Guest blog: Dean Gaffigan’s experience at MalaMala

Buffalo on the sand river, image by Dean Gaffigan

Dean and Debra Gaffigan visited MalaMala earlier this year – here Dean shares their safari experience with us:

“My wife, Debra, and I spent four fantastic days and nights at Rattrays on Mala Mala at the end of March 2013, and we wanted to share some of the experiences that we had there as well as pass on our thanks to the management and staff for a fantastic stay.

We travelled from the Cayman Islands where we have lived for the last 15 years, but we are originally from the North of England. We have visited South Africa before and stayed at some great reserves, but we were very pleased with our stay at MalaMala – it is a place that we will definitely visit again. The camp is positioned in a fantastic spot on the Sand River where the game viewing is outstanding. We checked in while watching a bull elephant nibble leaves from a tree in front of the pool, and then had an encounter with a praying mantis while our ranger, Gordon, showed us around the camp before our first game drive. Within five minutes of driving out of camp we found ourselves watching a herd of buffalo drinking from the river bank opposite us, while a herd of elephants wandered across the sand behind us. To see all this and watch the sun setting from the causeway over the river let us know that MalaMala is a magical place and that the next four nights would be something else.

Elephants on the sand river, image by Dean Gaffigan

From then on we had more great sightings including mating leopards, a honey badger, a huge female spotted hyena that walked right past the Land Rover; and lots and lots of lions! The Eyerfield Pride were thoughtful enough to spend the afternoon on a sand bank almost opposite the khaya we were in, so that we could watch them while sipping afternoon tea between drives. The four Manyelethi Males looked impressive while sleeping through the day, and even more impressive later that night when they moved off to patrol their MalaMala territory, and no doubt look for a meal. We were also fortunate to encounter the Styx Pride in many different sightings including a successful hunt that we were privileged to witness from just a few feet away. (It was almost dark but I managed to shoot some video which you can watch via the link at the end of this blog). Even in camp we were always able to spot something  – from bushbuck along the river, to the thick-tailed bush babies jumping through the trees (try the flashlight mounted on the wall near the bar…I was like a kid with a new toy) to the noisy king cricket that created the most amazing volume for something so small. We even managed to hear the Manyelethi Males roaring in the distance one night as we walked back from dinner.

Styx pride and youngsters, image by Dean Gaffigan

Our ranger, Gordon, was a gentleman in every sense of the word and worked hard to find the animals and together with our fellow guests, Will and Jane from the USA, helped to make the four days and four nights at Mala Mala a fantastic experience.

Thank you again to the management and staff and especially Gordon. We will definitely be back soon.”

Manyelethi males, image by Dean Gaffigan

On returning home: “We have followed the Game Reports since we got home and were sad to read of the loss of the three cubs from the Styx Pride but that is life (and death) in the bush. We were very fortunate on our March trip to have many sightings of the Styx Pride including the three cubs and the two sub-adult males that were babysitting them under the shade of a tree in a dry river bed one morning and then the whole pride back together in almost the same spot the next morning. But it was the sighting from the previous evening that will stay with us as our best one. This is how it unfolded…

Buffalo road block, image by Dean Gaffigan

We were in the North of the reserve looking for cheetahs or leopards and watching the setting sun and a herd of impalas when Gordon gave us the choice of a sundowner or a leopard sighting that was called in over the radio and about 15 minutes drive away. The leopard sighting was the easy choice for all four of us and off we went. It was getting dark as we approached the leopard sighting and we ran into a buffalo road block coming our way. We were happy to watch them and be part of the herd as they walked all around us on the track but we really wanted to get to the leopard and wondered if we might now miss it. After a few minutes there was a break in the ”traffic” and we crested a small hill and we all saw something in the road. It wasn’t a leopard though, it was a Styx lioness and she was in among the last of the buffalo herd and looking like a hunter. Within minutes we saw her sisters and we realised that we were in the middle of something.

Styx pride with buffalo calf, image by Dean Gaffigan

There were lions charging in and around the herd, lions being chased by some big old bulls and then a minute or two later they had all disappeared and we were left in the middle of the bush with the night closing in and dust still in the air and we could hear the sounds of the herd who were obviously being targeted by the lionesses from the Styx Pride. Just then, we saw the stragglers from the herd that looked to be about five or six adults but they had a very small calf with them. The mood changed and Gordon told us that it was now the calf they would be after. No lights were used at all and cameras (at least in my hands) were probably useless but we were able to see exactly what happened about 15 feet in from of the Land Rover. The adult buffalo were trying to shield the calf. They knew exactly what to do but so did the lions. The buffalo were pushing and nudging the calf but it just could not keep up and the adults were forced to leave it behind. That left a three to four day old calf looking at three hungry lions who wasted no time in grabbing the calf and immediately taking it down under a bush that was close to the Land Rover. After some time, the rangers then turned on the lights and we were able to see the scene in more detail. One lioness had the calf by the back of the neck, but that was not enough to kill the calf who was calling the herd who were not far away. Two of the other lionesses started to feed from the calf and the noise of them feeding, the calf calling out and the noise from the lions growling was incredible. Our view was not the best, but we knew that we were privileged just to see and hear as much as we had and after taking a few photographs I hit the video record button on my camera… the first video ever taken on that camera.

Styx pride devouring buffalo calf, image by Dean Gaffigan

The lions were clearly trying to get their share and all five Styx Pride lionesses were now on the scene but two of them had little chance of getting their share from the small meal. The three that were feeding were constantly growling at each other and fighting for position and during one big fight they changed position. The bad news was that I was not recording at the time but the good news was that the scene was now right in front of our vehicle and I was in a good spot and took as much video footage and as many photographs as I could. The lioness that had initially grabbed the calf still had it by the back of the neck and we were able to see that calf was now dead which was just as well as the other two were starting to tear it apart. We stayed for about ten more minutes and then left to allow others to have their chance at the sighting. We knew that we had just seen something amazing, and left on a high and returned to camp buzzing with excitement.

Four video clips show the scene in its various stages – and while some is slightly out of focus – the sounds come across and help tell the story better than I ever could, and together with Gordon’s comments, I hope that you are as thrilled at this sighting as we were.”

To view the videos, click here.

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