I was expecting to see the wildlife, not eat it. Yet here it was in front of me – springbok shank, with mash, washed down with a fine Cape red. I'm not quite sure how this reconciles with the avowed "eco tourist" mission of Richard Branson's Ulusaba Private Game Reserve in South Africa, but I suppose my meat was free-range and organic. If you haven't tried it, the national animal is like lamb, only gamier – and surprisingly fatty.

Springbok was, in fact, one of the few creatures that I didn't meet in a three-day stay at this luxury-in-the-bush resort, ideally located next to the famous Kruger National Park. I soon bagged the "Big Five" for the digital camera – lion, buffalo, elephant, leopard and, most satisfying for me, a rhino, with calf, a rare sight. Big game hunters knew these as the most dangerous to them, but the deceptively docile-looking hippo kills many more South Africans than lions, crocs or mamba: they're quicker than they look.

You inevitably feel like tinned food on safari. I wondered why the killing machines round us didn't see half a dozen humans in a Land Rover in the same way as we might a can of meatballs – not your usual fare, but edible all the same.

Instead, you get almost insultingly ignored by the lions, who just kip, conserving energy for their nocturnal forays. Maybe they think we are the predators. There are two prides on Branson's estate, and sometimes the mega-cute cubs are visible. And yes, they really do play just like your tabby at home. So what I else did I spot? A couple of cheetah, plenty of impala (bottom of the mammalian food chain), bigger kudu, wildebeest, water buck and eland, giraffes, vultures, eagles and eagle owls, and much else. A walk in the savannah will add the smaller fry, just as alienly fascinating – tortoises with hinged shells, fat, glossy black millipedes, a deadly puff adder, chameleons, termite mounds with millions of denizens below, and deafeningly loud frogs.

So visitors make the most of the two game drives a day, each of three hours (things don't happen as rapidily as on David Attenborough's shows), at about 5am, and 4pm; cooler times when the creatures are most active, but you can also easily see them. When to go? African summer, our winter, is hot and rainy; African winter, our summer, is drier and leaves the vegetation more sparse, so there's more chance of seeing wildlife – especially on a true night safari, when you get to see lions stalking and hippo roaming (though this isn't offered at Ulusaba). Still, my knowledgable guide and sharp tracker taught me plenty. I now know why leopards take their kills up a tree (so dinner isn't stolen by hyenas), how to distinguish hippo and rhino tracks (hippo drag their feet) and how to age a lion (the darker the mane, the older it is).

Ulusaba also offers its guests the chance to see, and support, its charitable arm, Pride 'n' Purpose, in the surrounding villages, helping to secure, for example, care for the many children left without family, or many chances in life, because of HIV/Aids; a moving encounter. It's a reminder of the challenges facing South Africa, another of which is escalating crime. All tourists – including World Cup fans – are more likely to be prey to petty theft than to big cats, and are well advised to lock up valuables. Africa is full of surprises, some less pleasant than springbok shank.

ulusaba.virgin.com (0800 716919). Double occupancy rooms from 4,600 Rand (£372) per person per night, including meals

The wild side

# Track wolf and lynx through the white wilderness of Slovakia's Tatra Mountains on a conservation holiday with Biosphere Expeditions (0870-4460801; biosphere-expeditions.org). Help to create a sustainable future for these icons of the Carpathian wilds. £960 per person, per week.

# Zimbabwe is cautiously opening its doors to tourists again, its local tour operators much in need of the adherent funds. Wilderness Safaris (020-8232 9777; expertafrica.com) have new trips out of Zambia that cross the border into Zimbabwe, to such fabulously empty wildlife parks as Mana Pools. A week from £2,173pp.

# With Sri Lanka now back on the tourist map, so too is Yala National Park, one of the planet's best leopard-spotting sites. And with its current low costs, this tropical island is looking very enticing this year. 15-day Sri Lanka packages (including Yala) from £2,285pp with Real Holidays (020-7359 3938; indiaportfolio.co.uk).

# Inspired by watching Stephen Fry facing our hairy forebears in Last Chance to See? Then try this eco-tourism initiative that gets close to gorillas without disrupting their environment. A 12-day Uganda and Rwanda gorilla trip with Baobab Expeditions (020-8951 2854; baobab expeditions.com) costs £1,484pp.

# Dive with humpback whales in the Caribbean waters between Dominica and the Turks and Caicos. Between February and March these whales and their babies get within eyeballing distance. Year-round expect sperm whales, spinner, spotted and Fraser dolphins. Seven nights from £1,345pp, Dive Worldwide (diveworldwide.com).