Adventures in Africa

Track endangered wild dogs and elusive leopards by day and retreat to room service,fine champagne, and luxurious linens by night at Rattray’s Camp on the private Mala Mala Game Reserve.

A lion cub’s first “roar”.

The sun was high in the south African sky as our plane descended through the low-lying cloud. An endless carpet of rust-colored dirt, covered with thick brush and tall, leafless trees, stretched to the horizon in all directions. The terrain was not particularly exotic; we could have been landing in South Texas, except for the occasional clusters of elephants, giraffe, and hippos that popped into view.

We banked over a cluster of buildings lining the Sand River and landed on a rugged airstrip in the Mala Mala Game Reserve. A blast of cool, mid-winter air brushed our faces. Vibrant shades of violet, neon blue, and lime green exploded as a lilacbreasted roller took flight from a tree limb just above our heads. For the next four days, we would live as wild as the animals that inhabit this unique 40,000-acre property. The rules that apply to national parks, like the adjacent Kruger National, don’t apply to the privately owned Mala Mala. Here vehicles traverse off road and don’t have to be back in camp by dark.

Mala Mala shares 20 miles of open boundary with Kruger, allowing animals unimpeded access to roam more than 12 million acres of pristine conservation wilderness. The only other humans are your neighbors at the post, Rattray’s Camp. Here, you are truly out of it in Africa. A lion’s roar in the distance lulls you to sleep; the clamorous call of the crested francolin alerts you to a new day.

If you have always dreamed of taking an African safari, I’ve found the perfect place for your virgin visit, and I don’t type those words lightly. Before I experienced Mala Mala, I’d traveled extensively in Africa, and I’d become quite persnickety about my destinations.

I’m not easily impressed by lions or mating zebras. My previous seven adventures had yielded plenty of spell-binding moments. In the early ’90s, I traveled through burgeoning civil war in Rwanda to hike the Virunga Mountains and view mountain gorillas. Several times in the past 20 years, I have traversed the Great Rift Valley in Kenya surrounded by the huge animal migrations across the Maasai Mara. I’ve explored Tanzania’s great Ngorongoro Crater, and I’ve caught an elusive tiger fish on the upper Zambezi River. I’ve also hidden pre-dawn in duck blinds to watch more than 350 crested cranes land over my head to feed in a cornfield in Zimbabwe.

Interior of a thatched-roof suite at Rattray’s Camp.

There is no place in the world that excites me the way Africa does. For once you enter the bush, you live solely in the moment: the sun and stars become your clock, random footprints in the sand dictate your day’s accomplishments, and sundown becomes a time to worship.

As I approached Rattray’s Camp on the Mala Mala, I was skeptical. For starters, the camp was a luxurious retreat. There were no gas lamps or tents, my usual mode of lodging. Instead I found eight, freestanding thatched-roof khayas, with heated wooden floors, his-and-hers en suite bathrooms, king-size beds, and room service. As I looked around, the cush in the bush worsened. There was air conditioning, a heated plunge pool on the veranda, and, horror of all horrors, a laptop with Internet access and a TV if you asked for them. Out of Africa’s Karen Blixen wouldn’t be caught dead in this place.

As I stood behind the glass doors of the suite overlooking the Sand River, I wondered what could possibly be out there that would capture my spirit for Africa.

Will Taylor and Brandy Carlson traverse the Sand River.

Four days later, I emerged a convert. The game viewing, particularly leopard and wild dog, was astonishing. How many times have you hunted alongside lions, listening to the “bark” of the hunted impala warning the rest of the herd to keep ahead of their killers? Would you like to sit at the base of a giant leadwood tree with a group of hopeful spotted hyenas and watch a female leopard chew on her kill? Perhaps you’d be happy to sip a cuppa tea and gaze upon a herd of grazing Cape buffalo a hundred yards from your room?

If you have a will, I have a way. His name is Will Taylor.

