MalaMala and Mashatu Photo Safari: A Guest’s Perspective

“This is my last Africa trip”, I said to myself after booking this photographic journey nearly four years ago in December 2018. Africa gets in your soul, and I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have traveled to this magical continent 12 times since my first trip in 2006. No matter how hard I try to visit new places, Africa always calls me back. While I’ve done other Wild Eye trips (Svalbard and the Great Bear Rainforest), I had never been to Africa with Wild Eye. I knew what to expect as far as quality of service but had no idea what to expect as far as accommodation, a smaller group size than the boat-based expeditions I had previously done, or even shooting out in the field— I had never photographed from a hide and had never photographed wildlife at night.

Wild Eye’s service starts from the moment you book until you return home. Booking four years ago meant hiccups with Covid postponements but the Wild Eye staff did everything they could to accommodate my mom and I during those trying times. When we finally met Andrew for the first time in Johannesburg (after lots of Zoom sessions with him spent answering questions and preparing us for the trip), I knew we’d be in good hands. Our safari started in Mashatu. I had been to Botswana before, but not to Mashatu Lodge. I was blown away by our experience here. For starters, the lodge itself is stunning. The rooms are spacious (ours even had two bathrooms), the main area overlooked a waterhole and the pool, and dinners in the candle lit boma with the fire to keep us warm are something I’ll remember forever. The staff went above and beyond to ensure everyone was comfortable and enjoying themselves— the type of hospitality you often find in Africa.

Now, to the wildlife. Nothing could’ve prepared me for the interactions we had at Mashatu, and I’m still mentally processing everything we saw during our time there. While we had so many “highlights”, the obvious highlight for me was seeing a leopard. That might seem basic (especially for someone like myself who has been to Africa so often) but before this trip I had been cursed with leopard sightings, or lack thereof. I had never photographed one during the daylight and yearned for that classic leopard headshot. Needless to say, I got all that and more. We saw a leopard kill an impala right next to our vehicle in broad daylight, a leopard cub with its mom, another leopard stalking impala during the daytime and using a safari car as cover, a male leopard feasting on an impala in a tree, and even a leopard fishing… yes, fishing. He’d use his paws to turn over rocks and would pounce on catfish. He caught one, dragging it up the steep riverbank, before returning to catch another. He hasn’t quite killed the first one and it flopped back down into the river, landing first on the leopard’s head! The whole encounter was comical to watch and if I hadn’t witnessed this myself, I would’ve never believed it— not even our guides had seen this type of behavior before! We also spent a decent amount of time with lionesses and their cubs as well as six cheetahs with a kill. We watched as the cheetahs ate, jackals on high alert nearby. Some of the cheetah cubs would chase the jackals in circles before eventually abandoning their kill at sunset.

One of the most unique experiences for me personally, however, was Mashatu’s photo hide. Seating just 8 guests in a sunken bunker eye-level with a man-made waterhole, we spent one morning session and one afternoon session at the photo hide. We saw a variety of wildlife here including a huge herd of guineafowl, various bird species, numerous herds of elephants, impala, kudus, warthogs, and more. You don’t need to worry about bringing bean bags, swivels, or phone tripods— all of that is provided in the hide! Unlike other hides, there is no glass barrier making for a very intimate experience. It’s moments like these where it’s crucial to put your camera down and just enjoy the experience— take the time to close your eyes and listen to the elephants. Take an iPhone video. Do a timelapse. Don’t do anything— just watch. While I’m very happy with the images I took while in the hide, it’s the videos that bring me back to how I felt in the moment.

