Finally, the long-awaited safari blog post is here! Admittedly, we are a few weeks beyond our safari now, but it has been so hard to put our week at the Mala Mala Game Reserve into words and to cull through the thousands of photographs we took. As anticipated, our safari was a major highlight of the trip and the perfect culmination to our 5 weeks on the African continent. The six days flew by too quickly, and all of us agreed that we could have stayed a great deal longer, never tiring of the landscape’s beauty and the thrill of animal sightings. Without a doubt, our family will forever treasure the memories from this week.
Our adventures began even before we arrived at Mala Mala. From Cape Town, we flew to South Africa’s capital city, Johannesburg, and spent a night there before catching our “light aircraft” flight to the safari lodge. By light aircraft, they mean a plane that seats shockingly few people and accommodates soft, small duffel bags only… one might best describe our particular light aircraft as something you might put together with model glue and duct tape on Christmas morning. It had a single propellor on its small nose, and was flown by two pilots whose combined age was maybe 35 years.
The 1.5 hour flight into Mala Mala was spectacular, with stunning views of the African landscape below.
Everyone was relaxed and enjoying themselves.
Just as Blair was beginning to think things could not be going any better, we began our descent. Because of the intense heat coming up from the ground the ride became increasingly bumpy, until we all felt as though we were living in a blender. Schuyler turned green in the seat in front of me and without warning began to projectile vomit all over the back of the pilot’s seat. Thayer, strapped in right next to Schuyler, began to scream at the top of her lungs and twisted her body as far away from the volcanic vomit as she could, landing her in the aisle but still trapped by her seatbelt. Zoe, who conveniently has a morbid fear of vomit and was sitting right next to Thayer, smashed herself against her window and entered a catatonic state of paralyzing horror. Within seconds, Thayer was extricated from her seatbelt and, still screaming, was passed back to Jeff over the cramped laps like a crowd surfer at a rock concert. Blair was then able to crawl up next to a wailing Schuyler and begin to mop the pools of vomit off of her lap and face, hair, seat, shoes, etc with her bare hands for lack of any other suitable cleaning options. And in the midst of all of this, the teen-aged pilots touched the plane down on the Mala Mala airstrip. Welcome to our safari!!!
Smelly and shell-shocked, we were warmly greeted by our Safari ranger for the week, Jonathan Short, who spent almost every waking minute with us while we experienced Mala Mala. Jonathan piled our luggage into the open-air jeep that was to be our game viewing vehicle. The girls were immediately thrilled by the sense of adventure as we sped away to the lodge and found a shower and some lunch for those who could stomach it.
A TYPICAL DAY ON SAFARI….
We thought it might easiest to first share a sample of a typical day while on safari. You’ll get a sense of the rhythm that we quickly fell into, and the general pace of each day. Photographs and stories of our incredible game viewing will come next, followed by some of our most special moments from the week.
5:30am: We wake and stumble out of bed to meet Jonathan at 6:00am for coffee/hot chocolate and some fruit or muffins. We have our backpacks filled with cameras, binoculars, snacks, water, sunblock, and a warm layer of clothing for the early morning hours. By about 7:30am it will probably be close to 80 degrees, so we won’t be cool for long! Thayer is always the most eager member of the family at this time of day, and often was out the door and meeting up with Jonathan before the rest of us had brushed our teeth. Of course, she probably didn’t bother brushing her teeth, so she did have a head start.
Jonathan greeted us each morning with: “Are you ready to see the BIG FIVE?” This term, “the Big 5,” is a commonly used phrase at safari lodges referring to the five most dangerous animals for humans to hunt: LION, LEOPARD, RHINO, ELEPHANT, and CAPE BUFFALO. Seeing the Big 5 is a goal for all safari-goers, and at Mala Mala we had no problem accomplishing this almost on a daily basis.
When we are all conscious and Blair and Jeff have gulped down enough coffee to enable them to function, we hop in the jeep and off we go!
We spend about three hours in the jeep on the morning game drive. A three-hour drive at home is considered a significant (likely boring) road trip. A three-hour game drive at Mala Mala is more like an amusement park ride combined with the best game of I-Spy we’ve ever played. Jonathan thrilled us with bumpy rides both on and off the roads. Off-roading is an exciting way to track animals in the bush, because these jeeps can literally climb impossibly steep riverbanks, cross through knee-deep waters, and run down trees in order to find the animals. Environmentalists worry not — Jonathan only runs over the trees that pop back up again after a day or two. Here are some photos of life in the safari vehicle throughout the week.