Originally born on a ranch outside of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, Will now resides in Dallas. His international production company, Panthera Productions, makes wildlife films for National Geographic and the Discovery Channel. His sister company, African Experience (www.africanexperience.com), customizes high-end safaris, mostly by word of mouth.

Will is not your average bush boy done good. After doing anti-poaching work in Zimbabwe, he graduated from Natal University in Pietermaritzburg with a degree in zoology. He was the first post-graduate student to receive a Beit Scholarship in the life sciences, the Zimbabwean equivalent of a Rhodes scholarship. Will was actively involved in conservation, raising funds for black rhino research and lecturing at the university when the wild came calling. Before he knew it, he was the senior ranger at Mala Mala Game Reserve, squiring dignitaries and celebrities. The fireside chats he shared with Margaret Thatcher and F.W. de Klerk, the South African president who engineered the end of apartheid, are book-worthy.

The Sand River runs through Mala Mala.

 

At his office in Travis Walk, I asked Will to design a safari for me. By the time we finished, I’d talked him and his girlfriend, Brandy Carlson, director of Reflection Fine Art Gallery in Uptown, into joining me and a friend on the first part of our three-week journey. A month later, the four of us were sitting on a zebra-skin rug in front of the fireplace at Rattray’s, toasting newfound friendship and adventures to come. And brother, they came.

About 4 pm, we were introduced to our bronzed, khakiclad ranger, Wade, and Moxy, our tracker. As we set out on our first game drive, it didn’t take long to realize that the real beauty of Mala Mala lies in the diversity of its habitats. There is plenty of open savannah for grazers such as impala, cheetah, and rhino. The riverine forest and drainage paths provide shade and cover for lions and leopard to hunt and hide. Giant granite outcroppings make excellent homes and hangouts for African pythons, hyraxes, and plated lizards, as well as wonderful lookout posts for tourists. The Sand River, the spine of the Mala Mala reserve, is brimming with hippos and crocodiles, and it’s an endless source for waterdependent animals like buffalo and elephants. Flying over it all are close to 1,000 species of birds.

A rare sighting of wild dog pups “denning” near camp.

Just outside the gate, we encountered the first 20 of the thousands of impala that lay in wait for us. A herd of nyla grazed on fallen leaves nearby. Glossy starlings screeched from the bare marula trees, and the ubiquitous gray lourie’s “go away” call, a signature tune in the bush, signaled our presence to the rest of her flock. We almost missed a small herd of shy and elusive duiker hiding in the dense brush. And we had to stop as a herd of 12- to 18-foot giraffes with four young calves loped across the road.

The large animals weren’t the only sights vying for our attention. Grasses, birds, and butterflies, backlit by the royal blue sky, popped through the bare tree branches like colorful Christmas decorations. And the trees—towering leadwood, thorny acacia, and magnificent ebony—stood leafless, their long limbs waving in the breeze like characters from the pages of a Dr. Seuss book.

Along the way, Will, happy to be back on his home turf in the bush, taught us how to decipher the age of a track as well as the type of animal, its age and sex, and whether or not it was hunting or carrying prey. Fresh dung became a welcome sight and proved to be a trusty road map.

As the light fell, the sky turned shades of lavender, pink, and amber, and the flat-topped acacia were etched in silhouette against the setting sun. We stopped beside a small pond for our daily sundowners and stepped out of the Land Rover to stretch our legs and watch the hippos watch us. Moxy and Wade set up a makeshift bar of the front of the vehicle, serving white wine chilled in a silver bucket, scotch, beer, and appetizers like venison kabobs, bite-size sausage, and cheese bits. The hippos snorted and grunted like battling underwater bassoons.

As soon a the sun dipped below the horizon, the Milky Way and the Southern Cross lit up the sky, and the sounds switched to the calls of the night: a hooting barred owl, croaking frogs, and ellies trumpeting in the distance. We climbed back into the Land Rover for a night safari. Moxy pointed a high-powered light beam along the ground and through the trees, looking for eye reflections as we whizzed down the sandy road. Then and only then could you see the creatures of the night, like cute little bush babies clinging to a tree trunk, exotic servile or genet cats walking in the tall grass or, in our case, lions setting out to hunt.

