements of their long necks and legs as they graze is absolutely mesmerizing.
"Does this ever get routine?" I ask Leon, pointing toward the giraffes in the distance.
"Never," he smiles. We place our beverage orders with one of the servers (who hails from a nearby village, like most of the resort's waitstaff), then we stroll indoors to the dining room, where a buffet luncheon is spread out. The food is simple but tasty. We eat hungrily, without taking our eyes off the graceful movements of the giraffes as they meander downstream.
Our first game drive is scheduled for 4:00 that afternoon. After lunch, we duck into MalaMala's gift shop to buy a couple of bush hats, (wide-brimmed, and made of khaki-colored cloth -- they're a must-have when riding through the bush, especially during the last part of the morning drives and the first part of the afternoon drives when the sun is still high overhead), then go back to our room to rest for a bit before rejoining Leon for our inaugural game drive. These drives, which typically last four hours, take place twice a day, in the early morning and then again in the late afternoon and early evening, the times when the large mammals of Africa are most active.
At the appointed time we head back to the central part of the camp, armed with those other bush drive essentials -- a bottle of strong sunscreen and a can of mosquito repellent (both of these are also supplied by the reserve, and come tucked into handy pockets in our vehicle), plus a bottle of water and, of course, our camera. Our Land Rover is waiting, and we hop into the second row of seats. As we are about to discover, Land Rovers are the ships of the bush, as they can travel over all sorts all sorts of terrain. In this particular model, four tiers of seats ascend from front to back like seats in a movie theater, ensuring a prime view for up to eight passengers at a time.
Leon settles in behind the wheel, while our Shangaan tracker, Elvis (not the name he was born with, we learn -- like many trackers, he has taken on an Americanized name in his dealings with Western tourists), takes up his customary perch in the far back, a stalk of grass in his mouth. Elvis grew up learning about the bush -- his father was a tracker as well -- and from his high seat he will spend the duration of each game drive scanning the surrounding countryside, watching and listening for clues such as light footprints in the soil, a shape hiding the shadows, or a certain telling odor.
The engine roars to life and we roll out of camp, heading downhill on a rutted dirt road toward the Sand River, then splashing through its shallow waters and ascending to the other side, where the bulk of MalaMala's acreage lies. Named for its sandy riverbed, the Sand River runs for 60 miles through the 200,000-acre Sabi Sand reserve (encompassing MalaMala and 19 other smaller private reserves nearby), including a 28-mile stretch down the western flank of MalaMala itself. Its dependable supply of fresh water is a major reason why Sabi Sand boasts some of the best game-viewing in Africa.
As we drive along, Leon begins pointing out detail after detail -- identifying a dizzying array of colorful birds, indigenous shrubs and trees, and the hoofed species that graze in herds of varying size along either side of the road: principally impala, the most common ungulate in this area, but also kudu, recognizable by their spiralling horns and regularly spaced white lines on their hindquarters, wildebeest (the heaviest of the hoofed mammals) and a surprising number of warthogs -- these endearing, snout-nosed animals can be seen everywhere trotting through the brush, often with their carbon-copy youngsters in tow.
While Leon carries on his eloquent and highly entertaining lecture, Elvis remains largely silent. From time to time he will notice something -- a sign of a lion having passed by, perhaps, or some other subtle indicator of where big game might be found -- and will communicate this fact to Leon, usually through a low whistle.
The first half-hour passes in a sort of wildlife daze. Alexis and I find ourselves turning to each other every minute or so and grinning uncontrollably, as yet another amazing animal comes into sight. For the most part, we follow the network of dirt roads that criss-cross MalaMala's 4,000 acres. Whenever we feel the urge, however (or more accurately, whenever Leon and Elvis decide it's worth doing), we head off-road and take our trusty Land Rover rattling over the countryside.
This is one of the huge advantages that the private reserves like MalaMala have over the various national parks of southern Africa. Next door in Kruger National Park, for example, visitors can tool around in their own automobiles for a fraction of what MalaMala charges ($500 a night per person), but they're required to stay on certain approved roads at all times. Inside the boundaries of privately-owned MalaMala, on the other hand, guests are free to go wherever wild game beckons and a Land Rover can follow, which in practice means virtually anywhere.
Suddenly a radio report comes in over the headset that Leon wears clipped to his ear (all the rangers at MalaMala are in constant communication with each other, and keep up a running report of their encounters -- another way to ensure that their guests will see plenty of action). A tremor of excitement passes through our little band. "They've spotted a wild dog." says Leon. Despite his reticent demeanor, he can barely contain his excitement. "They're extremely rare in these parts."
On our very first game drive, we've stumbled onto an exceptional find -- a lone African wild dog that has somehow become separated from its pack, and is now traveling quickly in an effort to rejoin its comrades. Leon guns the Land Rover to keep up with the dog, which is trotting down the road ahead of us, swiftly and effortlessly. "It's a female -- quite large, and in very good condition," says Leon. "These dogs can cover up to 60 kilometers a day. They can outrun any other animal in the bush over a long distance."
The dog occasionally glances our way, but doesn't seem to be making any special effort to avoid us. About four feet long, with a beautiful mottled coat, it looked very similar to a midsized domestic dog, except for its ears, which are huge and perched round and upright on the top of its head. "Hearing is essential to these dogs," Leon explains when we ask him about them. "Those large ears are what allow them to call to each other over many miles."