If only our time in the car back at home could be this entertaining!
10:00am: We are back at the Lodge, dusty and exhilarated. Breakfast is served, a huge spread of delicious foods, fruits, pastries, and fresh cold juices. Blair and Jeff load up on the coffee and we all gorge ourselves.
10:30am-1:30pm: Free time! During this three-hour window, we often sleep (napping is essential in the safari schedule), play a game of cards, write in our journals, or look through the photographs from the morning. There is a pool at the Lodge and a small gym, so Blair and Jeff can get some exercise and we can all cool off with a swim. Because there are no fences at the Mala Mala Lodge, elephant and smaller game like gazelle and water buck can roam the grass and wander right up to where we are lounging! We feel as though we are on safari even when hanging out at the homestead.
1:30pm: Lunch time! It’s hard to believe we are eating again, but we have no trouble turning away the amazing lunch spread. After lunch we have a couple more hours of free time before our 4:30 game drive. Again, sleep, swim, games, relaxing…. It’s a pretty awesome existence.
THAYER: I taught Jonathan how to play Spot-It. I could NOT BELIEVE it when he beat me the first time we played. Grown-ups never beat me at Spot-It because my eyes are closer to the cards. Mom told me that Jonathan is 22 years old which does not make him a grown-up at cards, and also he is a safari guide so he is good at spotting things. After I lost the first game, I practiced against Mom and Dad. Then I went back and beat Jonathan before dinner. And again the next day. We laughed a lot when we played together!
4:30pm: Safari time! We meet up with Jonathan for our evening game drive. We are dressed for the heat, but bring extra clothes because we will stay out through sunset and arrive back to the lodge in the dark.
Evening drives are so exciting because you get to see the animals become active again after the heat of the day subsides, as well as the nocturnal animals that we don’t see on the morning drives. Jonathan carries a huge flashlight or “torch” as he calls it, and uses it to sweep the dark bush on either side of the road, encouraging us to look for the red glow of nighttime predators’ eyes.
7:30pm: We arrive back at the camp, shower, and meet Jonathan (and the other guests and rangers) for dinner at about 8:15. Everyone is always tired by this point, and Thayer often falls asleep in Blair’s lap at the table. By 9:30pm we are all ready to crash! It will begin again at 5:30am, so we welcome the moment when our heads hit our pillows.
On any given game drive, we would see phenomenal game, big and small. Indeed, we spotted the Big 5 just about every day between our two drives. Here are some of our favorite shots of leopard, rhino, buffalo, elephant, and lion. Most of the animal photographs you’ll see in this post were taken by Schuyler, who became camera-obsessed (or the “camera hog” depending on who you ask) and, to her credit, took some truly fabulous shots. Because the animals are not the least bit threatened by the game vehicles, they wandered right up and around us as they went about their wild animal business, which made taking pictures even more exciting!
ZOE: The first Leopard we saw was called the Newington Male by the staff and was one of the biggest on the property. We saw him on our very first game drive! He wasn’t active because he hunts at night. We followed him through the bush for a while, taking hundreds of photos. He was absolutely gorgeous.
SCHUYLER: One evening we came across a beautiful female leopard. She was prowling around searching for a hunt. In the distance we saw some impala but they ran away as soon as they saw the leopard. She posed perfectly for the camera and was as quiet as a mouse. All we heard was our own hearts beating as we watched her. It was so incredible. The sunset made the lighting even more delightful!
THAYER: My favorite rhinos were 2 teenaged girls hanging out together. We saw them together a few times over the course of the week. They seemed like best friends!
These huge beasts are rather intimidating when you get up close and personal with them. Their horns spread over their entire foreheads, and when bashed together during fights, can make explosive crashing sounds that are heard for miles.
Far and away Blair’s favorite African animal, we were extremely blessed to have a number of intimate encounters with herds of elephant. Each time we spotted a big herd, Jonathan had an uncanny knack for parking our vehicle in a location that the herd would inevitably walk through as the elephants foraged for food. We would sit, holding our breath, as these majestic creatures wandered by, sometimes almost brushing up against us.
