Right place, right time

By Ranger, Gareth van Rooyen

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Young Lions pouncing through water

Although this piece

revolves around photography I’d like to emphasize much of what is said applies to photographers and non-photographers alike. Whether you’re shooting with a top-of-the-range professional camera, a smart phone or no camera at all. For example, the best view at a sighting is often the same for both the human eye as well as the camera.

MalaMala Game Reserve prides itself on offering some of the best game viewing in the world. Many years were spent ‘acclimatising’ wildlife, particularly large predators, to the presence of our Land Rovers. As a result, our guests can now enjoy up-close-and-personal encounters with wild animals in their natural habitat. What a privilege it is to observe a lion mere meters away from you, behaving naturally in its home environment. What a rare and beautiful thing it is to watch a leopard go about its business without the least bit of concern for our game viewers, despite our unnatural sounds and smells. How special it is to witness behaviour that has not yet found its way into academic literature. Oh, what a privilege to experience all this in person and as if you were just a fly on the wall… with a camera in hand!

Since MalaMala was the pioneer of the photographic safari, you would expect that we would be a great destination for wildlife photography, and you would be right. There are a number of factors that magically merge together and make MalaMala a prime destination. First and foremost is the sheer size of our reserve which allows for an array of different habitats. With only three camps, we boast a small human footprint and a very low vehicle density. This means that unlike many other reserves; there are no buildings, power-lines or access roads on +-95% of the reserve, we have less off-road driving restrictions and we do not set time-limits on sightings. Common courtesy does come into play from time-to-time but you’ll often be able to spend as much time at a sighting as you’d like. Equally as important is our amazing 27km stretch of perennial river frontage. This attracts a lot of game, particularly in our dry season (winter), when animals have to frequent the Sand River for water. Of course, when there is a high density and variety of prey species in an area there tends to be a high density of predators. When there’s a high density of predators in a confined area there tends to be a lot of high intensity, often testosterone-fueled, interaction. This makes for the perfect subject matter when aiming to fill our frames. Although the winter season has very little colour in the vegetation owing to the lack of water, it also means that there will be less vegetation to get between your lens and the animal. Furthermore, the dry dust that gets kicked up by the animals, along with the slightly lower angle of the north bound winter sun makes for a lengthy ‘golden hour’ which is actually more like two hours of soft amber light, every morning and every evening. In summer, the fields of flowers, the dramatic stormy skies, the lush and exuberant bushveld colours all combine to create the perfect canvas for the perfect shot. And let’s not forget about the babies! Summer is a time of plenty and there are plenty of babies around every corner in this season of abundance. There are also many smaller critters we don’t get to see in winter. There are at least 50 more migrant bird species that pay us a visit and many other beautiful ‘creepy-crawlies’ like butterflies and dung beetles, that are both beautiful and odd but fill the frame equally well.

So the scene is set. A large reserve with a low vehicle density, check. Relaxed animals, check. Plentiful game, check. Interacting animals, check. Sand River, check. Year round photographic opportunities, check. What more could you want? Well, there is one more thing that ties it all together in a neat proverbial bow; the Rangers.

Game reserve banner
MalaMala Game Reserve covers 33 000 acres and is part of a conservation area the size of The Netherlands

The Rangers at MalaMala tend to spend more time viewing animals at close quarters than most other places do. This is due to the aforementioned reasons which allow us to spend more time with animals, viewing their behaviour and less time having to drive around looking for animals or waiting for your turn at a sighting. There’s nothing that beats experience when learning about animal behaviour, and here at MalaMala we are fortunate enough to rack up those observation hours relatively quickly. You may ask yourself why this is important? Well, when following lions for example, your Ranger may suddenly decide to drive to the other side of the river or drive 200m up the road and park in a depression, for no apparent reason. He then suggests that you to get your cameras ready. You’ll soon be pleased for his experience when you show your neighbours the front-on shot of the lions crossing the water or walking right at you, at ground level! This does not happen by accident, understanding animal behaviour is crucial to positioning our photographers in the right place, at just the right time. Most Rangers here take photographs and are encouraged to do so for good reason. Understanding behaviour helps us predict behaviour and understanding what it takes to make a photo gives us the edge when positioning. Understanding light, angles, backgrounds and composition goes a long way to providing the best opportunity for the best shot. Our relative freedom to off-road when viewing animals goes hand in hand with our strict driving procedure in and around sightings. Relaxed animals translates into photographic opportunities aplenty.

So it is no surprise that big hitting photographers and wildlife documentary makers frequent MalaMala on a regular basis to get the shots they’re after. Please feel free to visit our Instagram page: @malamalagamereserve

Travelling to MalaMala