The sky is dark with clouds, the impala skitter nervously in the tall yellow grass, a giraffe cranes effortlessly above the thorn trees. As I wait for the extremely small one-engined plane to arrive on the landing- strip on the edge of the Serengeti wildlife park, I am being let into the dark world of Tina Turner's make-up secrets.
My confidante is Miss Hollie Vest from Las Vegas. She may not be a household name in Britain, but she went down a storm in Sun City, that extravagant confection of varieties created out of the South African veldt, where for 19 months she starred as a Tina Turner lookalike.
It's all to do with getting a tan and keeping it, using lots of dark powder and foundation and, of course, donning a considerable wig. Hollie, by the way, is white, which makes the transformation all the more impressive, though it is fair to say that Hollie and Tina are similarly shaped and of an age.
Apparently, so convincing is her transformation that when Hollie/Tina was appearing at a club owned by Bill Medley (half of the Righteous Brothers) he didn't realise, upon meeting Hollie after the show, that she was indeed Tina.
No wonder there's an abiding sense of unreality about life on safari. It's not so much the animals you see in the bush, it's the people you meet in the lodge: the grim-visaged retired headmaster who asked questions as if he were about to give you six of the best - or have you fed to the lions; the honeymoon couple from Chicago whose animal longings were plain to see; the fluttery female from the rarefiedly rich pastures of Sunningdale, Berkshire, who was over for the week to watch her husband play a spot of polo in nearby Arusha.
Above all, there was Frank, a host at the lodge. A bit of a legend, Frank - a cross between Michael Heseltine and Errol Flynn, complete with china- blue eyes. It came as no surprise to hear that he had been interviewed by Complete Woman magazine for their series, "Bachelors of the Bush".
It was he who greeted me with a flourish and a bottle of cold Sprite, and introduced me to the Mashado Swala camp and the improbable luxury that typifies life on the range in north-west Tanzania. This was in the Tarangire National Park, south east of Arusha, and boasted accommodation in tents. We are not talking bivouacs here. This is serious luxury, with comfy beds, showers bursting with hot water, gold plate taps and those little pots of shower gel courtesy of Bromley.
The tents are scattered some way from the hub of the camp - the "mess" - which serves dry martinis, respectable South African white and elegant European food with all the aplomb you could hope for.
You don't just chance on these places. You can't catch a bus or thumb a lift into the bush in the hope of finding a B&B. If you haven't booked in advance, the place to go is Arusha, some 40 minutes from Kilimanjaro airport, which is lined with organisations offering safaris. It's hard to know which to choose. For example, I was horrified to be overtaken by six vans all in a row, sporting the logo of the tour operators Abercrombie & Kent. It is impossible to enjoy the drama of the bush when you are in such a traffic jam. And how do you know whether your guide is prepared to make the effort and take the time to find the animals and explain what is going on? So it was with a sense of serendipity that I was taken to the Mashado Swala and met the dashing Frank.
The first glimpse of life in the wild didn't
feel, well, very wild, despite the impala which grazed in the camp grounds. All those Martinis, probably. But an evening by the fireside with Frank quickly put me right. Sometimes whole prides of lions will settle in a camp, padding around the tents, roaring a bit. Buffalo wandered unhindered. It can be dangerous. That's why every evening a guard with a spear and a torch guides you safely from tent to dining-room, and even to the loo.
Certainly, on a particularly blowy night, with the tent banging around like a full rigger off the Cape of Good Hope, I was woken by the unmistakable sound of a lion's growl. I leapt out of bed to peer through the awnings at the shadow of a lioness and cubs settling down yards from my canvas cosiness. In fact, the cold light of day revealed them as a boulder and a thorn bush. But it could have been.
The sense of unreality persists. Even the animals seem to be part of the conspiracy. The Tanzanian park authorities do not allow foot safaris, so most of your animal-spotting is from the safety of a four-wheel drive vehicle. The guide for the day, Stanislaus - named after a character in the Bible, he insisted rather puzzlingly - used to come to a quiet halt. "What do you see?" he would ask. You'd look across at a herd of nervy wildebeest and cautious zebra and look again. In the foreground were lions, hanging out with the insouciance you expect from the guys at the top of the food chain.
They are so laid back that they can hardly be bothered to turn their heads in the direction of your clicking cameras. Leopards contemptuously lounge in the branches of trees, tails hanging down, giving interlopers the hard stare. Hyenas, with their high necks and round shoulders, oaf around like bouncers on the run. Cheetahs sit coyly in the shade of an acacia presenting their cuddly little cubs like gift-wrapped Christmas presents. And just to attract a little limelight, 30 ostriches sashay across the plain, all flouncy and feathery like so many Beverley Sisters.
The show, however, is stolen by the elephants. I stood for half-an-hour above the river Tarangire, a muddy little affair, as more than 60 padded quietly along, splashing gently, pausing only to have a quick roll in the mud. Unhurried, one-paced, confident and calm. A big family - elephant herds are all related - on a jolly day out.
You realise that all this calm is deceptive when you come upon a zebra, its innards ripped out, a slash from a lion's claw on its rump, its body already expanding in the heat; or you get a pungent whiff of the carcass in the jaws of a hyena. Then it all becomes real. And, perversely, the more you sit quietly, the more the detail of the drama somehow brings home the mightiness of it all.
A sex-starved mongoose clings on for dear life as one of his mates tries to knock him off the object of his passion; bat-eared foxes pop out of the ground, their little round ears a signal to all and hungry; agama lizards, iridescent in blue, red and green, practise their push-ups on the warm rocks.
One detail which delighted me almost as much as the sighting of the big beasts was the secret of the whistling thorn. Each branch carries a little, hard fruit which can be inhabited by an ant. The termite drills a hole, and when the wind blows the trees whistle.
You look up, to catch a glimpse of screaming flocks of birds around the waterhole; plovers screech, and starlings, glorious in bright blue and white, come hopping up to catch the crumbs from your picnic. And from these details you gaze to the horizon many miles away, across an unending expanse of yellow grass, trees with thorns as sharp as two-inch nails, and rounded outcrops of rock, one of which has a hollow decorated with carvings by itinerant Masai, who use the place for their annual circumcision ceremonies. At last, a sense of the history, a feeling for the wildness.
Taking off for Tanzania
When to go
Tanzania is relatively dry and cool from June to October. Rains are heaviest in April and May, with lighter spells in November and December.
The closest airport to Tarangire is Kilimanjaro International, served weekly on Sundays from Heathrow via Entebbe by Alliance Air (0181-944 5012). The lowest fare is pounds 539.80 return including UK and Tanzanian taxes. Bridge The World (0171-911 0900) has a fare of pounds 505 return on KLM via Amsterdam from a number of UK airports. Departure tax of US$20 (about pounds 12) is payable for the return.
British passport holders need a visa. For the application form for a three-month tourist visa, send a stamped addressed envelope to the Tanzanian High Commission, 43 Hertford Street, London W1Y 8DB (0171-499 8951). Return it with your passport, two photos and pounds 38. It takes a week, or 24 hours if you apply in person.
What to read
Footprint's East Africa Handbook 1998 has just been published, price pounds 14.99.
Where to stay
Richard Holledge paid pounds 240 per night to stay at Mashado. This covers full board, flights, drives, guide and park fees.
You can book direct through Mashado central reservations, PO Box 14823, Arusha, Tanzania (00 255 57 6585); send e-mail to Mashado@habari.co.tz; or book in the UK with Africa Travel Centre (0171-387 1211), On Safari (0171-823 5900) or Carrier Tours (01625 582006).