Jeff: It was intimidating to sit in the middle of an elephant herd, to say the least. Never in my life have I felt so small…(no comments please).
We have a favorite elephant encounter to share toward the end of this post, where we’ll show you some additional great photographs of a herd in action.
Over the course of the week, we spent time with three adult lions (2 female, one male) and four sub-adults, or teen-agers (2 female, 2 males). We all found these cats to be even more stunning and majestic in person than we had anticipated. It is truly riveting to watch them interact in their natural habitat.
Here are the teenagers…
ZOE: One evening, the sub-adult lions were looking for food and seemed hungry. There were two buffalo sitting down and one of the lionesses tried to go for them, but she missed. For lions to kill buffalo is one of the hardest things, so she was just practicing. Her siblings didn’t even try to help her, maybe because they knew it was a lost cause. They just watched her try and then miss, almost as if it was amusing to them. It was really cool to see their behavior.
SCHUYLER: We encountered three adult lionesses, and one adult lion during the week. The lionesses stick together, and Jonathan said that one of them had cubs but she had hidden them when we came upon her little pride. Sometimes the Mama lions have to hide their cubs when they need to go hunt. They have to hope that an animal like an elephant, buffalo, or hyena does not find them and kill them (most animals are prey for lions, so they will protect their own by killing lion cubs when they find them).
(Schuyler cont.) We also tracked a big adult male who was the father of the four sub-adults. He was trying to track them down and kill his two sons for less competition over territory when they grow up. We came across this alpha male walking alone down the road. At one point he came right up alongside our jeep. I leaned closer to get a better picture and my heart stopped when the fierce creature paused and stared a hole through my soul with his icy cold blue eyes. I had a perfect shot, but I froze when I came face to face with this creature, worrying that if I broke the silence with a click he would attack me. Jonathan had whispered for us to be still as the lion approached, and I took that advice to heart! It was a frightful (yet exciting) experience.
So there are the Big 5 for you all! Despite the amazing photos, there is really no substitute for seeing these animals in the flesh. We will never forget the adrenaline rush of such personal encounters with some of Africa’s fiercest creatures.
The week at Mala Mala was nothing short of spectacular, in large part because of our safari ranger, Jonathan. An absolute wealth of knowledge about the game reserve, Jonathan filled our days with tidbits and anecdotes about the animals, birds, plants, game tracking, and the history of safari in S. Africa. We all learned so much from him throughout the week!
ZOE: When our guide, Jonathan, drives us through the bush he drives over all kinds of trees and shrubs, which was so surprising at first but he only drives over the ones that pop back up. It was SUCH an adventure to go off roading with him! We drove all over the place, tracking animals. I learned so much about animal behavior. When trying to find predators, we had to watch for signs from other animals like monkeys screeching or zebras running away or baboons barking or impalas snorting their danger calls. It really worked! We also learned how to track animals by looking at their prints in the sand. Male lion tracks are bigger than my hand!
THAYER: One morning, Jonathan took us to a dry river bed and dug a big hole. He explained how when the river is dry, elephants can dig really big holes deep down and find fresh water. We saw a lot of old holes from elephants who had done this all around us. We helped Jonathan dig deep and we found water too! Jonathan showed us how to fill up a water bottle with some of it, and then how to strain it through your shirt to get the mucky stuff out. Then he actually drank it! Our job was to pretend to be thirsty and lost in Africa and find some water for ourselves before we died. I did it! But he didn’t let me actually swallow my water in case I got sick.
ZOE: One time, Jonathan stopped the jeep all of a sudden and climbed on the hood. He pulled something off of a Silver tree, took out his knife, and cut it open. It was an abandoned cocoon for female wasp eggs. He checked inside it to make sure there were no remaining wasps inside, and then carved it for a few minutes. Soon, he was able to blow through it and it was a really loud whistle! Jonathan explained to us that native Africans would use these to communicate from miles apart in the bush. He called it a “whistle of the bush.” It was so cool to try it out!
Jonathan also helped create two of our most special memories from the week. For example, on our evening drives he often treated us to a “sun downer.” He would pull over into some gorgeous setting just before sunset, and then together with the girls would set up a snack table for chips, popcorn, fruit and nuts. Then he taught them how to mix the perfect gin and tonic for Mom and Dad, and let them gorge on juice and lemon sodas while we all watched the sun set in the African bush. Does it get any better?
