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RoadTrip | BMW's X7 gets up close with stunning wildlife at MalaMala

2019-09-27 08:42

Ferdi De Vos, Images: Gerald Hinde

BMW X7 MalaMala memories

Image: Gerald Hinde

With full-size seven-seat capacity, the luxurious X7 is the largest ever production machine in the BMW line-up. Ferdi de Vos took the Big Seven to the exclusive MalaMala Game Reserve in search of its seven wild counterparts, as depicted in The Big Seven, the latest book by Gareth Hinde and Will Taylor.

Presence. It is felt as much as it is seen. And when a big cat fixes you with a penetrating gaze one becomes acutely aware of its presence – since it feels like it is staring right into your soul with those wild, yellow eyes, exposing it and laying it bare for all to see.

The pride of lions probably watched us since early morning, observing our every movement as we were having coffee next to the Big Beemer and the accompanying Land Rover game viewer. 

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BMW X7 MalaMala memories

                                                Image: Gerald Hinde

Then, as we left for camp, the clan – a full-maned male, three females, and a full kindergarten of grown cubs – moved in swiftly and silently, claiming the same piece of turf we occupied only half an hour before – blissfully unaware of who was watching us.

As word spread of the presence of the pride, perched on the riverbank opposite the MalaMala main camp, we quickly saddled up – and under the expert guidance of our dedicated ranger, Roan Ravenhill, and his assistant, Sam Sakwana, we could position the specialised Landie, serving as camera platform, and the BMW to catch the pride, with cubs frolicking amongst the females and the male parked off to one side, on camera.

Roan was worried about the reaction of the lions to the big X7, as they are used to the game viewers but not a big, bold, shiny, and bling SAV (Sport Activity Vehicle).

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BMW X7 MalaMala memories

                                               Image: Gerald Hinde

You see, we received special permission from the MalaMala management to take the recently introduced BMW into the reserve (this was a notable exception, as it has never been allowed before …) 

After giving the unfamiliar beast one long look, the pride lost interest though, seemingly content that, although big and bulky, the dark-coloured object posed no threat to them. Meanwhile, Gerald and his son, Wayne, were clicking away on the back of the Land Rover, creating some of the fantastic images you see here.

Leaping leopard

Suddenly the radio crackled. Ingwe spotted, and not too far from our position. It was number two on our list of big seven, so we left the pride; by now making their way into the riverbed to look for shade or food (they killed a small wildebeest later that afternoon).With Roan guiding we made our way to a river crossing about five kilometres downstream.

BMW X7 MalaMala memories

                                                Image: Gerald Hinde

The big X7 M50d, even on low-profile 22-inch rubber, had no problem dealing with the undulating dirt roads adjacent the river and soon we arrived at the low-water crossing. We had to get to the other side quickly, as the leopard was moving at a brisk pace.

The X7, with xDrive all-wheel drive as standard, nearly 400 diesel horses (294kW) under the hood, and enough twisting force (760Nm) to pull a small elephant, scooted through the sandy bed unhindered – even without its tyres being deflated – and shrugged off the short water-crossing like a wet cat.

We positioned it close to the opposite side of the river, with the Landie perched on the bank.We did not have to wait long. Soon the slinky leopard, a male in good condition, appeared from the reeds, stopping at a water puddle right in front of the X7. 

For a moment it looked straight at the BMW, and then leapt across the first part of the puddle, and then the next. It was a special moment, perfectly captured by Gerald – and I am sure if I did not see it for myself, I would also have though the images are photoshopped.

A bold presence

On size and looks alone the big, brazen X7 has clearly established itself as the new head of the BMW X-family. Developed by Munich as part of its ongoing luxury model offensive it now completes the Big Seven in motoring terms – competing against six hyper-grand SUVs; the Mercedes-Benz GLS, Bentley Bentayga, Lincoln Navigator, Cadillac Escalade, Infiniti QX, and the upcoming Audi Q9.

BMW X7 MalaMala memories

                                               Image: Gerald Hinde

Considerable size aside, it is its prominent front end and ostentatious kidney grille that sets the X7 apart from its X5 siblings. Yet big does not necessarily imply ugly … as the huge SAV fuses exclusivity and spaciousness in quite a handsome package. While it may not be to everyone’s taste, the tall grille gives the Big X an undeniable sense of presence; the same kind of presence its seven wild counterparts possess. 

For Gerald and Will, the classification of lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo, and elephant as the Big Five has always had associations with the world of the hunter. As photographers, they felt that there were, in fact, seven animals they were most interested in seeking out and photographing. 

The addition of the increasingly rare cheetah, with its blinding speed and natural elegance, and the exciting, ruthless wild dog with its complex social society and relentless hunting style created The Big Seven. Our imposing M50d test-model is kitted with optional bigger wheels, BMW Laserlight headlight units, and LED rear-lights, a sunroof, a two-section split tailgate, and M Sport equipment. 