After 4 wonderful nights in Mashatu, we headed to MalaMala (South Africa). With extensive Sand River access, this is a premier location for photography especially during the dry season when wildlife gathers at the last remaining water sources. MalaMala was a slightly slower pace—animals here required tracking. When we successfully tracked animals, the sightings we had were unbelievable for the inter species interactions we saw. On our first morning, we heard bone crunching. We stopped to listen, off-roaded into the bush, and saw a spotted hyena. We tried to follow it but then lost it. We cut back over to one of the main roads, where our ranger spotted a drag mark in the road. As he stopped to look at the tracks, I looked to my right and spotted a lioness at the base of the tree. As we turned off-road once again, we could see that the Marthly lioness was chewing part of a male impala… with the Island female leopard up in the tree above her eating from the same kill! This sighting was so close to camp that, as the sun rose, you could literally see the camp directly behind the tree on the other side of the river. We watched this amazing interaction for quite some time. When we got there, it was just the two cats. Eventually, we looked to the left and saw a hyena trying to cross the river. When it did, it inched closer and closer to the tree. It had a staring contest with the lioness and decided to walk away. The lioness then got brave and decided to climb the tree to try to get more of the impala kill since there was just a leg on the ground. Now, there was a lion and a leopard in the same tree!! The leopard was quicker than her, though, and dragged the kill high up in the tree. The lioness went up about halfway before climbing down the tree and aborting the mission altogether. As soon as she walked away from the tree, the hyena came in, glanced around, and ran past the left side of the safari car carrying the remainder of the impala leg. This interaction was exciting to watch and was perhaps one of my favorite moments on the whole trip.

Another highlight species was the various lions we saw. One afternoon, we came across sleeping lions. Shortly after pulling up to the sighting, an elephant in musth came trumpeting along, sending the lions running in all directions! We were also fortunate to photograph lions at night—multiple times. Using spotlights from other cars, Andrew and our ranger worked together to position our vehicle for fabulous nighttime photos. Andrew constantly reminded me of the starting settings, as I was new to night photography, which was much appreciated, and I got a few images that I’m really happy with!

On our last morning, we came across a leopard’s kill shortly after leaving camp at 6a.m. We saw the Three Rivers female nearby with her approximately eight-month-old male cub. The cub came right next to the vehicle, staring at us curiously. When I say right next to the vehicle, I’m not exaggerating— I couldn’t even get an angle to take a photo! We watched as they groomed one another and as the cub tried to play with mom who was just not having it that morning. The cub climbed the tree to nibble on some impala, leaving mom at the base of the tree. We knew it was unlikely that both leopards would go into the tree at once, so we sat and waited. A hyena came and circled the tree, at which point the leopardess stood on a fallen tree nearby and snarled at it.  Cubs are often clumsy and drop part, or all, of the kill from the tree so it was likely that the hyena was waiting for something to fall. Mom remained nearby, as leopards will often do, in case she had to quickly pick up the dropped kill and hoist it back up the tree. We left them to enjoy their meal after an incredible start to the morning and shortly after, headed back to camp for our last brunch.

I mentioned some of the many highlights, but if you’ve never done a Wild Eye safari, you might be wondering: what is the schedule while out on safari? There’s no set answer— this is Africa, after all! We typically had 5:30a.m. wake up calls and we’d be loaded onto the vehicles by 6am. We’d head out for the morning, typically stopping for some boiled eggs, muffins, rusks, tea, coffee, and hot chocolate around 9-9:30a.m. depending on the sightings of the day. We’d then continue our drive, arriving back to the lodge usually between 10:30a.m. to noon. We’d have brunch (occasionally lunch options were available, but more often than not it’s more breakfast foods), break out into 40-60 minute one on one editing sessions with Andrew, and typically go out on our afternoon drive around 3p.m. arriving back at the lodge by 7p.m. followed by dinner. Of course, this all depends on what you’re seeing in the field, so times fluctuate accordingly. Both locations were great for different reasons but one thing they both have in common is that there’s a vehicle limit of three cars per sighting. This not only benefits the animals, but visitors to these places as well. Another commonality between the two destinations was that the rangers wore earpieces. This meant we weren’t hearing constant radio noise as the vehicles kept in contact with one another, a seemingly minor detail that goes a long way. These two premier wildlife destinations are a great combination and staying four nights in each place ensures you have plenty of time to photograph the variety of wildlife in the area.

After the group portion, my mom and I continued on with Andrew to Mana Pools for the most amazing four-night extension, but that’s another story!! As always, Wild Eye put on a great trip—I’m already looking forward to my next trip with Andrew!!

Elissa Title, USA

Watch the Highlights Video

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If you're looking for an action-packed safari which promises to deliver some of the best predator viewing in southern Africa then look no further than our MalaMala and Mashatu Safari. 8 nights spent in the company of your Wild Eye Photographic guide and a small group of just 4 guests sharing a private vehicle will ensure you not only have the best seats in the house, but that you capture the images you've dreamed of!

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