There had been all the signs: fresh dung, tracks and a trail of broken branches. But as we crept through the trees, all we could hear was the quiet thud of footfalls on the springy turf, the snapping of twigs and the rustle of grass - all of which could have been made by our group of five tourists, tracker and ranger. Then came a loud crack; ahead, no more than 20 yards away, an elephant was tearing a tree in half.
From our crouched position in the undergrowth we began to make out the herd. Over to the right in a small clearing, one of its younger members tore up a trunkful of grass, curled it and delicately raised his front leg to assist the food's passage into his mouth with his knee. Ahead was a herd of around 30, quietly and deliberately making its way across the terrain.
The elephants' territory is the 17,000 hec-tares of the Phinda Resource Reserve, a private game park in Kwazulu Natal, South Africa's north-eastern province. Phinda is the Zulu word for "return" and the aim of the owners, the Conservation Corporation, has been to restore the land to its pre- human state. In 1990 Conscorp, as it is known, bought five adjoining farms between a state-run game reserve and Lake Lucia and embarked on the biggest game restocking ever undertaken. Pineapples, cotton and sisal were uprooted, the area reseeded with grasses and trees, and the animals shipped in. Our ranger reeled off the inventory: 44 rhino, 55 elephant, 13 lion, as well as cheetah, giraffe, zebra - and 50 buffalo waiting to be released.
I had naively assumed that a game reserve was a piece of land fenced in to preserve the indigenous fauna and flora. In fact it is closer to a Jurassic Park: an electric fence is thrown around an area to recreate a mythical past. Game last roamed this land in its natural state more than 50 years ago. It was poached out or fell victim to culling when, in the 1940s, a campaign was launched to eradicate the tsetse fly.
Although the experience is very much man-made, the animals are, as the rangers never cease to remind us, still wild. The nyala (a kind of antelope) and the zebra may stand and look at you looking at them, the cheetah stretching out on the road at dawn may regally ignore an approaching Land Rover, but two years ago an unwary guest was killed by a lion as she wandered between her room and the swimming pool. Now guests are escorted everywhere by a security guard after dark.
Warnings of lurking danger were becoming a familiar refrain in South Africa. Even on the plane a young black nurse sitting beside me gasped in disbelief when I told her I was planning to drive around alone. Then a friend in Durban described the area around my hotel as "notorious"; he had recently lost the entire contents of his car there. By the time I drove up to Phinda's ticking perimeter fence, my doors and windows firmly locked and my psyche braced against all manner of attack, I was at a loss as to what further defence to mount when I read the sign urging me to beware.
My anxiety began to evaporate when I joined some of the other guests on the veranda at Forest Lodge, newest of the two guesthouses on the reserve. A party of late breakfasters was earnestly discussing the latest in food fads, how to prepare a "non-toxic" children's birthday party: no Smarties or crisps, that sort of thing. Danger, it seems, is a very relative concept.
Apart from the prominently displayed warning notices, and the disclaimer you have to sign promising to take responsibility for your own life, everything at Phinda induces a state of total, not-a-care-in-the-world relaxation. The luxury is so intense it is like sinking into a hot, bubble-filled bath - which, of course, you can in the black marble, multi-mirrored, double-basined bathrooms.
This is no cheap weekend break, but you certainly get your money's worth. At Forest Lodge, which opened two years ago, guests are housed in glass-walled chalets, at a discreet distance from each other among the trees. In the more traditional Nyala Lodge, the style is more Out of Africa. In both, the food in wonderful: one night, a barbecue for 50 miraculously appeared in a clearing in the bush.
The final luxury is that you don't need to feel too guilty about surrendering to the sybaritic life. Conscorp offers absolution from wordly pleasures with its avowed ecological ethic, part of which involves using your money to benefit the local community. In his introductory talk, the senior ranger, Robin Matthews, told guests that the company had two objectives: the maintenance of biodiversity and the development of local economies. The reserve boasts seven different ecosystems and has been awarded Natural Heritage status by the World Wildlife Fund for the conservation work done there. And quite properly Conscorp employs and trains people from around the reserve, 250 in all. It has also set up a charcoal-making enterprise now run by locals and has helped channel foreign aid into two schools and a clinic.
Its motives are not entirely, or even primarily, altruistic. One of the local businesses supported by Conscorp is a brick-making concern run by a former poacher. By involving the nearby villagers, Conscorp hopes to persuade any would-be poachers that a game reserve that attracts rich tourists is a better long-term economic proposition than slaughtering the wildlife - as it most certainly is for Conscorp's shareholders.
The guests benefit, too, of course. The twice- daily game drives (the first from 5.30am; the sybarite's life is not always easy) are like driving through a David Attenborough programme. The animals hardly seem to notice the open-topped Land Rovers, and carry on doing whatever it is they're doing - which as far as I could make out was mainly eating. Maybe wildlife programme-making is not the amazing art it appears: I wouldn't now be surprised to learn that a pride of lions in full pursuit swerves as readily to avoid a TV camera as it does a tree.