With twin individual chairs in the middle row, legroom and headroom at the rear are remarkable, while boot-capacity can be increased to a pack-leading 2 120 l with the rear seats folded down.This capaciousness is perhaps its biggest advantage over the X5, as there is virtually no difference in terms of interior materials and trim, dashboard layout, BMW Live Cockpit Professional instrumentation and control display, and other driver assistance systems. (BMW Intelligent Personal Assistant will be included in the operating system from March next year.)

Big, yet nimble

Given these similarities, and sharing the same platform, one could expect the X7 to behave very much like its X5 counterpart on the road and indeed, so it proved on our very enjoyable trip from Gauteng to Sabi Sands and MalaMala in Mpumalanga. Still, while the big M50d may weight about the same as a full-grown female elephant, it proved surprisingly nimble, much like a lioness at speed, on the sweeping route between Sabie and Hazyview. 

However, its extra bulk did make its presence felt under hard braking and while turning in for corners at higher speeds. It also displayed slightly more body roll than the X5 models in Comfort mode, while in Sport mode its ride was slightly choppier over undulations. Best is to stick it into Adaptive mode and leave it there. The big SAV also never felt compromised by its size, and despite its extra weight, did not feel slower or less sprightly than its Big Five stablemate.

BMW X7 MalaMala

                                                Image: Gerald Hinde

Similarly, it proved an ideal cruiser on the open road and competent on dirt roads, as it proved at MalaMala, even though this type of terrain is not its natural habitat.Our leaping leopard encounter was not our last. Late that afternoon we sighted a female fully intent on attracting a male, and sure enough, it was not long before a young male joined her.

Their courtship, if the description applies, was fascinating to watch.We also saw buffalo, ticking the fourth box, but the other three – cheetah, wild dogs, and rhino – escaped us. No matter. The short visit to MalaMala, where Hinde and Taylor captured most of the images for their book (it was also launched at the reserve earlier this year), was fascinating, and the personnel and service fabulous. All that is needed now is to convince management that the X7 will work as a game-viewing vehicle … After all, we did (somewhat) prove it.

BMW X7 MalaMala memories

                                               Image: Gerald Hinde

In search of Africa’s iconic species

'The Big Seven', with photography by Gerald Hines and text by Will Taylor, is a book that invites you to go on a journey through the African bush: to feel the dappled light of the riverine forest as a lithe, spotted cat slink by your vehicle and witness the thunder of hooves and smell the dust as a herd of buffalo take flight from a pride of hunting lions. 

The book, with 176 pages of stunning wildlife images, is a collection of the best and most exciting works of these authors, taken over a period of fifteen years throughout big game areas in Africa.

The hardcover book is published by HPH Publishing and its list price is R650. Gerald Hinde took up wildlife photography in 1989 and has since won a string of photographic awards in competitions, including the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition, Afga Wildlife Awards (overall winner, 2000), UN Environment Program International Wildlife Photographic Competition, and the Fuji Profoto Awards.

BMW X7 MalaMala memories

                                               Image: Gerald Hinde

His work has been published widely in national and international magazines, and on calendars and postcards.Will Taylor is a wildlife biologist and senior ranger of the MalaMala Game Reserve. As founder and owner of Khashana Travel, a company that creates luxury and adventure travel experiences with a focus on wildlife photographic safaris, he is deeply involved in African conservation and tourism. The pair have co-authored four African wildlife books and produced twenty wildlife documentaries that have been broadcast in over 40 countries.

Benchmark for luxury safaris

MalaMala Game Reserve is the benchmark for the luxury safari industry and provided the blueprint for luxury photographic safaris. In existence since 1927, MalaMala Game Reserve is one of the largest private Big Five reserves in South Africa.

It covers 13 300 ha (33 000 acres), shares a 19 km unfenced boundary with the Kruger National Park, and lies strategically sandwiched between the Kruger and the Sabi Sand Reserve.MalaMala was the first privately owned and commercially operated game reserve in South Africa and is the model on which all other private game reserves now operate.

BMW X7 MalaMala memories

                                               Image: Gerald Hinde

MalaMala Game Reserve

Address: Ehlanezi, Sabi Sands

Tel no. +27 11 442 2267 

email: reservations@malamala.com

website: www.malamala.com

Our vehicle: BMW X7 M50d

Engine: Six-cylinder twin-turbo diesel

Displacement: 2 993 cc 

Maximum power: 294 kW @ 4 400 rpm

Maximum torque: 760 Nm @ 2 000-3 000 rpm

Transmission: Eight-speed Steptronic auto, xDrive

0-100 km/h: 5.4 seconds

Top speed: 250 km/h

Ground clearance: 221 mm

Kerb weight: 2 535 kg

Luggage space: 750 l

Fuel tank: 80 l

Consumption: 7.3 l/100 km

CO2 emissions: 192 g/km

Base price: R1 862 308

We like:

Big and bold, yet fuses exclusivity and spaciousness in quite a handsome package. Very spacious, luxurious, ultimate road trip cruiser.

We do not like:

Perhaps too big and ostentatious for the normal taste. Does it justify a nearly R400k price difference compared to the X5? 

RoadTrip rating: 85%

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