I'd been told that when you first put your feet on African ground, you'll be hit by a feeling of overwhelming understanding, like you've returned home and suddenly belong. Quite frankly, I didn't feel that. Going to Botswana for three months to film The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency was my first visit to the continent and I did-n't know what to expect. After all, I'm used to a certain level of luxury. Would I have to stay in a tent? Would the bathroom be in an out-house?
But after a few days of looking for what they didn't have, I noticed all the things they have. My eyes suddenly opened. Everything was new and wonderful: stopping on the highway to allow ostriches and zebras to cross; the inescapable fine red dust, which left my skin amazingly smooth; just how black the night sky was.
Before we set out, the director,AnthonyMinghella, showed me pictures of Botswana and spoke of it with such love. "Remember to be humble," he said. "Don't walk in with any airs or attitudes." This proved to be invaluable advice. Africa doesn't leap on you immediately; it seeps slowly, and it's incredibly important to be respectful and humble there. We're very small in that big and beautiful place.
Our filming schedule was intense - most days we were on set for 13 to 15 hours - so our time off was precious. And we certainly made the most of it. Anthony sent me and my co-stars Anika [Noni Rose] and Lucian [Msamati] on safari in the Kalahari desert. I was struck by the pure silence and the stillness. I looked around the mostly flat environment and just couldn't believe what I was seeing. The area was peppered with dry yet green trees, which I was warned to be careful of due to their large thorns which deter birds and animals. Above us soared a huge black bird with a red stripe.
We met some local bushmen who taught us about poo during an enlightening walk, pointing out all the varieties as we passed them: zebra poo, impala poo, buffalo poo - I can safely say that I'm now an expert in that field. These men's skills and knowledge are extraordinary. Just by looking at a footprint in the sand they are able to tell if the animal is pregnant, and they know where to dig to find scorpions and will hold them in their hands without any trace of fear.
The bushmen spoke the beautiful and intricate "click" language. It was amazing to hear them communicate. Luckily a couple of them also spoke a little English - how else would we have learnt all about the poo? That night we slept under canvas and I could feel the presence of the lions nearby. I felt their energy and deep growl. It was really quite frightening.
One of my most treasured experiences was when we went one morning at dawn to see the meerkats. After reaching their home, we perched on the dusty ground and, following instructions, sat very still. Soon enough a furry head emerged from one of the little holes and looked around quizzically, making sure everything was as it should be before the babies made an appearance.
I sat respectfully and relaxed as the friendly creatures ventured closer. They climbed on my foot and up my back and sat on my shoulder - one even crawled on to my lap.
Next we travelled to the Makgadikgadi salt pans, which are about the size of Switzerland. The spectacle continues for mile after mile in every direction, like a white beach. We had to wear glasses and scarves around our heads to protect against the salt in the air. We drove through the dramatic setting in a 4x4, eventually stopping as dusk closed in.
To see the sun set on the plains is more than memorable. The deep oranges merging into yellows and reds with striking violets against the stark ground was just gorgeous. As the sun dipped below the horizon, I turned around and saw the moon rising. I felt so small. Tears welled up and I could-n't stop crying. Once it was dark, we laid down on the plains and stared up at the brilliant, cloudless night sky. It may sound ridiculous, but I never realised how much sky was out there. It was wider and so much bigger than what I knew.
Nothing disrupted the view: no trees, no buildings, no smog. A shooting star raced across the black backdrop and was quickly followed by another. I felt I was the luckiest person ever to see them. More appeared and I thought: "You mean this level of grandeur happens all the time and we don't know about it?"
We spent another few days in the abundantly green Okavango delta, which couldn't be more different from the arid Kalahari. Most people explore the waterways in a canoe but I passed on that - there are crocodiles in those waters! I was treated to a helicopter ride over the delta instead. From the air, the miles of lush vegetation look incredibly rich.
I saw animals I didn't even know existed while I was in Botswana. One morning, in the capital, Gaborone, my driver, Scorpion, and I spotted some lovely birds and stopped to look. I glanced around and, through the trees, locked eyes with a beast that was unlike any other I'd seen. "Scorpie, what is that?" I whispered. "That's an eland," he replied. "Don't move."
The eland was tall, strong and tan coloured with white diagonal stripes running along his body. He had a face and ears similar to a giraffe. You could see all his muscles yet it was his long eyelashes and big eyes that I was drawn to. I tried to get out my camera discreetly but before I knew it he'd jumped over a tree and vanished. Scorpion told me they're considered to be lucky creatures and are rarely seen.
Gaborone is as modern as any other capital city, although horses and cattle do roam freely. Discovering a traditional way of life, however, is not very difficult. Shepherds continue to live in round houses made of clay with thatched roofs. Most are painted bright colours such as aqua, red and yellow. A fire burns inside to protect families from the harsh winter chill. That took me by surprise: nobody tells you it gets cold in Africa!
Seeing all this and working on location in Botswana really helped me to become Precious Ramotswe. The set was always bursting with extras, many of whom I spoke to, and by doing so I picked up little mannerisms. The people of Botswana are not only friendly but also excessively respectful. They're intensely intelligent, too. We watch news reports and say "Oh those poor African people" when it should be ourselves we pity - most of them speak seven or eight languages. Their vocabulary astounded me. I felt stupid next to them, like a novice at everything, and I loved it. I felt like a child again.
Many of the locals, even strangers I met in the markets of Gaborone, would come over and strike up a conversation in Setswana. They would approach me with the traditional greeting "Dumela Mma" - the word "Mma" being the equivalent of Miss. Even small girls are addressed as Mma, while boys are called Rra, with a strong rolling of the tongue. Once they realised I wasn't from Botswana they would proceed to tell me I looked like their sister or cousin.
I immersed myself in the culture while I was there. I ate what they did and I drank what they offered, but I'm not going to lie: sometimes I loved it and other times I wished I'd never put it in my mouth. Mma Ramotswe is a big fan of mopani worms, which are large edible caterpillars, found on trees. They're dried, boiled or steamed and enjoyed by everyone, especially children. A young girl, no older than six, thought it hilarious that I had never eaten one. She stood there clutching a bag of the worms, devouring them as though they were crisps, and laughing.
"You've never had mopani worms?" she said repeatedly. To end her teasing, I picked one up and brought it to my lips. It was the same size as a potato chip, but hard and black with little legs on it. The girl insisted they were delicious and salty, but that failed to translate to me. It wasverydryanditreminded me of what I imagine dry dog food to taste like. Still, I ate the whole thing - and it was a big one - before swiftly reaching for the nearby bottle of water.
One local speciality that did win me over - and another favourite of Mma Ramotswe - was bush tea. There's a joy in bush tea; it's almost like yoga in your mouth. I brought some home with me. One day, on set dressed in character, I was sitting outside drinking bush tea and looking out at where I was, as Mma Ramotswe so often does. "I'm in Africa," I told myself. That was quite a moment.
Further viewing: 'The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency', starring Jill Scott, is on BBC1 on Easter Sunday at 9pm