Hair, There and Everywhere

Seeking a bald man in a nature reserve is like hunting a black cat in a coal cellar, as Chris Harvie discovers

They told us that Eric was in charge.

Nobody seemed clear whether he was French or Italian but they all agreed that he was bald and we’d never find him in the 2100 square kilometre Gili Reserve. Never. So we’d better not get stuck.

The Mozambique rain was coming down in sheets but the road should be fine, they said, even after all the cyclones. Bob went through three times a week, they said, although no one seemed quite clear exactly who Bob was …

The wind lashed through the trees and the downpour grew in vigour. Trees crashed to the ground around us.

Passing mysterious villages, fording raging torrents and balancing on precarious beam bridges, we asked the locals for directions. Gili? Gili?

They looked completely bemused and pointed randomly. The road fizzled out and we slurped through a rank gassy marsh, where, in the nick of time, the lost GPS suddenly focused and tracked down a road. We followed it.

A gate and three men, rolling with laughter in Portuguese. We were funny.

Entrar” we said. “Traversar to Alto Molòcué?” We have little Portuguese.

It was obvious we were a rarity. The previous vehicle had entered three weeks earlier. Maybe it had never come out. Four other names appeared in the interim. Mode of Transport: Velopede. Bicycle. Reason for entering: Visitar a familia.

No tourists. No sign of Eric, either. Or Bob, for that matter.

We signed in. The senior ranger wrote a note for the exit gate-guard. It appeared to say:

THESE TWO PRIESTS ARE LOST. WE DO NOT KNOW WHAT TO DO WITH THEM. PLEASE LET THEM OUT IF THEY REACH YOU, WHICH THEY PROBABLY WON’T. OBRIGADO.

We don’t know why they thought we were priests. My balding pate, maybe?

The pole raised; we splashed onwards. A red duiker ducked. Shrikes shrieked in the branches. Baboons bobbed about in the blustery bush.

Smashed trees lay all around us. We manoeuvred around them, avoiding any lingering land mines and, six bone-rattling and confused hours later, emerged from a river to find the muddy track blocked by a vast brachstyegia. No way around.

A bakkie screamed up. Six men in green fatigues. Five armed with AK47s, one with a chain saw. The five surrounded us. One set about the tree.

The driver jumped out into the deluge. A bald man. A priest maybe, with an armed escort? No, wait … Eric?

And elusive Eric it was, contrary to all predictions. Impressed by our fortitude he wished us luck en route to the gate we’d probably never reach where four equally astonished faces let us out to continue the final 300-kilometre vehicle-scrunching journey.

Passing drenched missions and cathedrals, we slid up onto the teabush-dressed mountains of Guruè, where we stopped for the night at the only accommodation in town, the Catholic Mission.

The rain stopped momentarily and the greeting was curt. A bald man. A priest, presumably. We could stay. Pay the missionary in the morning. He would also be a bald man, we thought.

It rained all night but the clouds cleared at dawn. We met the bald man from the night before. He cheerfully offered us coffee, dates and pistachio sweetcakes for breakfast. He was a road-builder from Jordan. A Muslim.

He was no more a priest than we were. Or Eric. We didn’t know about Bob, of course. And perversely the mission priest, when we met him, wasn’t bald at all.

On the road, things are never quite as they seem. Not everyone who looks like a priest turns out to be one.

But everything’s certainly a bit of a mission.

Predators on Parade

Seeing the Big Five at MalaMala, the prince of game parks, is all but guaranteed, writes Chris Harvie

There are game reserves and game reserves but MalaMala is in a class of its own. Founded in 1964 by its current owners, the reserve proudly and justifiably boasts having the best Big Five game-viewing in the world. But is it all about the Big Five?

Well, at MalaMala, yes it is. So if you are a birder, a mongoose fancier or a pangolin addict, it’s not for you unless you take a private vehicle. If, however, you want unparalleled lion, leopard and elephant viewing, then it’s right up your 4×4 track.

