You never know who you'll meet on a safari

After 12 hours 15 minutes the spotter whispered `cheetah'. We set off in pursuit. After 12 hours 16 minutes we were stuck in the mud

A Sunday spent by the river. Nothing special, you may think, except that this one has crocodiles and hippos which keep me awake at night in my tent, five yards from the water's edge.

No ordinary river; no ordinary tent, either, but one at Galdessa Camp in Kenya's Tsavo East National Park. Galdessa is one of a growing number of private camps and lodges whose development plays a leading role in the trend to combine conservation with tourism while benefiting local communities: eco-tourism. When I meet Galdessa's impossibly good-looking owner, Pierre Morgue D'Algue, and examine its list of monied and celebrity visitors, the phrase ego-tourism comes temptingly to mind, but let that pass.

Seventy per cent of Kenya's wildlife lives outside its national parks, so it makes ecological sense to encourage tourists away from the beaten track towards smaller, more remote lodges whose owners - including several former hunters - have eagerly seized on the possibilities of eco-tourism. Galdessa may be a luxurious safari camp, but its development, together with funding from the conservation charity Tusk, has led to the acquisition of 30 black rhinos in Tsavo. Richard Bonham, at Ol Donyo Waas in the Chyulu Hills, and Ian Craig at Lewa Downs, are already supporting local communities through tourist revenue and environmental programmes. Without Bonham the Masai community would have no water supply; he brings it in from 30km away each day. And without the Craigs, there would be no rhino sanctuary at Lewa Downs.

My safari began where last year's ended: in Cape Town, with a sober and humiliating reminder of England's own endangered species - our cricketers. Watching South Africa roll over India at Newlands, we are greeted with the teatime announcement that in reply to Zimbabwe's 249-7, England are 27-3. The crowd explodes with derisive laughter, the sort of braying that would cause a Jeffrey Archer or a Michael Winner to shuffle in embarrassment. Is there no escape from this shame? It took a good few minutes before my friend Tim Wright had the presence of mind to point out that South Africa's success is due in no small measure to their English coach.

The arrival of Graham Cowdrey (son of Colin) brightened things considerably as Messrs Bremner and Wright immediately set about improving matters with a major bout of fielding practice on the hotel lawns. The acquisition of Marcus Berkmann's brilliant book on cricket, Rain Men, and the resulting obsession with cricket commentators meant that within minutes we were struck with TMS-itis, where the victims develop an inability to speak except as Trevor Bailey. Thus: "erm ... rather a good ball ..."; "not a bad piece of parking ..."; "one of the warmer mornings".

Later that evening Graham introduced me to Lester Piggott and quickly retreated, in the style of a child ringing a doorbell and running round the corner to await the reaction. He wasn't disappointed.

Lester, a legendary mumbler, was on great form, ie completely unintelligible, having perfected a form of speech which eliminates vowels altogether, possibly for tax reasons. As he is also rather deaf, he was unable to hear most of what I could say between giggles, and the conversation fell at the first fence. The evening ended with much excitement with the news that Frankie Detorri, due to ride the next day's favourite, had a boil on his bum and couldn't take part. Word got round: Lester was keen. The racing fraternity, including Julian "scoop" Wilson, waited with bated breath to see if the great champion would get a ride. Alas, it was not to be.

And so up to Nairobi, several hours north and beyond the reach of mobile phones. Coverage in South Africa is incredibly good. Too good, in fact. In parts of the Kruger Park your mobile phone can get a signal, which has already led to some Germans excitedly ringing up friends in Frankfurt to say: "Guess what I'm looking at now? It starts with `L' and ends with `ion'." Good grief. This brings out the Victor Meldrew in me. It's only a matter of time before Bob Hoskins will appear on safari, in the bush, brandishing the all-new digital mobile phone and telling us, "It's good to stalk".

A bush doctor writes: "Don't throw away any cattle prods or devices for administering electrical shocks you may have left over from the Good Old Days." They've now been found to be uniquely effective for treating snake bites and bee stings. A quick few thousand volts through you apparently breaks down the protein which is the venom's key ingredient, allowing the victim a rapid recovery.

It's fair to say that at some time on your safari you will be completely terrified. You came here to get away from it all. The sound of lions hunting near your tent, or elephants, rhinos or, worst of all, hippos charging at you can rather make you wish you were back there where the only thing breathing down your neck is a deadline or a director. After about 12 hours searching for big cats in the Serengeti ("I'm sure they were here two weeks ago," said my guide, rather as if he'd misplaced his glasses), we realised that as we ate under a tree 30 miles from anywhere on the hot, scrubby plain, a leopard had been watching us 50 yards away. After 12 hours 15 minutes the spotter whispered "Duma!" (cheetah!). We set off in pursuit. After 12 hours 16 minutes the Land Rover was stuck fast up to its axles in mud. In the baking afternoon heat. With a hyena watching. Oh my God. Which brings me to Bush Tip Number Two, ingeniously employed by my guide, Roger Corfield. Remove your spare wheel and bury it 10 yards in front of the vehicle, having attached the winch cable to it. The wheel cannot move and, with luck, encouragement, low gear and a powerful winch cable dragging you out inch by inch, you can do it.

Next, to Ngorongoro crater, one of the most incredible sights on earth - a vast, dry, dusty volcanic bowl many miles across. But today, as every day, it's like Sainsbury's on a Saturday morning. Within minutes you can see a rhino, two elephants, several zebra and wildebeest and about 20 Land Rovers. A sighting of a leopard can attract about six carloads of tourists craning for a view. It's like the Lake District in high summer, and another argument for more spread out, better organised eco-tourism.

At the Sopa lodge on the crater's edge, travellers' tales abound and are no surprise to the head chef, who talks nostalgically of his days at Aeroflot. Once, hearing that our chef had worked for British Airways, someone asked him if he knew where the plane was going. Nothing surprising about that, except that the person asking was the pilot. "Moscow," said our chef. "Oh," said the pilot. "We haven't got enough fuel for Moscow." The plane had to divert to a military base where the passengers were blindfolded until the plane had filled up and taken off again.

On another occasion he was summoned to the cockpit where he found the pilot struggling to get the landing gear down. Our hero calmly pointed out that planes carry a special jack with which the undercarriage can be levered down. "Ah yes," said the pilot. "The problem is, yesterday I was changing the wheel on my car ..." Sure enough, he had borrowed the jack and left it at home; the resultant crash landing ploughed a neat furrow beside the runway.

And so back to England. Shrill tabloid headlines, scandal, gossip and that election campaign. After a fortnight of crocodiles, hyenas and vultures it seems strangely familiar ...

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