Experiences at Mala Mala, an award-winning private reserve in South Africa’s Limpopo province, are made all the more enjoyable and fulfilling by the expert guides that lead the game drives. Each day, their life (and subsequently yours) plays out on a stage populated by a varied cast of animals, all appearing when and where they wish. The guide’s job is to anticipate their appearances and ensure you enjoy your safari to its fullest potential. What follows is an account of a day in the life of a Mala Mala safari guide…
It is seldom that a guide is not awake before his alarm – long, dusty days searching the African bushveld and a permanently confused body clock make sure of that. You sit up, like a drill sergeant just kicked the door down into your barracks, you look blankly across your room like a buffalo deciding whether it’s time to chew the cud or not, slowly coming to the senses you left on the pillow case and stand. It comes to you now, the day makes sense, you think: splash face, brush teeth, find uniform, underwear if available, and socks… not necessary, probably look for Casio G-shock of some form or colour. Looking down, near the corner of the bed lies a snake den of cables and chargers. A cluster of steady orange lights tells you that you remembered to charge your camera batteries. You slide these batteries into the breaches of your camera like a hunter slides his heavy rounds into his twin pipe.
Almost ready… remember your sunscreen, hat, amo-belt, the little book you never write anything in. A wake-up call, a last listen at the window for any vocals of nearby predators – “baboons barking across the river, they always bark there… I’ll check anyway”. You then race out the door only to make an immediate U-turn as you realise you have forgotten all of the above.
Caffeine, laughter and a sunrise threatening to shine beautiful morning light on a previously imagined leopard on some high dead Leadwood, on some high hilltop, somewhere. You inhale a blueberry muffin and your cup of coffee whilst on the trot toward the Land Rovers. One last check to see that your memory cards are empty and batteries charged, kick yesterday’s dirt outside the gaping holes in your vellies (leather bush shoes) that you refuse to fix because it looks tougher like that. Wiping clean your dusty lens while reminiscing about the previous days on safari, previous sightings of leopard and lion and elephant, reminding your guests to check their cards and batteries, asking them if there is anything they would like to see that day.
The morning is still, the birds are quiet, not a breath of wind, yet your mind is racing. “Why didn’t you tell the other guides about the alarm calling baboons?” you shout at yourself in your head. “There’s probably nothing there anyway.” You feel better… You’re wondering what you could possibly show them. Three nights at Mala Mala means that by the time the final morning comes there is not much the guests haven’t seen. You only have two hours to ‘end off strong’ – an accidental promise you gave before being allowed your first sip of coffee. “Please produce something baboons…”
Light is starting to unzip the bushveld when you arrive at the scene of the once-agitated baboons, only to find them scratching around, looking and bobbing, fully relaxed and enjoying the sun’s rays. But not all are at ease. A couple of young males sit elevated and stare northwards. You follow their gaze towards the rocky granite outcrops of Campbel Koppies, your heart starting to race. “Just maybe we will find something.” Something catches your eye on the road. The tracks of Cape hunting dogs (aka African wild dogs) pepper the dirt in front of you. You have finished the puzzle without finding all the pieces. “Fresh dog tracks! We’ll get them! They must be close.” You hit the accelerator. You shout more promises back to your now handle-bar-gripping, hat-holding, wide-eyed, grin-splitting guests as you drop a gear in anticipation of the famed thrill of chasing after African wild dogs on the hunt…
Rounding the corner you notice the first thing any guide first notices when happening upon these rare super predators. White tail tips! Dancing and dipping and dashing through the bush. You did it. You read the bush like a pro. You made it look easy. You (as usual) forget to thank the ‘God of Luck’ who accompanies ALL us guides on a daily basis.
The pack is playfully tearing apart the remains of an impala ram. Pelican cases pop, binoculars and other now-invaluable items drop and the shutter volley begins as lucky guests and guide fire away at one of nature’s rarest spectacles in an attempt to capture something great. Just when you’re satisfied of your picture count and the shutters slow down a tad, a hand grips you on your shoulder, followed by vowels and assonance, but all messed and mashed into “aah mmmhaa thaa oooh deeh!” Desperate for answers you turn to your frantic guest and follow her gaze into the tree next to you. You can’t believe it. You feel terrible about not telling anybody about the baboons now. There in a dead Leadwood tree, barely three metres from our Land Rover, in the morning light… lies the mottled beauty of a female leopard, furious with the dogs for stealing her kill!
During breakfast you can barely taste the delicious meal laid out in front of you as you recount the days spent on Mala Mala. Searching and tracking and not finding… despairing… then finding and rejoicing, then searching some more. You laugh, remembering the highs and lows of the epic quest to locate these incredible animals and watching them hunt and interact in endless ways. The thought of “what could I possibly show them now?” has crept into every guide’s head at some point in their career. Here at Mala Mala, the thought still lingers on the occasional last morning drive, but with little reason… there is always more to find here. Mala Mala always delivers.
Back in your room that night you set your camera down, lens still smoking, memory cards full, batteries empty. Your shoes filled with dirt from different places, your mind filled with more stories of great encounters, provoking an eagerness to start the next safari, find the next leopard and chase after the next pack of Cape hunting dogs. One last sigh… “This is why I do this.” Sleep.
Fancy experiencing Mala Mala for yourself? Our Best of South Africa itinerary includes a two-night stay (with four game drives) at the reserve.