The Out Traveler G.P.S.*: South Africa: Safari So Goody

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March 31, 2008

South Africa: Safari So Goody

Story and Photos by Justin Ocean

“A week-long exploration into the luxe queer side of the Rainbow Nation.”

Day 1, MalaMala

Img_6531web It’s hard to exactly pinpoint that moment of “wow,” but somewhere between crashing through bushes and scrub and traversing tree-dotted grasslands, the earthy aroma of elephant dung hanging in the air, all to come within petting distance of a prostrate cheetah, it hits you. Those zebra and blue wildebeest a couple hundred feet away just may be dinner. And that rifle set on the hood of the Land Rover is definitely loaded. This ain’t a zoo. This is Africa. Wait for it… wow!

To think: Eighteen hours on South African Airways from New York City and a restful overnighter at the colonially grand Grace Hotel in the toney Rosebank area of Johannesburg, plus an easy puddle jump connection, and its afternoon tea time on the deck of Rattray’s on MalaMala. I grab another piece of marshmellowy chocolate cake, as elephants lazily nosh reeds on the banks of the Sand River. Thanks to the professionals at Philly-based Premier Tours, this is definitely how to safari.

The MalaMala Game Reserve comprises over 40,000 acres of bushveld in the northeast of South Africa, an hour’s puddle jump from Johannesburg. The largest privately owned big game land in the country, it shares twelve miles of un-fenced border with the Kruger National Park, which in turn shares open borders with Mozambique and Zimbabwe’s neighboring reservations.

Img_6571web This massive protected area allows for natural migration patterns and amps up viewing opportunities exponentially, not to mention re-balancing of the ecosystem. MalaMala is “Big Five” central and intimate gasps with Elephants, Lions, Leopard, Rhino and Cape Buffalo are all but guaranteed. Clicking shutters at the “Magnificent Seven” (adding Cheetah and African Wild Dogs to the mix) is trickier, but luck shines here more often than not.

Yet, however the game viewing coin lands, Kipling himself couldn’t complain given the all-encompassing luxe experience of Rattray’s itself. The upstart little sister of the nearby and bigger MalaMala main camp, Rattray’s eschews the trendy safari “lodge” (e.g. a spa-centered instead of animal-centered experience) without skimping on the in-room amenities.

Img_6493web Being from Manhattan, I couldn’t stop skipping around my air-conditioned “khaya”, marveling at the space, wood plank floors, rare leathers, vintage photographs, colorful botanical sketches, hardwood furniture and overall “Out of Africa” jungle chic motif -- and that was just the bathroom!

Img_6481web Once I stopped sniffing the Molton Brown toiletries and silver bowl full of subtly scented bath salts in not one, but two bathrooms (his and hers, respectively, one shower and one claw-foot tub) I took a dip in the private heated pool, dried off while listening to nighttime hoots, chirps and roars on the deck, padded across the heated tile floors (a must in the bush, naturally) and flopped down exhausted from the day on the four poster bed. Pulling the mosquito netting tight and settling into a mass of down pillows I fired up my laptop to write this post -- wireless internet is standard and free -- and couldn’t help wishing I had a traveling companion to fire up instead. With only eight “khayas” on the property, for a maximum of sixteen guests at any one time, Rattray’s is primo for romance.

Img_6701web Instead, I’ve got some animals to love. Today I saw a cheetah, a slinky black-and-white striped large-spotted genet (a cat-like mongoose), a herd of dusty Burchell’s zebra (plus babies!), a shy hippo (warning: Africa’s most deadly animal), a black-backed jackal, plus countless horned herds of antelope relatives nyala and impala. Our ranger joked that the latter are “the bush’s McDonald’s” given the black “M” markings on their fluffy white butts and that they’re easy, tasty pickin’s for the park’s predators. Tomorrow the torrid affair continues!

Continue to Day 2, MalaMala

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