TRAVEL / Beauty and the beast: In pursuit of big game in Botswana, John Carlin was warned that one large animal might show an inclination to pursue him

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'IF YOU see Pavarotti, give him a wide berth - and don't get between him and the water.' Marie, the hostess at Camp Moremi game lodge, was giving me my first lesson in bushcraft. I had just flown in from Johannesburg and she was escorting me to my tent. Pavarotti, she explained, was the resident hippopotamus.

What would happen if I did get between Pavarotti and the water? 'That's where he runs to when he's afraid. If you get in his way, you've no chance.'

Pavarotti didn't actually live in Camp Moremi. It wasn't like he was a pet.

He spent his days in the water with the rest of the herd doing hippo-ish things like frightening crocodiles, fornicating and munching reeds. It was only at night, in search of a bit of peace and quiet, that he ventured on to land.

It was night now. Alone in the tent my thoughts dwelt on Pavarotti. Marie hadn't told me where the water was so, I reflected, if I stumbled across him on the path to the lodge did I give him a wide berth to my left or to my right?

And another thing: what had Marie meant when she said that I'd have 'no chance'? All I had to go on, admittedly, were my mother's bedside stories - but hippos, as I understood it, were placid herbivores, the friendly fatties of the animal kingdom.

The sound of a distant drum - Camp Moremi's rather quaint way of announcing dinner was ready - startled me out of my reverie. I stepped out of my tent, torch in hand, steeled to negotiate the 200-yard walk to the lodge. I had barely reached the path when to my right, 10 steps ahead, I caught something in the glare of my torch. Two small, unearthly bright, round lights, three feet above ground level. There he stood, staring at me, pounds 5,000-worth of hippo meat.

I froze. Pavarotti froze. He blinked. A branch snapped. He bowed his head, turned his large brown buttocks towards me and retreated with a swish of his piggy tail - the classic gesture of hippo submission, I later read - before disappearing into the bush.

I shrugged and strolled on, wondering what all the fuss had been about. But when I mentioned casually to my seven fellow campers at the dinner table that I'd had a close encounter with Pavarotti, their eyes popped out of their heads.

Some of them - it was sheer envy, I suspected - thought I was making it up.

The penny dropped only when I spoke a little later to Steve, who was one of the game rangers at the camp. 'Didn't you know?' he said. 'Hippos are the most dangerous animals in Africa. They kill more people every year than lion, buffalo or anything else.'

PAVAROTTI wasn't the last hippo I was to run across on the trip, so it was as well that I decided there and then to dip into Mammals of Southern Africa, where I learnt, among other things, that hippos have been known to snap 10ft crocodiles in two and are able, in an emergency, to run 100 metres in 12 seconds.

This was my very first visit to a game reserve. With the complacency of Londoners who never make it to the National Gallery, I had never during my five years in South Africa thought of wandering off in pursuit of wild animals. But now that the human politics held fewer excitements than in the past, the time seemed ripe to broaden horizons. The Okavango Delta in Botswana had often been described by excited friends in Johannesburg as the finest game terrain in the whole of Africa. It seemed like a good place to start.

WE FLEW from Johannesburg to Maun, a dusty Wild West town full of arts and crafts shops on the southern fringes of the delta. The Okavango River flows down from the mountains of central Angola but, instead of turning right towards the sea, fans out and dies here on the northern extreme of the Kalahari Desert. From Maun it was a 20-minute flight by light aircraft to the landing strip at Camp Moremi.

The main object of the exercise was to see some wildlife. Camp Moremi made sure you did it in style. First let me describe my tent. Big enough to accommodate three medium-sized elephants, it contained a king-sized bed with duvet and matching curtains, a mahogany chest of drawers, a mahogany dressing table, two bedside tables, a white carpet and two electric lamps.

Round the back of the tent, enclosed by a bamboo fence but open to the sky, was a bathroom fitted with a wash basin, shower, hot and cold water, lavatory, 'wild lilac' air freshener and, resting on a basket in small customised plastic bottles, shower gel, shampoo, shower cap and soap. Johnny Weismuller never had it so good.

Then there was the bar at the lodge, a thatched construction of varnished wood designed and built - inexplicably - by three Canadians. The first call of the drum, it turned out, was for pre-dinner drinks. Among the available offerings were six brands of Cognac, eight of Scotch and four varieties of Stolichnaya vodka. There was also a barman who mixed cocktails.

