History of MalaMala


“I was all of five, but I shall never forget that five-day car journey in 1937, when I accompanied my parents from Zululand via Swaziland to the Lowveld, which adjoins Skukuza in the Kruger National Park. The petrol tank of my father’s Cadillac kept scraping against the ridged, dirt roads, which caused it to leak and to require constant plugging with ‘blue mottle’ soap! All very exasperating for him – more so when his two Doberman Pinchers killed all the laying hens in the supplies lorry, loaded with our provisions for the next two months. I’m not musical, but to pass the time I blew tunelessly into my ‘mouth organ’, severely adding to my father’s irritation. He eventually grabbed the instrument and threw it into the veld of Swaziland, prompting me to howl for hours. 

Those were the days when hunters shot many animals without a conscience. Fortunately these same species now roam the MalaMala Game Reserve unhindered, and the flora and fauna are well-protected for posterity too. Today MalaMala boasts one of the greatest wildlife diversifications in Africa and thrilling game viewing that consistently draws nature lovers from across the globe – as well as some of the world’s most respected wildlife photographers and filmmakers”. 

– Michael Rattray

The Sabi Sand Game Reserve was proclaimed in 1902. In area it was roughly twice the size of the present Kruger National Park. Some of the area was used as grazing by farmers; game laws were nebulous – farmers were allowed to shoot game in defense of their livestock (an arrangement far from ideal from a conservation point of view).

In 1922 the farm MalaMala was acquired by the Transvaal Consolidated Land and Exploration Company (TCL); later 800 cattle were shipped to Toulon by rail. In the next 6 years, managers from TCL were to shoot over 500 lions in defense of their cattle. This was before the untenable shortfalls of farming cattle in the arid, disease and lion-infested Transvaal Lowveld were finally acknowledged.

The National Parks Act was passed in 1926. The Sabi Game Reserve was effectively reduced by about half, resulting in the Kruger National Park in its current form (devoid of human occupancy, and governed purely by conservation principles). The land to the west was now open to private ownership. The land had proven useless for farming; however, its value as a wildlife haven was being recognised, and individuals bought properties to be used privately for game viewing, relaxation and hunting. In 1927 William Campbell (affectionately known as Wac) bought Eyrefield for 2150 Pounds, and in 1929, MalaMala for 3656 pounds. Loring Rattray, Michael’s father, bought the adjacent Exeter in 1937, and Wallingford in 1939.

The site of Wac’s first MalaMala camp was in the area where the Mlowathi stream flows into the Sand River. It was soon found that the rains made the river difficult to ford, and in 1930 the camp was moved to its present site, on the western banks of the river. It was used exclusively in winter as a base from which to hunt. But even then, guests were treated like royalty. And royalty (such as Princess Alice and her husband, the Earl of Athlone) were often guests.

Lady Cambell visited MalaMala for the first time in 1935. She embarked immediately on the task of transforming the camp, planting the bougainvillea that has become known as MalaMala’s signature bloom. Today still sees the shock of pink growing abundantly along the camps immaculately-swept pathways.

In 1960 Wac submitted his last game report. For more then 30 years he had carefully observed and recorded what had transpired in the field. In that last report, he noted that warthog were now fortunately on the increase, while sable antelope were on the decline. He mentioned in the end of his report that 130 guests had enjoyed MalaMala that season, more than half of these having been women and children (a new development). Wac signed the report as Colonel and was never to return to MalaMala.

Two years later, on the 17th September 1962, Wac died and MalaMala passed to his son Urban. The camera replaced the gun and Africa’s first photographic safari destination was born. Urban sold MalaMala in 1964 to a company named MalaMala Ranch (Pty) Ltd – the shares of which belonged to Michael Rattray. In 1970 MalaMala was described by TV Bulpin’s  “Discovering South Africa” as “luxurious accommodation for up to 22 people. Tariff R30.00 per day” (which seemed a very high tariff when you consider that 5-star hotels were charging R12.00 bed and breakfast).