Amid the inky blackness of an African night, the chorus of hippos rises and falls – a symphony of burps, croaks, and concerto-worthy chuckles. As the embers of the fire die and the warm evening air hangs still, my ears begin to register another sound: a hot-blooded, heavy breathing.
The only thing is, the breathing's not mine. And since I can hear my travel companion snoring deeply from within the tent next door, it's not hers either. Whatever it is, it's big, it's panting and it's standing right beside me.
Africa is, of course, The Great Adventure. The friendly Nambwa campsite attendant reminded us of this as he cautioned that a leopard had been strolling the grounds after dark. No surprise there: fed by the Zambezi and Okavango rivers, the southern African panhandle known as the Caprivi Strip attracts over 600 species of bird, as well more than its fair share of lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo. I couldn't be sure it was a leopard that night, but it was precisely the sort of frisson I'd been hoping for.
That's the beauty – and the beast – of a self-drive safari. More demanding and exciting than a traditional affair, a self-drive safari means discovering Africa in your own style. Slide behind the wheel of your own 4x4 (complete with nifty pop-up roof tent, stocked fridge, table, chairs, sat-nav and emergency satellite phone), and you can follow a bespoke itinerary with accommodation ranging from bush camping to luxurious lodges.
We'd plumped for several indie-style nights under the stars, checking in to basic but clean campsites and cooking simple food in a big cast-iron pot over the fire. Here, we augmented our wood supply by collecting dried elephant dung, and slept amid warm grass-scented air – me five feet up in the pop-up tent on the roof of the Land Rover Defender; my brave and personal-space-valuing companion closer to the action in a tent on the ground.
Armed with off-road skills gleaned from the driving course we'd undertaken in the UK, and brimming with the confidence of the Thelma and Louise school of daring, we were two women in search of adventure. Having contravened the company's advice that this sort of holiday is not for anyone without experience of Africa, I had also secretly ticked the "never been camping" box. But, as my mother chirped as I left: "Be careful, but remember: you only have to run faster than your friend, dear."
Our ambitious 10-day tour was designed to loop the Caprivi Strip, from Namibia's northern border through Zambia and Botswana, stopping every night or two in interesting spots. Following an equipment briefing (the car comes with a starter pack of essentials, including tinned food, marshmallows and wine), we climbed aboard our trusty white 4x4, which turned out to be called Mungo. All the cars in the tourist fleet have names: ours honours the Scottish doctor Mungo Park, who set out in 1805 to discover the course of the Niger river. Slightly unnervingly, he and his entire party of 40 died on the adventure – but they must have seen some fabulous stuff along the way.
Having set off, I immediately displayed my deranged navigational skills by steering us an hour in the wrong direction. (Lesson One: Africa is light on road signs. Two: I'm better with a menu than a road map. Three: the GPS which directs us over-river to Zimbabwe is delusional.)
The four-hour drive towards our first destination, Mutemwa Lodge on the Upper Zambezi, would now be capped by two hours of slogging in low-gear up an endless sandy pot-holed track. My clutch leg seized up, there was grit in my eyes, my tongue felt like yesterday's bacon – and then the sky turned pitch black.
We had some written advice about this sort of thing, which went, roughly: "Under no circumstances are you to drive after dark." Fires blazed in the distance, faint drums pulsed over warm black air. "We'll either get there or we won't," declared my well-seasoned friend as my fingers cramped frozen on the wheel. I don't mind telling you, I was a tiny bit nervous.
A few hundred kilometres later, we were led along the final part of our journey by Benjie, an Afrikaans-accented Zambian diamond mine tycoon we'd stumbled across in the bush. (It's a long story.) By this point, I felt that I had cut my teeth as far as the African landscape was concerned (and, mercifully, nothing else).
Mutemwa Lodge owners Penny and Gavin Johnson (he of South Africa World Cup and Saracens rugby union fame) were swift with emergency G and Ts. Gratifyingly, they seemed impressed that we arrived at all. Until that night, they had only ever fetched their guests from a nearby private air strip. We were the first to drive the long track, tricky in the dark, not to mention closed for months at a stretch in muddy season. Score one, Mungo.
Mutemwa has half a dozen luxury tents on platforms, each with its own ensuite thatched open-air bathroom. Morning dawned over the kilometre-wide stretch of the Upper Zambezi, with fragrant coffee delivered to our private terraces. Clean and caffeinated, I was ready for a morning spent angling for tiger fish on Gavin's motorboat. I managed to hook and lose one of the sharp-fanged beasts, but the professionals onboard snagged a couple and tossed them into the air, where they were snatched, National Geographic style, by a huge eagle overhead.