As for dinner, which was served at a table adorned with two sets of silver candlesticks, this was what we had on our first night: mussels and onion soup, beef wellington and apple crumble, all accompanied by a choice of red or white South African house wine and washed down with coffee and liquers - Benedictine and brandy, Drambuie, Amaretto - around the camp fire.

Maybe it was out of a sense of duty to remind us that we were in fact in the heart of darkest Africa that Marie and her husband Jack (ex-Rhodesians both) spent the night regaling us with accounts of the horrific deaths, mutilations and narrow escapes endured by humans at the hands of lions, elephants and, of course, hippos. Death by elephant, I discovered, is a particularly messy business. First he stomps you, then he knees you and then, if he is really upset, he spears you with his tusk. 'Never forget,' was Jack's mantra, 'that wild animals are extremely unpredictable.'

ARMED WITH that thought, and a breakfast of bacon, eggs, sausages, toast, cereal and coffee, off we went in an open Land Cruiser in search of game. We made several trips. Steve was our guide the first time. Why, I asked him, did he not carry a gun? 'It's not allowed in Botswana.' Would he want to carry one? 'It's not necessary.' Then why did game rangers carry guns in South Africa and all the other neighbouring countries? 'On the off-chance.'

Our next guide was Kaiser, who was of Bushman stock and carried the lore of the wild in his veins. Steve, a South African, had said that if you encountered a lion the best thing was to walk backwards slowly. Kaiser said what you should do was transform yourself into a lion. His father, he swore, could do this. What you did was let fresh running water pass through your fingers and then you splashed it on to your face. 'I saw my father do this. Immediately he started to grow a mane.'

Lion (it is bush chic always to refer to wild animals in the singular) and elephant were what we most hoped to see. Experienced game spotters carry with them an invisible points system. On a scale of one to 10 elephant and lion are worth nine, hippo eight, buffalo seven, zebra and giraffe five, impala one. Different people have different priorities. For some, bird-watching is the thing.

Two ladies, 'birders' they called themselves, in my party were beside themselves when we came across an innocuous, but apparently rare, little bird called the Painted Snipe; but they were quite unmoved when we came across four lions, feasting on a freshly slaughtered wart hog, which we sat and observed for half an hour from a distance of barely 30 feet. For myself, I was mesmerised. That, after all, was what I was here for: the thrill of contact with nature's most dangerous creatures.

My own private measure of an animal's worth turned out to be in direct proportion to its ability to inflict grievous bodily harm. Take the buffalo, hefty horned beasts that can't be stopped once they get it into their minds to charge. I enjoyed them. Not so one of my companions. 'Ach, they're just cows,' she said.

Contrast this with Sir Laurens van der Post describing his mood after an encounter with a buffalo herd in this very part of the world: 'I thought with strange regret, 'They have gone', and stood turning over in my exalted senses the tumultuous impression of their black hooves slinging clay at the blue; bowed Mithraic heads and purple horns cleaving grass and reeds and spray of thorn like the prows of dark ships of the Odyssey on the sea of a long Homeric summer.'

The Prince of Wales, no doubt, would have been impressed. My friend, however, was insistent. 'They're cows, man]' Cows, maybe. But - I think this is what Sir Laurens was getting at - cows with attitude.

Kaiser did us proud. We spent a good half-hour with the lions, reassured by his calm; we saw loads of baboons, running and barking like dogs; herds of zebras, far more beautiful in the savannah pastures than I remembered them from the zoo; giraffes, who also lose much of their mystique in captivity; all manner of antelopes, particularly impala, which grizzled game veterans have branded 'justimpala'; white-chested fish eagles, as majestic as the guidebooks say; a squadron of maybe 400 pelicans flying in an undulating V formation, like moving musical notes; and everywhere gigantic ant hills, nature's monument to patient industry.

But we searched and we searched and could not find an elephant. Signs of them we saw aplenty. Footballs of greeny-brown droppings (a fully grown elephant, Kaiser said, unloads more than 200 pounds of them each day); smashed trees; barkless trees; and the unmistakeable oval 'spoor'. But not the thing itself.

As the sun began to set we headed, resigned to failure, back to camp, stopping along the way for the benefit of the photographers at a leafless white tree hosting a colony of elegant white birds, spoonbills and Sacred Ibis.

Again, I began to sense the attraction of birding - especially in such a setting. It was the Garden of Eden. A curiously Christmasy tree stood solitary in a vast natural amphitheatre; a circle of dense bush forest enclosed a grassy plain at least 10 times the size of Wembley Stadium.