We follow the dog for several minutes, then it slows abruptly and begins limping noticably. It stops to drink from a puddle in the road -- a vestige of last night's downpour. The dog finishes drinking, then leans back on its haunches and howls repeatedly. Leon immediately switches off the motor. "It's calling out to its pack," he says in a low voice.
After listening for a moment, the dog starts up again at the same swift pace, its limp having vanished as mysteriously as it had arrived. A moment later, it veers off the road onto a lightly wooded stretch of hardpacked earth. We leave the road as well, and follow the racing dog overland as it heads east. Eventually another group in a MalaMala Land Rover catches up to us and joins the chase. The dog is running hard now, circling around toward the south until it's moving on a course parallel to the nearby boundary of Kruger National Park. Luckily for us it holds close to the easternmost road of MalaMala, which we now rejoin, tracking the dog for another mile or so and sighting it sporadically through the scattered trees. Finally the dog tires of our company; without breaking stride, it shifts its direction slightly eastward and in an instant disappears over the border into Kruger territory, where we cannot follow.
Gray Ghosts in the Afternoon
This mini-adventure over, Leon turns the vehicle back westward, and we resume our planned route. Alexis and I ponder the fate of our canine friend, cut off from braving the perils of the bush. As the sun gets lower on the horizon, the sky grows overcast and a few light drops of rain begin to fall, but we barely notice. Rolling forward at a slow cruising speed, we suddenly come upon a family of elephants a few yards away, moving toward us through the trees. A mother with a young calf close behind ambles our way, followed by a somewhat larger calf and a full-sized adolescent male. "She's probably the mother of all three," whispers Leon. He explains to us that male elephants continue to live with their family of origin until age 12 or 13. Meanwhile, he is carefully backing the Land Rover into a position pointing away from the elephants. "You always want to have a clear escape route whenever you're near an elephant," he tells us. "They have been known to charge vehicles from time to time -- so we take no chances with them."
We sit, motor off, and watch the elephants in silence. This is the preferred etiquette of game viewing: Chat is kept to a minimum, all attention focused on the wildlife surrounding us. Leon's warning about the occasional threat from elephants is a point well taken; but for the most part, after years of exposure to humans in their Land Rovers, most of the MalaMala animals have come to view any vehicle and its inhabitants as one big, benign entity, and will generally ignore them.
A Final Sighting with the Setting Sun
After viewing the elephants for ten minutes or so, Leon fires up the engine again and we drive onward. A pair of hyenas appear to our right. They are larger, stronger, and much more beautiful than they look on television shows about African wildlife. Their golden fur glows in the late-afternoon sun, which has reemerged beneath the clouds, and their necks and jaws appear immensely powerful. So, Leon assures us, are their appetites: "Hyenas will consume the oldest, most rotten meat -- if need be, they'll even eat leather," he says. I unconsciously place my hand on my wallet.
As darkness starts to fall, we continue down the road and come upon a trio of white rhinos--an adult male and female, and a youngster--feeding on the vegetation alongside the road. Again we stop and watch in silent wonder. White rhinos are twice as large as their cousins, the near-extinct black rhino, and much more common in this region. The last time a black rhino was spotted in MalaMala, Leon tells us, was back in 1990; it was killed by a white rhino.
Back on the trail again, the sun has dipped below the horizon, signaling that it is time for that most pleasant of safari traditions -- the sundowner. We stop in an open area that our guides have deemed free of dangerous animals and climb out of our vehicle, grateful to be able to stretch our legs. Elvis goes around to the back of the Land Rover and comes back with a small folding table and a large carryall. He sets the table up on the grass and lays out the makings for gin and tonics (which we'd preordered at the start of the game drive), then returns to the back of the vehicle, where he uses a portable camp stove to heat up a plate of hors d'oeuvres.
The effects of the gin send a wave of relaxation through my body, and I glance over at Alexis who smiles at me. It is a grin that says, Here we are, two New Yorkers in the African bush on a summer evening, enjoying a sundowner. Life is good...
Night is falling fast now. We circle back towards the main camp. In front of us we can see the headlights of two other MalaMala vehicles, trained on a patch of earth. Drawing closer, we see the illuminated manes of two male lions. The pair are known as the West Street Males, and they have been hunting together in these parts for many years.
By now each Land Rover has its detachable spotlight out and trained on the two massive animals. Ignoring the light (artificial light, like the Land Rovers themselves, simply fails to show up on most wild animals' radar), they blink out at the night, occasionally opening their jaws in a deep yawn. Both lions are clearly long in the tooth. "I'd say they're each about 12 years old," says Leon. "Quite old for a lion."
As we watch, one of the pair rises to its feet. "I think he's getting ready to roar," Leon murmurs. "I hope he does. It's a truly amazing thing to hear."
We wait a few minutes, and sure enough, the lion opens its mouth and emits a sound, unlike anything we've ever heard: The roars are so deeply pitched that we can feel them vibrating the Land Rover. They come out not in a single long phrase, like the MGM lion, but rather in a series of short, urgent bellows -- calling out to the world, letting them know who was in command of this acreage. His hunting partner rises to his feet as well, and begins echoing the first lion, matching him roar for roar. It is a magnificent spectacle. As we watch in open-mouthed wonder, Leon records the scene on a small handheld video camera for possible inclusion in a promotional film.
The perfect coda to our first game drive. We've managed to check off three of the Big Five on our maiden voyage.
Do you have a comment about this article? Have you been to southern Africa and have your own story to tell? We'd love to hear from you. Just head over to our Message Boards to post your thoughts.