Expense was evidently not a crucial consideration for the industrialist from India who visited South Africa's MalaMala Game Reserve earlier this year with his family and retinue—nannies, doctor, cook, and even barber, 32 people in all. But for the non-multibillionaires among us, the rack rate at Main Camp runs a little steep, at around $1,200 a night for a couple. If that hurts, well, it hurts so good: Travel & Leisure readers have chosen MalaMala as the World's Best hotel.
It's not really a fair fight. Calling MalaMala a hotel is like calling the space shuttle a plane. Hotels don't have hundreds of species of animals running wild on 45,000 acres of prime riverine thornveld; hotel rooms don't come with a virtual guarantee that in a two- or three-night stay guests will find themselves within 20 yards of lions, leopards, rhino, buffalo, and elephants.
MalaMala's real competition is in its own neighborhood. You could start a friendly little bush war over the question of who has the most luxurious lodge in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, a cluster of private holdings adjacent to Kruger National Park in the northwest corner of South Africa. The thatched bungalows and clubby lounges at MalaMala's Main Camp more than satisfy a discerning appetite for first-class creature comforts. If it were simply a question of furnishings and design, however, notable nearby lodges like Singita and Londolozi would be well equipped for the battle. But when MalaMala breaks out the big guns—it does, after all, own the largest private game reserve in the country—well, it's hard to dispute the logic that more land means more opportunity to see more animals.
Owner Michael Rattray bought the reserve, South Africa's first private game park, from his father's estate in 1975. He doubled the property by buying additional farms over the next few years, achieving the present configuration in 1980. His wife, Norma, runs the hospitality side of the operation, and he manages the bush and the rangers. The 65-year-old "Mr. Rattray," as he is constantly referred to by the staff, presides over the franchise with a polo stick and a watchful yet twinkly eye; he'd like you to join him for a drink in the bar, and one after dinner by the campfire, too. Though the Rattrays long ago embraced the photo-safari ethic, animal skins and trophies hanging in the lounges evoke the property's hunting-lodge tradition. For all its exclusivity, one feels very much in Africa at MalaMala, a sensation beautifully underscored when the female kitchen staff becomes a chorus, dancing and singing tribal music after dinner.
At check-in, you are introduced to a crisp young man in khakis who will be your constant companion. He'll wake you at 5:45 and invite you to meet him for coffee and muffins before the morning game drive. Armed with a university degree in one of the natural sciences, he'll give you an erudite introduction to the bush, aided by a Shangaan tracker who can find anything and a Land Rover that can go anywhere. You don't have to ask him to position you for photographs, and he'll be glad to discuss camera exposure. He's in radio contact with the whole platoon of guides, so news of special sightings travels fast—a brace of cheetahs poking their heads over the tall grass, a pride of lions stalking impalas, a herd of elephants wreaking destruction on a thicket of trees.
Your guide will accompany you at the nearly unbroken meal— breakfast-lunch-tea—that spreads over the day, he'll take you on another four-hour game drive in the evening, and he'll join you shortly afterward, ready for dinner. Not once during the long day will he say an unkind word, make an off-color remark, or engage in any conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman. He's an expert in the subject of good, clean fun. Mr. Rattray has given him the keys to the kingdom, and for an amazing couple of days, that kingdom is yours.
Box 2575, Randburg, 2125 South Africa; 27-11/789-2677, fax 27-11/886-4382. If the Main Camp is out of your league, MalaMala has two less expensive alternatives: handsome Kirkman's Kamp ($535 a night, double; meals included) and the more modest Harry's Camp ($435 a night, double). Guests at both have the same access to the animals that uptown clients do, albeit in more crowded vehicles.