Another fabulous moment was our surprise “bush breakfast.” During one of our morning game drives, at about 9am, Jonathan pulled into a secluded area on the bank of the river and there we discovered a picnic table and incredible breakfast spread laid out, complete with silverware and china plates! There was an open fire with a grate to cook on and all the ingredients for a gourmet breakfast. Jonathan turned the girls into his mini-chefs and wait staff, and they poured our coffee and took our breakfast orders. Eggs, pancakes, bacon and sausage were all on the menu, and together the four of them cooked over the fire while Jeff and Blair chatted over coffee and a stunning vista.
The breakfast took a turn toward remarkable when we were visited by a herd of over 30 elephant. Here is Zoe’s version of the event:
ZOE: Once we got to have a surprise “bush breakfast” which is where they set a beautiful picnic table for breakfast while out on early morning safari. We had a beautiful view of a river, and toward the end of breakfast (which we cooked over an open flame) about 30+ elephant came out of the bush and down to have a drink. There were so many babies, even on teeny tiny one. It was soooo cool, even a huge male elephant was there. He was at least 4-6 feet higher at the shoulders than all the other grown elephants. We hadn’t seen a big male like that yet, so it was really exciting. All of a sudden, one of the smaller males began chasing a female because he wanted to be her boyfriend. There was a lot of trumpeting and running about. The biggest male started chasing the smaller male, because he had to show that he was the only boyfriend these ladies would ever have. They ran up toward the river bank and out of our line of view, so Jonathan ordered us to quickly get up and get back into the jeep for safety. It was all very exciting and our hearts were pounding. Two feisty males and a panicked female all blindly running toward us was a tricky combination! Luckily the elephants settled down and we breathed a sigh of relief.
IN ADDITION TO THE BIG 5….
Safari is about more than just the Big 5, of course. We saw the most incredible mix of animals throughout our week, and wanted to share some of our favorites with you below.
At night we spotted the crocodiles lurking in the river, and the hippos coming out to feed.
The animal we probably saw the most of was the Impala, a beautiful and graceful antelope that also happens to provide an excellent source of lunch and dinner for the big cats of Mala Mala.
We loved the smallest creatures and the incredible birds we spotted as well.
Dung beetles were probably the girls’ favorite insects.
S and Z: For starters, we think it’s really fun to say the word DUNG when referring to a bug. The Dung Beetle life cycle is as follows: The male beetle need to find a lady. He spends a great deal of time collecting dung, and building the largest, mosts spectacular dung ball known to beetle-kind. Because of the impressive size of his ball, the male beetle gets his girl. They do their special dance, and then the female hitches a ride on top of the wonderful dung ball while the male turns upside down and pedals it with his hind legs while standing on his hands. What a guy! Once the male finds a good spot, his lady lays their eggs inside the dung ball.
Many people go on safari just to see the birdlife. We learned a great deal about all of the winged wildlife that we spotted. Here are a few of our faves…
SCHUYLER: One night, in the pitch dark, we saw the most extraordinary bird thanks to Jonathan’s torch. it was so rare! The last time Jonathan had seen it was last year. Another ranger has worked at Mala Mala for 5 years and has never seen one! The bird we saw is called the Pennant-Winged Night Jowler. It is a beautiful black and white bird that has long tassels at the end of its wings. It looked like a giant butterfly! The best part is that we saw two of them in the same night. It was a miracle, and by far one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. I’m sorry we couldn’t take a photo, but it flew quickly in the dark night. Try google!
And finally, a few scenic shots to end on. The landscape is breathtaking at all hours of the day.
When it came time to say goodbye to Mala Mala, not one of us was ready. We will never forget our time with Jonathan, and the days and nights in the African bush. If there is ever something to splurge on in your lifetime, it is an African safari!
We took that small plane again, this time dosing our sensitive stomachs with Dramamine, and flew off with one last look below at the impala grazing near the airstrip.
It was a long day/night of travel from Mala Mala, through Johannesburg, and then on to Sydney, Australia on a 12 hour long-haul flight. The light at the end of the tunnel was Blair’s parents, Lee and Jon (or Mumsy and Pops), waiting for us when we arrived down under.
Farewell Big 5…. Hello to the land of Kangaroos and Koalas!
See you soon in AUSTRALIA! xo