The world seemed a kinder place as we said goodbye, urging Mungo onwards. The first of several checkpoints involved passing over the border from Zambia into Namibia (the most challenging frontier of the trip was the Kazungula Ferry crossing from Botswana, though various mysterious and alarming predictions about $400 bribes and six-hour waits never came to pass). Then we headed for our next challenge: two nights of guided camping with Middlesbrough-born Dan Stephens of Mashi River Safaris.
On the marshy banks of the Kwando River, sprightly red lechwe and rapier-horned sitatunga antelope pranced elegantly through brush. Elephant, hippo, and crocodiles shared these waters. And to my surprise, we joined the pool party. Halfway along a languorous two-hour cruise to our island campsite was a swimming hole Dan has recce'd as "safe". I slipped gingerly off the pontoon into the unfathomable lily-edged water, eyeing each reed and ripple a good deal more closely than normal. On the "I can't believe I'm swimming in hippo-and–croc infested waters" scale, it was a 10.
Later, the boat pulled up at tiny Njazanga Island, where Mashi River Safaris has the sole concession for overnight excursions. The only construction on the island consisted of a loo seat suspended over a sandy hole and an ingenious wood-heated shower. After a previous night spent over-stimulated by animal noise and wide awake in my pop-up tent, I was exhausted, so missed the lion roars at 4.30am. At dawn, though, we spied a gigantic bull elephant close to a pert-eared lechwe. Meanwhile, scarcely visible far in the distance were the sandy shapes of four lionesses and their cubs – a thrilling first sighting of them in the area, even for Dan.
After two days of fantastic hospitality – where we'd swayed to outdoor singing of a Seventh-Day Adventist revival, struck out for a dawn game walk with a game conservancy warden, showered under the stars in decadent wood-heated water, and tucked into Dan's tilapia fish and chips fried on the barbecue – we were ready to go it alone in Bwabwata National Park.
Bwabwata promised sightings of one of the highest dry season concentrations of elephants in Africa, all of Africa's large carnivores, and hundreds of species of birds. It was thrilling to encounter our first elephants up close (stop, wait, don't divide the herd) as well as monkeys swinging from teak trees, and dozens of lechwe prancing through woodland. Driving and looking out for animals at the same time requires real concentration, making each sighting its own reward. We encountered only an occasional van of tourists, who regarded us with wildlife-worthy looks. "I bet they think we're cool," I boasted, then stalled our 4x4 in their path. They took our photo nonetheless.
Mighty Mungo had put over 1,000km under his wheels by the time we swung into Botswana's five-star Chobe Chilwero Lodge in high style. Then round and round the perimeter of its encampment we drove, the red sand making slippery work of a path that skirted within inches of a ferocious-looking electric fence. Could we find the gate? No chance.
"It's to discourage day trippers," we were told during cocktail hour before a lavish dinner.
By now we'd switched gears and were in the posh-end of the safari scale – claw-foot tubs, flashlight-wielding escorts and (best of all for grubby self-drive campers) decadent massages. Plus a free laundry service.
I felt disloyal when I briefly traded the keys to Mungo for a private game drive at Sussi and Chuma, a glamorous lodge-on-stilts tucked outside Livingstone and named after the explorer's devoted followers. Guide and driver Timothy gave an erudite and charming commentary on the giraffes, elephants, even a funny-faced family of warthogs. It was a guilty pleasure to observe the unwinding wildlife so passively, from the backseat of a chauffeured truck.
Magically, on my last day on safari, I got one last unexpected glimpse of Africa at the sharp end. Silent and obedient, I walked single file behind two Zambian men dressed in army fatigues and armed with AK47 machine guns. They were members of the 24-hour guard that looks after the only five white rhino in the country. Stopping just 10 metres away, I observed the two-tonne herbivores chewing leaves peacefully, their prehistoric-looking heads and squared lips releasing snorts of satisfaction.
But, beyond the astonishing wildlife on this trip, the car really was the star. Mungo makes maps rather than reads them – and for that I salute him.
Travel essentials: Namibia
* Safari Drive (01488 71140; safaridrive.com) offers tailor-made self-drive safaris in Botswana, Kenya, Namibia, Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia. A 16-day safari including 12 nights' camping and three nights in lodges costs from £2,555 per person in high season. Prices include a Safari Drive Land Rover, transfers, accommodation, camping equipment, satellite phone and sat-nav. International flights are not included.
* Waterberry Zambezi Lodge (waterberrylodge.com). From US$550 (£366) per night for two, full board.
* Mutemwa Lodge (mutemwa.co.za). Rates start at US$490 (£326) for two, full board.
* Sussi & Chuma (sanctuaryretreats.com). From US$1,130 (£754) for two, full board.
* Chobe Chilwero (sanctuaryretreats.com). Rates start at US$1,240 (£826) double, full board.