Safari fans avoid the lush 'green' season when animals are hard to spot. But, says Andrew Tuck, it's always the right time to visit the Okavango

We slept outside last night. The staff pulled our beds out of the cabin and on to the wooden deck that's perched high above the reed beds. This way, they said, we could fall asleep beneath the stars - and the industrial-strength nets that would keep even Mission Impossible-inspired mosquitoes at bay.

We slept outside last night. The staff pulled our beds out of the cabin and on to the wooden deck that's perched high above the reed beds. This way, they said, we could fall asleep beneath the stars - and the industrial-strength nets that would keep even Mission Impossible-inspired mosquitoes at bay.

This morning, we are still alive. No leopard leapt upon us looking for a supper of scrag-end. Although my other half's snoring was outdone for once by the sounds of hippos, just feet away, gorging themselves on the luscious grasses. And now we can hear them in the nearby pools snorting water and nattering to each other in their deep ho-ho-ho call that makes them sound like highly amused fat gentlemen.

The pools are not just home to the chortling hippos. As dusk breaks, you wonder whether an avian air-traffic control unit wouldn't go amiss in this corner of Botswana's Okavango Delta. From every corner birds in spectacular liveries are landing and taking off from the watery airstrip at our feet: fish eagles, malachite kingfishers, cormorants, herons, cranes. And this is supposed to be the quiet time of year.

The high and low season in the world of safaris is dictated by leaves. When the rains come and the bush starts sprouting, animals disperse as food and water are easier to find and so they become harder to spot. This "green" season is when safari prices fall. But although the first rains have hit by now, and the trees and shrubs are looking decidedly verdant, there is much to recommend a safari in the Okavango at this time of year: the heat is more tolerable, there is still more than enough game - and birds - to be seen, and many of the animals give birth at this time of year, so now's your chance to see those cute baby giraffe and zebra.

And whatever time of year it is, being in the bush always trips you up, forces you to slow down, especially in the diverse landscape of the Okavango where one minute you are driving through waterlily-covered swamp, the next edging through thickets of wild sage that scent the air as the truck shakes its branches. For just a few days, you find yourself looking and listening - aided by your trusty guide - with a clarity and intensity that you rarely find in your hectic daily life. Be warned: the bush gets to you.

Then there are the camps. Today you can find safaris where you sleep rough or slumber surrounded by French antiques, but in the middle category are camps like this one, the brand new Baines, where they make you feel part of the environment (sleeping on the deck), yet also know how to look after you when you are in the camp between bush visits - there's a small swimming pool and plenty of good food and wine. Camps like this are as much about R&R as game drives.

Baines is small: it sleeps 10 people in five cottages. These and the main reception area are linked by a series of raised walkways under which scurry monkeys, squirrels and I don't like to think what else. The camp takes its name from Thomas Baines, the Victorian traveller who found that he could combine his love of science and art in his journeys across southern Africa (copies of some of his paintings decorate the walls).

Despite the posh façade, however, the camp is in effect governed by local people. The 1,225 square kilometres of land that makes up Baines' territory has another less romantic name: concession NG32. The people who live here, or are traditionally connected with this land, decide who should run it as a safari concession (currently Sanctuary Lodges). Via their elders and government-backed development committees, the people look for a partner with whom they can share the benefits from tourism. They want someone who will employ them to build and maintain the camp, buy supplies such as gas from them, and help promote and sell their crafts. Burial funds, training, mobile clinics... all get written into the final sophisticated deal. They may be modest villagers, but they know what they want.

This set-up leads to some very special conclusions. At Baines, the camp's walls have been constructed from 150,000 drinks cans that were collected in the town of Maun (from where you catch the six-seater Cessna that flies you into the camp). These were then covered with chicken wire and a plaster that contains elephant dung. At every step the people, and the environment, have won. But excuse me, it's 6am and I can't lie here chatting. In 15 minutes, Kot, our guide, wants us to be in the Landcruiser, ready for our first drive of the day.

As we pull out of camp, Kot points to the flattened circles on the sandy track where hyenas have spent the night sleeping but yards from us. Then it's eyes peeled for the start of four hours scanning the horizon looking for our quarry.

Kot reads the landscape with the thoroughness of a forensic scientist, searching for clues as to where various animals may be lurking. He watches as a vulture comes in to land on a distant dead tree and turns the Landcruiser to investigate.

As we approach, I see that the tree is playing host to a whole gang of these scruffy opportunists. Kot edges forward and then turns to whisper: "Leopard". It takes some minutes before I finally see its wagging tail. The leopard has killed two impala, the antelopes' white bellies are easier to spot in the grass than their killer. Greedy Guts is going nowhere. At one point he stands up, walks past us to a grassy mound and slumps down on his full belly. Replete, he pants and yawns. After a few minutes, finding our presence a little tedious, he saunters away again and we leave him in peace.

Over our three days at Baines, Kot shows us herds of elephants and three female lions off for a night of hunting. He spies bat-eared foxes, porcupines, wildebeest, buffalo - oh, and a leopard tortoise. He tells us stories of growing up in the bush and about his life. Through his enthusiasm, the only book I have time for is his well-thumbed copy of Kenneth Newman's Birds of Botswana - to hell with The Da Vinci Code.

After our final meal he drives us to the airstrip where he has to encourage an extravagantly tusked wart hog off the dirt runway. Soon we hear the hum of the approaching Cessna and, within minutes, we are on board and taxiing to leave the Okavango. As the plane takes off, we look down and there is Kot smiling and waving and, just feet away, is the wart hog looking up at us with an equally cheery grin.

Abercrombie & Kent offers three nights at Chiefs Camp, two nights at Baines Camp and two nights at Chilwero on a fully inclusive basis from £2,625 per person. Price includes BA flights to Johannesburg, all internal light-aircraft flights and walking with elephants. Reservations through Abercrombie & Kent on 0845 0700 611; www.abercrombiekent.co.uk

Beastly breaks

Whale watching

From July to December, visitors to the town of Hermanus, 90 minutes from Cape Town, South Africa, are almost guaranteed to see migrating whales in the bay. The peak time is September when the town holds a whale festival.

Birdspotting

You don't have to head off to exotic parts to enjoy a twitching break. Holidaymakers to Britain's southwest should visit the Slimbridge Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust on the river Severn. Founded by Sir Peter Scott in 1946, it is home to thousands of wintering ducks, geese and swans.

Cattle mustering

Turn cowboy for a few days in Australia's Outback. Numerous stations offer the chance to saddle up and herd cattle. For more information, visit www.australianportfolio.com.

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