Text: Ranger Theo York | Photographs: Theo York and Morne Coetzer
The last six months or so here at MalaMala Game Reserve have proven to be a rather tempestuous time with regard to the fascinating lion dynamics taking place on the property. This has all come as a result of the insurgence of six beautiful young lionesses beginning to flex their collective territorial muscle in the central and western parts of MalaMala.
The beginnings of this pride was a fairly tumultuous time to say the least, one that has saw the splitting of family ties and bloodlines. Going back a generation, the mothers of these six (four, young females at the time) had broken away from the well-known Marthly Pride with the aid of an adult tailless female- the mother in fact of the current tailless female in the Marthly pride who suffered the same fate as a juvenile, with her tail being bitten off by a hyena. The reason for this was to escape the wrath of the four Manyeleti males who had taken the area by force and with the four females being of an age too young to breed, they were seen as a hindrance to the expansion of the Manyeleti male’s bloodline. This is standard lion modus operandi whereby new males will kill the offspring of females, in order to induce them into oestrus so as to put their own genes forward.
Eventually the four females managed to establish themselves in areas to our west and there became known as the Marthly Breakaway pride (aka Mangheni). In the process the four females ended up killing that same tailless female over a zebra carcass as they had slowly drifted apart and lost their close ties to one another (such is the nature of lions ) and finally from those four, nine cubs managed to make it to adolescence. The nine consisted of six females and three males. Eventually, and again from the pressures of the Manyeleti males, the nine juveniles were pushed out and became fairly nomadic. We have seen at least two of those young males in the south on the odd occasion but towards the middle of last year every now and again, six beautiful unscarred females would pop up in the Sand River at various spots and then all but disappear.
As the curtains of last year’s drought began to draw their tattered drapes across the land with the promise of new rains to come, the more regular emergences of these lionesses began to excite us all. They were closely by the two massive Clarendon male lions. Our airstrip, Piccadilly Triangle and Campbell Koppies was were we viewed them most often. The majority of the females all now of sexual maturity had picked up the undivided attention of the two Clarendon males and we enjoyed numerous sightings of all eight lions together as well as a few stolen intimate moments during the time of the courting period.
For most of the last year or two the central parts of MalaMala had been somewhat of a buffer zone between the two Matshipiri male lions, presiding over the Eyrefield pride and Fourways pride, and the Gowire males, dominant over the Styx pride. It was in this area that the new kids on the block began snooping around for possible sites to stash away the cubs that were by this stage a very noticeable bulge in the otherwise lean bellies of at least two of the females. And so it was that with the first cracks of thunder, followed by the deep blue grey sheets of rain beginning their reinvigoration of the parched land, that the two females gave birth, one on Campbell Koppies which lies directly east of camp and the other on Ostrich Koppies a little further east of that. Due to the ruggedness of these beautiful granite outcrops (otherwise known as ‘Koppies’) we were offered only a few glimpses into the first days and weeks of these cub’s lives, but as fortunes would have it, this would be all we were going to witness.
Enter the two Matshipiri males. All of this new lion activity occurring to the north of their territory was never going to go unnoticed be the streetwise and wily Matshipiri males. Not topping the scales by any measure and most certainly not winning any beauty contests, these two male lions top the charts in pure grit aggression and with a fighting spirit. It was this insatiable appetite to expand both territory and genes that drove the Matshipiri males northwards and into contact with the Clarendon males and their new posse of females. The initial reconnaissance missions were mostly all bravado on both sides with the early summer mornings being shattered by the thundering roars of the two coalitions. Like a great game of tug-o-war the battles continued to sway north and south, with the six females caught in the middle and the two coalitions playing with the double edged sword of ambition and self-preservation. It was interesting even as this delicate waltz of dominance ensued to see how some of the females flirtingly lured the Matshipiri males away when they got too close to the fortresses of the koppies. Or maybe they could already feel to which side the flag was going fall.
It was in fact New Year’s day as the sun began to beam across the aqua blues skies of mid-summer that once again the oppressive air was broken by the incisive roars of male lions. To the north of Main Camp the Matshipiri males, always together like two street brawlers had come across a lone Clarendon male and having realised their advantage proceeded to drive him as far out of the area as physically possible. Whilst we struggled to follow, catching only glimpses of the action it was evident that the tides had turned and the more youthful somewhat fortuitous Matshipiri males had just taken the upper hand. Eventually with salivating mouths from the continuous roaring of the morning we watched as the two lions lay side by side recovering from the exertion through the stifling heat. Like two prize fighters after the final bell, out of breath and body but none the less victors in the final battle of cunning and fortune.
This all falls as the backdrop to where we find ourselves now, with the lion dynamics being well and truly turned upside down, all by the influence of these new lionesses. What we do know is that the cubs initially born of the Clarendon males are no longer, whether it was the floods of the life giving rainy season, the incompetence of the first time mothers or in fact the Matshipiri males themselves, we will never know. Where certainty lies is that these lionesses have not escaped the attention and intentions of the Matshipiri males. We have witnessed them mating on many occasions throughout the central parts of MalaMala from the Western most boundary all the way to the Kruger boundary in the east.