I had been before, more than 20 years ago, and the best compliment I can pay to owners Mike and Norma Rattray is that it hasn’t changed a bit. It has obviously been painted, they have bought new beds, the cushions have been reupholstered and so on, but the fundamental feel is just the same.

They haven’t gone berserk with interior designers; there’s no faux fur, no zebra stripes, no smelly candles. MalaMala has remained steadfastly what it always was. A hunting concession turned game reserve with a family history of excellence and hospitality.

We saw a leopard on the drive in. A bulky male hulked across the road just in front of our car and settled right on the roadside, yellow eyes fixed on us, unstressed and in control. The game in the Sabi Sand Wildtuin, whilst not in any way tame, is somewhat habituated, meaning that you can stare at a big cat from a Land Rover and he’ll stare back disinterestedly. But get out of the vehicle and he’ll probably tear you limb from limb.

Yuri de Villiers was our ranger although a MalaMala ranger is more than a guide, he is your host. He joins you for meals; he is at your beck and call all day. It used to be claimed that MalaMala rangers even went to the loo with you, although luckily Yuri didn’t try that.

He showed us to our rooms, which turned out to have not one loo but two. All MalaMala’s rooms have two bathrooms. It’s such a good idea not to have to fight for the first (or maybe better, second) wash at 5.30 in the morning before the 6am game drive. Everything they do is a good idea. The rooms are spacious but not huge, sensibly furnished but not over-luxurious, stylish yet simple.

Lunch is taken at separate tables on a huge deck overlooking the Sand River, where elephants wander unperturbed amongst the reeds in a cacophony of birdsong. The camp is not fenced and Yuri had some fascinating tales arising from the need to lure leopards away from kills made outside guest rooms. Thrilling stuff indeed.

Our afternoon drive saw us in and out of a herd of hyperactive elephants before heading for the dry riverbed, where a pride of nine lion had been relaxing during the day. They obliged us by taking a hike along the sandy bed just as the sun went down. The females fanned out to surround a herd of impala in what the Zulus would term ‘horns of the buffalo’ formation but somehow managed to miss, even as the impala hurtled straight towards them at high speed. Our hunger matched theirs, therefore, as we headed back to camp.

Dinner is served around a blazing fire in a reed boma under a huge Jackalberry tree. It’s a four-course affair with a choice of delicious soups and starters before a trip to the buffet. I hate bomas as a rule, but this one is big enough to have character. The food is also unusually good and obviously hasn’t been stewing in its own juices on a braai for hours.

The morning drive yielded more elephant, two male lions, a rhino with playful calf and twenty minutes winding our way through a herd of 300 buffalo. As one does. Before breakfast.

As I say, it is all about the Big Five. Luckily we’d seen a leopard on our own on the way in, as Yuri hadn’t shown us one, but he did say that we were only the second group in his more than a year and a half at the camp who hadn’t seen the Big Five with him and admittedly, we were only there for one night, where most guests stay two or three. This is, after all, the area with the highest concentration of leopards anywhere in the world.

You receive a certificate on leaving if you see the Big Five at MalaMala. So that’s almost everyone. I now have two certificates. CHRISTOPHER HARVIE HAS SUCCESSFULLY TRACKED DOWN THE BIG FIVE AT MALAMALA.

Admittedly, apart from my face-saver leopard, I didn’t exactly track them down myself but that’s not the point.

The point is that one certificate is dated 10 October 1991 and the other 23 April 2012. And between those dates, MalaMala has continued a standard of excellence to which newcomers on the block can only begin to aspire and, in many cases, at a considerably lower cost.

 

About MalaMala

MalaMala Game Reserve, Sabi Sand Wildtuin, Mpumalanga. Telephone: 011 442 2267 or 0861 SAFARI. Reservations: reservations@malamala.com Website: www.malamala.com

Main Camp has 18 rooms and its satellite Sable Camp has 7 suites, all stretching along the riverbank under shady trees. Rattrays, as the eponymous Mike Rattray is careful to point out, is not in colonial style but in classic South African style and has 8 khayas.

Rates are quoted in US dollars but start at approx. R5200 per person per night including full board and all game activities.