We were almost back to camp when our light revealed the heads of two female lions to our right. For the next hour we stayed by their sides, even if it meant driving the Land Rover through thick brush. From time to time they’d stop, sniff the air, and look at each other. We were so close we could hear their muted growls. Up ahead, a male impala “barked” to his herd and the lionesses as if to say, “We know you’re there.” The jig was up for the lionesses. They sat down to ponder their next plan. For them, the night was young. But we were late for dinner.

A female leopard rests in tall grass.

Evening meals at Rattray’s take place in the boma, an outdoor room enclosed by high bamboo and heated by a roaring campfire. A local staff serves the food—a combination of British, African, and American dishes—and, when the plates are cleared, they sing traditional African songs of the Shangaan tribe. This night, over grilled eland, we made friends with fellow guests and swapped stories of the day’s game drive. One group spent the late afternoon watching leopards mate; another found a den of wild dogs and their pups. The rangers exchanged locations and set our goals for the next day. Back in our khaya, we found hot water bottles warming our sheets. This luxury thing was growing on me.

By 7 am, we were off to find the wild dogs and their pups—a very rare sighting, as it has been more than a decade since wild dogs have denned on Mala Mala. Wade took a sharp right on the road, then veered off into a thicket, slowing to a crawl as thorny branches bent to the weight of the Land Rover. There, in a small clearing, sat two curious little puppies, their wobbly heads somewhat erect, their eyes open wide. Once we were still, they returned to their raucous play fighting. Another appeared from a hole in the 10-foot termite mound their parents had chosen for a home. By the time the last tail cleared the hole, we counted nine pups.

Up above lurked two huge hooded vultures, waiting to swoop in and grab the bones left over from the dogs’ dinner the night before. Suddenly a female dog appeared. The puppies ran to greet her, and, like baby birds, thrust open their mouths to receive the regurgitated kill.

Then came the radio call. One of the other vehicles had spotted a dead impala hanging in a tree, which meant a leopard couldn’t be too far away. We bid farewell to the dogs and headed off to find the cat, stopping only to view a shy white rhino running through the thicket.

Will spotted the dangling impala legs first. We approached the tree to find a frustrated spotted hyena sitting at the base, gazing hungrily at the dead impala, with no leopard in sight. Bored, the hyena headed back into the bush. We sat in silence. A Bateleur eagle soared upward on the thermals overhead; a herd of Cape buffalo gnawed grass in the field to our left. The alarm call from a vervet monkey set off a cacophony of cries among the troop, a sure sign that there was danger lurking on the ground.

Within seconds, we spied the unmistakable black and brown spots moving through a thin row of tall grass. The leopard leaped from the ground to the tree, rearranged her kill, and landed lithely on the limb above her dinner for a long afternoon nap. Which sounded like a great idea to us, because most of the action in the bush takes place in the early mornings and late afternoons. We returned to camp for lunch overlooking the Sand River and the sleeping hippos on the far shore.

After tea and cake on the main veranda, we set out for an afternoon drive along the river to bird-watch before returning to the leopard. Instead we spied a breeding herd of ellies taking a late-afternoon sand bath just above the river reed beds. The matriarch dipped her trunk in the sand and snorted a little before swinging her trunk over her head and blowing the sand across her back. Two youngsters 20 yards away stopped their playing and followed suit.

There was still no sign of the leopard at sundown, so we visited one of Will’s favorite spots—a high meadow overlooking the vast plains of Mala Mala, with the peaks of the Drakensberg mountain range in the distance—for evening cocktails. As Wade drained the last drop of Klein Constantia Sauvignon Blanc in our glasses, we decided to give the leopard another chance. Our animal instincts were right on.

Veranda of suite at Rattray’s Camp.

