Africa gets under your skin
IT'S cold at 6am on the Botswana plains, sunrise still a promise and only the muted rattle of a LandRover's diesel at idle to break the silence.
Icy hands clasp steaming coffee mugs and breaths frost in the stillness as we wait for the call to mount the opened-sided four-wheel drive.
It's July and I'm wearing four layers of clothing with my face swaddled in a scarf but still the breeze bites through as we head off into the bush.
We're at Camp Kuzuma safari camp in the Chobe region of Botswana and we're hunting lions.
This is the third morning we've headed off at dawn and so far the lions have been elusive.
Our guide believes they followed a herd of buffalo into neighbouring Zimbabwe a few days ago hoping to pick off a straggler, but last night he insists he heard them roaring.
We bump and thump through the bush, bouncing around in the seats and experiencing what is known as the 'African massage' as we crawl in and out of elephant footprints in low gear.
Dawn breaks quickly and the temperature drops a few more degrees. I spot two giraffes feeding in among the trees to our right and my wife and I unsling our cameras and shoot a dozen shots.
We head for a waterhole in the hope that we will pick up the lions' tracks. We find two elephants but no lions.
We drive for another hour, seeing some kudu and impala and more giraffes and then our tracker nods to our driver-guide and points ahead.
He's picked up the tracks and we head quickly down a broad track. "There," says the guide and sprawled out in the pale sunlight are two lionesses and a cub, soaking in its meagre warmth.
"Over there," he urges and part camouflaged by the grass sits a male, mane glowing russet in the sun. We sit for 15 minutes, shooting away with our cameras and wondering how anyone could kill these animals for sport.
Then the male begins to move, ambling slowly into the bush and is followed by the rest of the pride.
"We can't follow them," says the guide. "They're crossing the border and I've no desire to spend the next 10 years in a Zimbabwe jail."
"Nor me," I said, and we head back to Camp Kazuma and the luxury of our five-star tent, more akin to an oversized hotel suite with canvas walls, king-size bed, bath, shower, deck opening out to the bush and faux Victorian furnishings.
If you were wondering what you do in safari camps during the day, then the answer is "not much".
Kazuma is built beside a large waterhole that attracts herds of elephants and antelopes, so our mornings are spent lounging by the swimming pool.
This is protected from the wildlife by a single-strand electric fence, installed when it was discovered that the elephants were siphoning water from the pool with their trunks.
From the pool deck, we watch the elephants at a 100m distance wallowing and snorting or doing what they do best, which is to fall into an apparent trance.
In this state, they lean motionless on one another with the occasional wave of their trunk or flap of their ears - the only sign they remain conscious.
Lunch, a few glasses of wine and 5.30am wake-ups induce afternoon siestas and at 4pm we climb back into the LandRover and head off for the evening game drive.
It is my fifth trip to Africa and my wife's first. "What do you think?" I ask on our last night in camp. "We have to come back," she says simply.
Africa's like that. It gets under your skin.
Bench International has a Splendours of Southern Africa, 20-night itinerary that includes Victoria Falls, Cape Winelands, Cape Town and Chobe National Park safari from $7940 per person.
Call 1300 AFRICA (237 422) or visit http://www.benchinternational.com.au.