It has now been quite some time that these lions have been occupying this newfound territory, showing all the signs of settling down and with this, in the tradition of MalaMala we need to name the pride accordingly. In the past we have always named our territorial cats both leopards and lions, according to the areas in which their core territories initially lie, normally after some prominent landmark, road or natural formation. Obviously these territories are fairly transient and are constantly changing due to the surrounding pressures of other rival animals but it gives us a way of identifying with these cats we are so lucky to spend time with.
After much discussion amongst us all, it was finally decided to name the six lionesses the ‘Kambula Pride’. “Kambula” refers to the name the Shangaan speaking people (during the early days of the establishment of MalaMala) gave to one, William Alfred Campbell, who throughout his life was affectionately known as ‘Wac’. It is after this man that those same Koppies on which the lionesses originally denned on, are named after, now today known again as Campbell Koppies. This stunning granite outcrop dominates the skyline when looking out from camp, surrounded by some of the most picturesque and wildlife rich areas on offer. It was one of the first areas in which hunting was prohibited on MalaMala due its proximity to camp and rich game viewing during those early days and was always earmarked as an area ‘for the enjoyment of the wildlife’. No doubt a great place for a pride of lions to include in their territory.
It would be a true disfavour at this stage to not touch on a little history of the Campbell name and its influence in those early days. To us, Wac Campbell is one of the founding fathers of MalaMala, a man of spirit and vision, a gentleman and a scholar, all coupled with the strength and tenacity of those early pioneering men of our country. A true lover of the African bush and its wildlife, Wac was the first to purchase MalaMala and the surrounding areas with the primary intention of conservation and enjoyment. After serving in the First World War as a Marine Landing Officer and ADC to the Governor of Natal, Wac was suffering from extremely poor health and was persuaded by an old family friend to do some hunting in the wilds of Zululand. This would be the first step not only to a life of good health but also towards the exquisite lands of the Eastern Transvaal, today known as the greater Kruger National Park.
It was in the mid 1920’s that Wac’s interest in wildlife and its management and conservation led to his appointment as the Natal representative of the newly constituted National Parks Board. To this day that same board is responsible for the conservation and management of all South Africa’s natural treasures through the preservation of its protected areas. It was during this time that Wac was invited to stay on the farm Toulon by HB Papenfus (a fellow member of the board) and experienced the true magic of the Transvaal Lowveld. Clearly enthralled by this game rich and pristine land, Wac almost immediately began enquiring about properties in the area and so began the building stages of what we know today as MalaMala. On 5 July 1928, Wac sent a three page telegram to his wife from Acornhoek. It read:
More than satisfied with my purchase stop All in camp enthusiastic stop Feel I did the right thing in following you my mother and your father’s advice stop I wish the staff to feel they have a common interest with us in the pleasure of this place so that each year they will have something to look forward to stop Tell our sons they must come up in a year or so stop Very comfortable rondavels situated alongside beautiful river stop Delightful climate stop Game varied and numerous saw two cheetah chasing waterbuck stop George got his lion stop All well love stop Please communicate to all staff though Masters address Campbell Acornhoek. William. - An extract from ‘To Everything its Season, MalaMala, The story of a Game Reserve’ by Gillian Rattray.
From the very first time that Wac camped on his farms he compiled meticulous game reports to be sent to the magistrate at Pilgrim’s Rest. We have copies of these reports collected and bound in the lounges at camp awaiting the would-be reader to delve into that exciting era so foreign to today’s modern world. These reports included observations regarding the animals, weather, state of the grass and bush, and any unusual or exciting occurrences, a tradition that we rangers still fulfil to this day. For 30 years Wac diligently and fastidiously reported the on goings of MalaMala which is testament to his delight in and concern of this unspoiled piece of Africa.
In an excited letter written to the Transvaal Provincial Secretary, Wac explained that his intention in the purchasing of the farms was “the strict preservation of game with the object of handing this on as a legacy to my youngsters when I get old”. Today it seems that we are those lucky “youngsters” able to enjoy this most spectacular property. Over the years the batton was passed to the Rattray family (who acquired MalaMala in 1964 from the Campbell family) who with equal vision and determination made the giant leap from the trigger to the shutter, thus bringing MalaMala to the world. Becoming the first private game reserve and setting the blueprint for the modern day photographic safari we are able to share in that same wonder of those early pioneers when they first laid eyes on this beautiful land.
And thus a group of lions is named, unbeknown to the history, people and occurrences that have enabled them to exist in the same way lions have for a thousand years. Unperturbed by the impacts of man, unaware of our naming, recording and photographing. For all we know they may disappear tomorrow and never be seen again, driven out by other lions or moving onto new territories- and long may this be how lions live, wild and free.
Historical content acquired from: ‘To Everything its Season, MalaMala, The story of a Game Reserve’ by Gillian Rattray.