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Mala Mala Game Reserve

October 28, 2011 1 comment

Upon my arrival at Mala Mala my bags were transferred to my room, I was offered a drink, my car was parked for me and I was given a quick tour of the grounds.  Within five minutes I had been loaded into a land rover and taken out into Mala Mala game reserve to meet my ranger and group for my stay there.  Within five minutes of driving I had caught my first sight of a lion and a herd of elephants, two of the “big five”.  The four game drives were filled with one highlight after another and almost constant sightings of game.  
The hotel is a throwback to the days of big game hunting safari’s, complete with a well stocked bar, animal skins and heads adorning the walls of the lodge and very personal service.  Today, of course, animals are only being shot with cameras, not guns, but the experience remains very personal and very thorough.  My ranger was knowledgeable and helpful, playing the role of game guide and tracker when on our drives and the role of personal butler at the lodge.  The service was actually a bit much at times, almost going over the top, especially for a more independent traveller like myself.  He did, however, insure that my stay was comfortable and very memorable.


The main feature of Mala Mala is not the hotel but instead the game drives.  That said, the hotel was very, very nice.  I had a private lodge, complete with three full bathrooms, a sitting room, patio overlooking the watering hole and a very comfortable bed.  Way more space than I needed as a solo traveler.  A number of the other lodges in the area offer much more modern and luxurious surroundings, but after experiencing Mala Mala they are just not worth it.  For me, you are on safari to see the wildlife.  The difference between a very nice hotel with great game sighting opportunities and a ultra-luxurious hotel with so-so game sighting opportunities is just not worth it.  I will take the game drives every time.

In addition to very comfortable rooms, there was a pool to lounge at during the day, complete with workout and massage facilities.  The dining area served some fantastic meals and was a throwback to yesteryear.  There were numerous eating areas that allowed us to have some variety in where we ate.  The patio overlooking the river was my favorite, though the “boma” was a taste of “traditional” dining in Africa.  In the boma, tables were set around a fire, allowing us to eat under the stars.  The food was delicious at every meal and was a great addition to the safari experience.  Instead of trying to justify the luxury experience with pretentious food, they instead focused on well done, home style meals with great ingredients.  
The hotel provided an experience that was exactly what I imagined a luxury safari would be.  While not cheap, I would recommend Mala Mala to anyone that was going to the greater Kruger National Park area on safari.  I am sure there are other great options available, but Mala Mala provided a top notch experience from the room, meals and service to an exceptional experience on the game drives.

My South African Arrival

After a much longer than anticipated stay in Hong Kong I finally arrived in South Africa. The wait in Hong Kong for a standby seat was nerve racking, but paid off with a middle seat in economy. It was far from comfortable, but it got me to South Africa which is all that mattered. Cathay Pacific’s customer service was incredible and has earned them a customer in the future. That said, their hard product left a lot to be desired. They have seats that, instead of reclining they slide forward, stealing your own leg room (instead of the person behind you). At the end of the day this is more courteous, but I didn’t find it very comfortable, though, I was able to get at least a few hours of sleep in the plane.

Upon arrival in Johannesburg I took care of travel necessities; picking up baggage, changing money, buying a SIM card for my phone and finally making my way to pick up my rental car. I had emailed my Dad while boarding (I found out I had a seat pretty much as boarding began and still had to make my way from check-in, through immigration and to the gate) to change my car reservation in Jo’burg. I did all of the paperwork and made my way to the car to load up my bags. When I got in to the car, I realized it was a manual transmission car.

I realize that 95% of all drivers in the world know how to drive a manual, unfortunately, I am not one of them. I unloaded everything, went back down to the office only to find out that even though I had reserved an automatic, they had none in stock. After checking the other companies, no one else did either so it was back to my original Kia for a quick lesson.

I got my car started (after a few tries) and made my way very slowly out of the ramp. I coasted downhill from the parking garage only to be greeted by a steep hill out. I made it half way up before stalling. This led to me spending the next 20 minutes (plus) embarrassingly trying to restart my car on an incline. After having absolutely zero luck, a worker on their way into the garage finally came by. They offered to drive me up the hill and left me to my own devices to get myself the 6 hours across South Africa to my safari near Kruger National Park. I headed out, only to realize after 45 minutes that I did not have a map and had been going the wrong direction. I got a map, turned myself around and restarted myself towards Kruger. I kind of, sort of, eventually got the hang of driving a manual, though I am still far from good at it. I don’t think I was successfully able to stop the entire journey without stalling it at least once. The drive took place through the mountains and I was terrified of stopping at another incline. Stops for food and gas were carefully chosen to allow for a flat restart and I did eventually make my way to the game park. I was feeling good, however, an hour after arriving in Sabi Sands I still had not made it to Mala Mala game lodge, lost on very undulating dirt roads trying to find my home for the next two days. Fortunately, I was passed by a Mala Mala land rover who I could follow to the lodge. Laughs were shared by all (myself included) at my ordeal in arriving.

I have always wanted to learn how to drive a manual. While necessity makes for fast learning, it was not quite the relaxing trip through the beautiful Lebombo Mountains that I had been looking forward to. Even after getting back in an automatic in Cape Town, I could still feel myself tensing up when coming to a stop, especially if it was on an incline.

I was thrilled to arrive at the lodge where I was quickly whisked to my room and then taken out for the first of four game drives I had while staying there. This marked the end of the comedy of errors and the beginning of the events and experiences that made this one of the best trips of my life.

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