The difference at the swish tented camp of M'Bali becomes immediately apparent upon being shown to your luxury accommodation. Built into the side of a hill overlooking the sweeping curve of the (seasonally dry) M'Bali river, the lodge has nine twin-berth tents erected on wooden platforms, with shower rooms carved into the hill in a basement beneath. This type of accommodation is probably the closest you can get to nature without being eaten by it. The night before I arrived a leopard had been seen on my balcony, while earlier in the month inquisitive elephants had to be chased away from the tents.
Perhaps not as obviously dramatic was the monster of an insect, half beetle, half spider, that I found blocking my path to the shower. I dowsed the thing with anti-bug spray until its shell was dripping. Its antennae continued to twitch. I decided to wash in the sink.
M'Bali and Motswari (the luxury brick and thatched cottages 20 minutes' drive away from its tented cousin) both use Land Rovers with no doors, windows or roof for their game drives - to yawn while travelling in one is to risk unwanted nutritional supplements. Luckily, despite a long journey, an adrenaline rush banished my fatigue as we began our first drive with the crepuscular gloom creeping in.
As we drove, our tracker, Johannes, perched precariously on a tiny folding seat on the bonnet, would signal almost imperceptibly to Patrick, my ranger, and we would stop to admire deer, giraffes, elephants and countless impala. Silhouetted above, like one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, was the portentous profile of a white-backed vulture.
Later we spent some time close to three lions, two females (one pregnant) and a glorious male - a wall of hairy middleweight muscle in prime condition, crowned with a multi-hued Noel Edmonds-style mane. But the highlight of what became a night drive (with Johannes shining a search light through the bush) was the sighting of a female leopard and her two cubs.
Bordering the fenceless Kruger National Park, the Timbavati enjoys a constantly changing menu of animals, including the occasional white rhino - though Patrick said one had not been seen for two months. "They are very difficult to spot, very skittish," he added. "They run as soon as they smell you."
The first day had been hot, sticky and cloudy. But then the weather turned. The temperature plummeted and that night a spectacular lightening storm raged, turning daylight on and off as we dined in the open, thatched Boma. Other regular guests (all guests eat together on a long table) explained the appeal of M'Bali: "There's a far more relaxed atmosphere here," said Magda Baillie, a marketing manager from Johannesburg. "If you want to wear a tracksuit to dinner it's fine."
At the end of the evening each of us were escorted by an armed ranger to our tents. The stand-off with the bug in my shower continued.
Viewing game from the Land Rover had been a thrill. But the next day I travelled the short distance to the more luxurious Motswari Lodge with well appointed round, stone thatched huts. The rangers there had arranged for me to have a taste of its new ranger training camp, the highlight of which would be tracking something big and growly on foot.
In a quiet moment, browsing through some of the magazines in my room before we left for our first trek, I chanced upon an article in a travel magazine - Are Animals Getting the Upper Hand? - detailing everything from violent ostrich attacks to the goring of a German cameraman by an elephant. Leopards have apparently claimed two lives in the Kruger in the last year. "Africa isn't another Disneyland and our cats aren't the cute and cuddly characters from The Lion King," it warned.
Also to hand were the Motswari Ranger Guidelines detailing the "Attributes of a good game ranger" - "He exhibits sensitivity to the Environment"; "He does not bullshit guests". Also included were guidelines on tracking big game on foot; where to shoot if they attack; astronomical maps; and, of course, 12 pages of first aid. "As a last resort screaming and throwing your arms into the air may cause the cat(s) to run," it advised readers confronted with an irritated lion, before adding: "This is not a definite."
Leaving the safe anonymity of the Land Rover the first thing that struck me was the vivid red soil underfoot; the second was that the man with the gun was walking in the other direction. I swiftly sidled up to today's tracker - Maurice from Mozambique - and the ranger, Mark, a former law graduate from Zimbabwe.
Mark explained that we were looking for the big five (lions, elephants, buffaloes, rhinos and leopards) but as well as scanning for the star turns he was equally attentive to the sub plots of the bush, like a giant snail, the difference between deadly and merely poisonous scorpions (the former has smaller claws and a bigger poison sack), or a passing wild tortoise.
During our walk we stopped at the specially built camp, which is home to guests on the ranger training course. The course can be tailored to individual or corporate guest's requirements, but all visitors will learn how to track animals, shoot rifles and master the 4x4 for a game drive, as well as take turns at the night watch. "They won't come out a full ranger, but they'll get a flavour," said Mark. "It's about building up trust in others and confidence in yourself. Guests will learn how to survive in the bush."
As it turned out, the first fresh tracks we encountered were the disconcertingly huge prints of a male lion. We followed them through the bush for about an hour, Mark whispering, Maurice silent, me scanning the scenery frantically (all too aware that if this was an episode of Star Trek, I'd be the expendable one) until, suddenly, the tracks disappeared. We were in the middle of thick undergrowth and nearby lurked a lion the size of a large sideboard. I held my breath.
Relief finally came as we glimpsed the lion loping calmly away through the bush. "He could knock your head off with one swipe," said Mark, apparently as awe-struck as I was.
What would have happened had it pounced?
"Lions mock charge quite often so you can only shoot them when they are in a mid-air leap. You have to be totally sure he's going for you. Same for leopards and elephants. Whenever a ranger shoots anything there's an inquest. If they think there was any way you could have avoided even being involved in the incident you'll be sacked, and it's damn near impossible to get a job after you've been sacked as a ranger."
That isn't a ranger's only hardship. A typical day starts at five am with an early morning drive and doesn't finish until all the guests have left the bar at the end of the evening (duties also include waiting at table and serving at the bar). The hours in between are spent muscling a Land Rover through tough terrain, or working on fencing, and other environmental projects. This has made it near impossible, in still chauvinistic South Africa, for women to find posts as rangers.
Rangers usually work six weeks on with two weeks off, so understandably relationships are difficult to maintain. Pay is low too - they rely on tips for around 70 per cent of their income - and turnover is high. "You have to be a plumber, carpenter, electrician, mechanic, waiter," said Mark. "Tracking the animals is only a small part of the job."
Lone male buffalo, or "dagga boys" are a ranger's worst nightmare, Mark told me as we walked back to Motswari at the end of the day. No longer living with the herd and therefore not "getting any" (as he put it), these grumpy old codgers are highly unpredictable and don't stand on ceremony before charging and head butting their target.
Happily, buffalo were the only one of the big five I didn't come across during my time in the Timbavati. Even a rhino made a brief appearance on my last day, though it camply trotted off before we had time to dismount from the Land Rover and pursue it on foot. By that stage, thanks to Mark's constant reassurance, I felt at home on foot in the bush and could have happily spent days roaming with a tracker. Sadly, though, a plane was waiting at Hoedsprit airport for the connection to Johannesburg and home. The dagga boys would have to wait for another day.
Return flights to Johannesburg via Paris with Air France cost pounds 331, including tax, until mid-June. Direct return flights on South African Airways cost pounds 410. Trailfinders (tel: 0171-938 3366).
The thatched cottages at Motswari and the tented camp at M'Bali are both an hour's drive from Hoedsprit, itself a 40-minute flight from Johannesburg. Motswari and M'Bali camps are members of The Small Exclusive Hotels (tel: 01473 225844; fax: 01473 226200). They both charge pounds 165 per person per night full-board, based on two sharing, including game drives. Holidays to both camps can also be booked through Abercrombie and Kent (tel: 0171- 730 9600; fax: 0171-730 9376).
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