At the centre of the circle was a lagoon that will recede into swamp in the summer, when the waters of the Okavango stop seeping down from the mountains. Under the tree lay a 15ft crocodile, still as a log. A discreet distance away four zebras and a herd of impala grazed, watched by two cunningly innocent-looking jackals. On the circle's periphery, two giraffes nibbled a tree-top.

Then a solitary hippo crossed our line of vision. On seeing us, he broke into a canter, ending with a crashing belly-flop - I could see what Marie meant - into the water. And then, as if on cue, one elephant appeared from behind a bush. And then another, until a herd of 20, with two babies the size of Great Danes, marched, uncannily silent, towards the drinking pool.

Then another herd appeared from the other side, 30-strong this one. Kaiser drove right up to them, stopped the car but, at our insistence, kept the engine running. Then he reached for the cooler box, took out five small bottles of chilled white wine, poured us each a glass - he had brought proper wine glasses - and there we sat for 20 minutes in the setting sun communing with these vast, languid creatures, which could, on a whim, crush us and our vehicle into a pulp.

What is unique about the Okavango, they tell me, is that you are able to witness scenes like this: the entire cast of The Lion King congregated in one spot. The ecology of the delta provides for lakes, swamps, rivers, savannah, bush, each providing the habitat for virtually every animal found in London zoo. And it's not just the animals. There's also the scenery; the absence of noise; the canoe trips through the papyrus reeds that line the delta's narrow channels; the food and the wine and the showers under a night sky so packed with stars that you imagine you're looking at the lights of a city from an aircraft, only upside down.

AND THEN there's waking up, as I did on my last morning at the neighbouring and no less luxurious Camp Okavango, to discover that sleeping outside your tent under a tree is not Pavarotti but another hippo, serenely at peace with his environment. Or so it seemed at first glance. Closer inspection revealed he had a deep red wound on his back. Apparently, I was told, he'd had a fight with his herd's dominant male, a savagely jealous guardian of the local hippo harem.

It was a measure of the fear he felt that he had chosen, now that the sun was up, to seek refuge next to my tent. Hippos have exceedingly sun-sensitive skin, and it is only in extreme circumstances that they will stray away from the water by day. I read, in my book about mammals, that attacks by breeding males often oblige bachelor males to wander off alone in 'marginal habitats'. Struck by a profound sense of empathy, I strolled off to the lodge, picked at my gargantuan breakfast and returned to find that he was gone. He'd headed towards the landing strip, one of the camp labourers told me.

We headed out there ourselves a couple of hours later, for the first leg of the trip back to Johannesburg. I looked for him but couldn't see him. As the small plane took off I looked out of the window, hoping for a last glimpse of my friend. And there he was] Not alone but playing, with three other hippos, at the water's edge on a bend in the delta. He'd found a family: a mummy hippo and two babies . . .

Well, OK. It might have been another hippo altogether. But I'd had my four days of Walt Disney and I'd forged my very own connection with the wild and, as I sat in the noisy little plane on my way back to the big city, I refused to be denied my happy ending.

TRAVEL NOTES GETTING THERE: British Airways (081-897 4000) flies to Maun via Gaborone, the capital of Botswana, for a fare of pounds 905 return; from there it is best to take a light aircraft (flight-time about 20 minutes) to Moremi.

Campus Travel (071-730 8111) offers return flights to Maun for pounds 730, via Johannesburg.

SAFARI TOURS: John Carlin's four-night, five-day 'Jewels of the Okavango' package cost pounds 700 (though prices vary according to season), including charter flight to and from Maun, canoe rides, game drives, food and lodging (but excluding flight from the UK). He booked with Desert and Delta Safaris, whose agents here include Abercrombie & Kent (071-730 9600), Twickers World (081-892 7606) and Southern Africa Travel (0904 692469).

The following operators offer tailor-made safaris in the Okavango Delta (prices include flights from London): Worldwide Journeys and Expeditions (071-381 8638, two weeks from pounds 2,165, optional extra stay at Victoria Falls available); Safari Consultants (0787 228494, two weeks from pounds 2,750); Southern Africa Travel (0904 692469, 13 days from pounds 2,252).

Wildlife Discovery (0737 223903) has a four-night package from Victoria Falls for pounds 865, including return charter (but not flight from UK).

FURTHER INFORMATION: Contact the Botswana High Commission at 6 Stretford Place, London W1N 9AE (071-499 0031). It will provide a tourist pack including a list of accommodation available in Botswana and general information about the country.

(Photographs and map omitted)