How odd it must have been in the old days to have "the Dark Continent" on the edge of your world - a nothingness where you could project all you best travel fantasies.

If you were a white man in chilly, little England, you could summon up images of large, dark, sexy, hot, dangerous places where wild animals roamed and where the tiresome constraints of being polite and tidy no longer applied. Your cartographers had not yet mapped it, your missionaries had not yet converted it, your hunters had not yet killed its animals, your engineers had not yet laid railways across it. You could sit in your garden at home ravishing Africa in your imagination.

In Johannesburg, I tried to understand that old perspective. It is still seductive to leave England at night and find yourself over Africa at dawn. When I looked out of my window this morning I saw not parked cars or terraced housing but expanses of jungle, carved up by bending rivers. I was tempted to believe that this was, indeed, an empty space on the map.

Except that it isn't. Landing in Johannesburg was little short of miraculous. After hours of jungle and desert, the plane descended over a mini-Manhattan in the middle of the plain. Get closer and you even see freeways, shopping malls and parking lots. Closer still, I am told, and you see urban squalor and delinquency.

A virginal nothingness? Quite the opposite. In the airport lounge I watched a familiar parade of duty-free shoppers go by. The only clues to my whereabouts were the TV screens showing re-runs, not of catwalk fashion shows nor of Mr Bean, but of Africa's big five. The big five are the major animals seen on safari - elephant, lion, buffalo, leopard and rhino. Meanwhile, the souvenir shops are stuffed with teddy elephants and zebras.

If turning the big five into lifestyle icons isn't a case of overpackaging I'm a baboon. The term in itself already implies that animals are a thing to collect; that game parks are nothing more than extended versions of Longleat; that animals roam in these places not because they choose to do so but because the combined interests of local agriculture and the worldwide tourism industry have chosen to keep an aesthetically pleasing supply of them on the go. If we had chosen otherwise, of course, the heads of these beasts would be hanging in our trophy cupboards.

Luckily, I am not here in southern Africa to view the amenities of Johannesburg airport. This evening I arrived at a remote spot on the Zambesi river listening out for the roaring of hippos and the chomping of crocodiles. Getting back to a state of raw virginal nature? Apart from the fact that I am being served wine with my meals I hope the answer is yes.