But then after listening to the endless stream of information from our ranger, I was in the mood to believe anything. Did you know, for instance, that giraffe sleep by resting their heads in a high V-shaped branch and hanging there? And how about the "sitting" giraffe, apparently laying eggs. Well, that's what the man said - but I did detect a twinkle in his eye. The commentary is riveting - and mostly true. Here are some amazing eli-facts:
Elephants can be right- or left-tusked - the one they always use to strip bark off trees
They eat up to 300kg a day
Through their lives they have six sets of teeth. Each set gets worn down by mastication. After the sixth set they die, generally of malnutrition
Elephants live to around 60
The penis of a full-grown bull weighs 57kg
I'm a little doubtful about this last "fact" as I couldn't help noticing that rangers use the number 57 as mathematicians use x, or j, the symbol for the imaginary number. Tracking some hippos in another game park, one ranger told me that rhinos live till they are 57, that they have been on the earth for 57 million years, and that dinosaurs died out 57 million years ago. Not all in the same breath, of course.
This was at Ndumo, a state-run game park on the border with Mozambique, where I stayed in a camp run by Wilderness Safaris, a company new to South Africa but well established in Botswana. This I had been told was under canvas, but any expectation of roughing it was quickly dispelled. The camp is under canvas only in so far as the walls and roofs of the fully furnished cabins with bathrooms en suite are made of canvas. The rooms and communal area - dining room and bar - are perched on a magnificent teak boardwalk on stilts that winds through the trees overlooking a river.
Wilderness Safaris, too, believes in involving the local community. Because the camp is in a state-owned park, the company pays rent and a small percentage of its turnover to the Kwazulu department of nature conservation and its commercial arm, which is a quarter-owned by the local community. The agreement was signed last year after eight years of negotiation, so no money has filtered through yet. A committee of educated locals, village chiefs and department officials will decide how to spend it when it does.
This is not a game park for those collecting sightings of "the big five" - lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino and elephant - though some are there, including 45 of the world's remaining 1,200 black rhinos. It is a smaller, quieter place and a heaven for birdwatchers: there are 400 species. The park's central feature is a flood-plain pan, or lake. As we drove around in the early evening, the shores were littered with crocodiles soaking up some final rays. Further off, the mirror-like surface of the water was broken by what appeared to be a collection of little round, shiny pebbles. A loud bellow, and out came a yawning hippo: we had been looking at the nostrils, eyes and ears of a whole herd.
Sitting on a fallen log by the lakeside as the sun set, I had that sense you can get in the wilderness of being somehow more at home with yourself, and at the same time more connected with everything else. This is perhaps the greatest luxury of all, something worth coming all this way to experience.
That night's thunderstorm put an end to such serenity. The thunder roared. The wind howled. The tent shook. The afternoon's game viewing helped me identify with rather less pleasure the noises that accompanied the rocking of my platform. Amid the splashing of water and the heavy footfalls came the familiar bellow of the hippopotamus. Now, this was dangerous. I O'K TRAVEL NOTES GETTING THERE: Isabel O'Keeffe travelled to South Africa with South African Airways (reservations 0171 312 5000, fares 0171 312 5001). Return fares from London to Durban cost from pounds 677; flights leave Heathrow on Mon, Wed and Fri. Bluebird Express (01444 235 678) operate charter flights twice weekly from Gatwick to Johannesburg and can arrange flights on to Durban. Until the end of February the economy Apex fare is pounds 568. BATTLEFIELD TOURS: Fugitives' Drift Lodge, situated in northern Natal, 50km from Dundee, overlooks the battlefield of Isandlwana in the 4,000-acre nature reserve along the Buffalo River. Full board costs from pounds 70 per person per night sharing or fro m pounds 85 single. In addition, guided tours of the battlefields and sites and an air-conditioned microbus are available for hire. Reservations and information from Fugitives' Drift Lodge (00 27 3425 843), PO Rorke's Drift, Natal 3016, Republic of South Africa. GAME RESERVES: Wilderness Safaris (PO Box 651171, Benmore 2010, South Africa, tel 00 27 11 884 1458) organises a variety of safaris in South Africa which include game and nature drives, birdwatching, guided walks and boating. Isabel O'Keeffe stayed in th e Ndumo Wilderness Camp, which comprises eight tented rooms with en suite bathrooms, raised on a wooden deck. The Wilderness Camp costs pounds 110 per person per night, based on two sharing. The price includes full board and all game drive activities. Phinda Resource Reserve, Conservation Corpor-ation, PO Box 1211, Sunninghill Park 2157, Republic of South Africa (00 27 11 803 8421). Isabel O'Keeffe stayed at Forest (glass-walled) Lodge, which costs pounds 185 per night per person, and at Nyala Lodge, which costs from pounds 150 per person per night. Prices are for full board, and include two game drives per day, river drives and guided walks. . INCLUSIVE HOLIDAYS: South African Airways Holidays (01342 322525) organises tailor-made trip to various destinations. They also arrange car hire, travel on the Blue Train, accommodation and safaris. CAR HIRE: Budget (0800 181181) offers a week's small car hire from pounds 200 a week all inclusive. FURTHER INFORMATION: South African Tourism Board (0181 944 6644), 5/6 Alt Grove, Wimbledon, London SW19 4DZ. South African Embassy (0171 930 4488), South Africa House, Trafalgar Square, WC2N 5DP.Reuse content