Chances are you remember the first time you ever gazed upon a live leopard. Whether at the zoo or in a tree beside your vehicle, you’re mesmerized by this secretive cat’s athletic body, graceful moves, and the sheer size of its paws and claws. But for us, it was the sound. The leopard we’d left earlier was now gnawing on the dead impala’s hip joint, the bones cracking under the pressure of the cat’s grip. Bloody tendons hung like streamers, and portions of red impala meat clung precariously to what was left of the bone. By this time it was pitch-dark, so this live-action feast was illuminated only by the reflection from a spotlight aimed at the base of the tree where, on the ground just 20 yards away, the leopard’s cub noshed contentedly on a meaty bone. The frustrated spotted hyena had also returned, looking up, wishing it could climb. She circled the tree a few times, howling her giggly call, which signals submissiveness at a kill, only to leave again emptyhanded.

“Stations, I have a pack of madash on first turning Styx mobile in a westerly direction toward River Road,” said the ranger over the scratchy radio. “They are moving quickly and hunting impala. Best approach right now would be Dudley Lookout. Over.”

We looked to Will for translation. “There is a pack of wild dogs hunting,” he said. “Let’s get it.”

As Wade hit the accelerator, we got ready for the one of the rarest sights in the bush: wild dogs, one of the most endangered carnivores in Africa, on a hunt.

It was a long, bumpy ride from our cushy digs and warm beds at Rattray’s, and we bundled up to protect our faces from the unrelenting winter air. We flew past spectacular sights that normally would have demanded our full attention. Kudu leapt from our path; warthogs raised their tails in alarm and ran frantically in all directions.

Wade left the road and cut through a brambly field populated with a mixed herd of zebra, wildebeest, baboon, and giraffe. He had one hand on the steering wheel; the other held the radio speaker to his mouth. We were closing in on the pack.

Rounding a sharp turn, we almost ran over a lone leopard walking down the center of the road. But there was no time to stop. Two minutes later we saw them, their large round black and brown spotted ears moving through the wheatcolored grass.

We stopped as the six adults entered the road, grouping for another hunt. They circled and sniffed each other, their hot breath billowing in the cold like small clouds of smoke. Occasionally the sun glinted off the dilated pupils of the dedicated killers. They were hungry.

A little before 7 am, one of the dogs took off down the road, and the others filed behind. Wade started the Land Rover and pulled alongside them as they moved swiftly down the trail. Unfazed by our vehicles, not one dog flinched or broke concentration. To them, we were just some animal they had no use for.

For the next hour and a half, we crisscrossed a huge tract of land. The dogs moved fast, only stopping to check out potential meals from a herd of impala or a family of warthogs. Occasionally they lost us in the thick bush, but with the help of radio exchanges of rangers in two other vehicles, we kept them loosely in range.

Eventually we hit the banks of the Sand River, and the dogs crossed the road and disappeared into the tall reeds—impossible terrain to tackle even in a Land Rover. We could only sit and watch the reed tops sway as the dogs moved west.

Undaunted, we drove alongside the river in the same direction and checked in with the other rangers. Fortunately, one ranger followed the alarm call of a troop of baboons and found the kill. The dogs had downed a bush buck.

In the short time it took us to reach them, the dogs had almost devoured their prey. Two played tug of war over what was left of the head, while another had pulled over a leg to the edge of the circle they’d created in the crushed reeds. A male stood on the bank panting, his face, breast, and front legs covered in blood. It was only 8:30 in the morning, the winter sun warming our backs as we watched in awe.

Half an hour later, the bush buck was gone, and the dogs’ bellies were swollen from the feast. As they picked a spot to relax and savor their victory, I sat back to savor mine. Rattray’s Camp had won me over. The game viewing had more than exceeded my expectations, and I had grown quite accustomed to the heated floors in my khaya.

Just days before, I had thumbed my nose at the decadent high life offered at Rattray’s. Now, I had come full circle mentally and physically—after a three-and-a-half-hour wildlife adventure deep in the bush, I found myself sitting with a pack of bloody wild dogs not 50 yards from the pool man cleaning the private pool on my veranda.

It is now my new Out of Africa tale. One that even my heroine, Karen Blixen, wouldn’t mind hearing.

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