With a working knowledge of African safaris compiled mainly from Hollywood films and TV series of the 1950s and 60s, my vocabulary for such was, until recently, limited to words such as 'Daktari', 'Hatari' and 'Mogambo'. Likewise, my imagination was occupied by sweat-stained, leopard-skin hat bands, elephant guns and fatally faulty mosquito nets. Both these shortcomings, though, are being well and truly addressed with a mid-afternoon dry sherry in front of a roaring log fire, by browsing the South African mammals and reptiles checklist supplied at the Tswalu Kalahari Reserve.
While confident in my familiarity with the so-called big five (after mentally replacing the giraffe with the buffalo and the cheetah with the leopard), alarm bells accompany the realisation that more than 20 animals qualify as 'even-toed ungulates'. A further 100 in various categories await ticking off, barely 10 per cent of which I might have stood a chance of recognising - in an identity parade, not through binoculars. The Kalahari tent tortoise, the hairy-footed gerbil and the black spitting cobra might be distinguished by location, appearance and behaviour in that order (rather belatedly in the case of the last), but what of the tsessebe, the blesbok and the nyala? More sherry and another log on the fire.
Tswalu is owned by Nicky Oppenheimer, the billionaire chairman of the De Beers diamond mining company, and his wife, Strilli, who in recent years have stocked the place with more than 20,000 animals to create the most expansive private reserve in South Africa. It is also one of the most luxurious.
Motse, the main accommodation base, comprises eight thatched-roof, finely furnished legae, or villas, each - at the risk of sounding like a travel brochure - containing a spacious bedroom, an en-suite bathroom, indoor and outdoor showers, a large private lounge with an open fireplace and a private sun deck. The main building, of similar earthy design, comprises a lounge area, library and dining room supported by a fine wine cellar and a menu worthy of the best city hotels. (About 30km away, Tswalu's other property, a private house called Tarkuni, offers absolute privacy - as author J.K. Rowling no doubt found to her pleasure on a recent visit - for groups of up to 12.)
But back to the great outdoors. Each morning at 5am (and in the late afternoon), guests are summoned for a drive in a 12-seater converted Land Rover. This being the greener and grassier southern end of the Kalahari, there are certain safari animals absent, most notably elephants, but hefty desert rhinoceros and Kalahari lions make up for this. Tswalu's rangers and trackers (one behind the wheel and one perched, off-centre, hood-ornament-style up front, respectively) seem more conservation-minded than their counterparts at other reserves, some of whom run sightings-at-all-costs, four-wheel-drive demolition derbies. Consequently, those even-toed ungulates (springbok, antelope, wildebeest and the like) receive much more exposure than their more elusive predators, and after a few drives I certainly know my kudu from my impala. And even my tsessebe from my nyala.
Tswalu also operates a well-stocked stable of horses, a game-reserve rarity that suggests profits are not at the forefront of its owners' considerations. An early-morning trot through the savannah is a strong draw for anyone looking for a more traditional aspect to their safari.
On the other side of the country, the similarly upmarket Singita collection of lodges has five properties to choose from: Lebombo and the nearby Sweni in Kruger National Park, close to the Mozambique border; a 15-minute flight away, in the Sabi Sand Reserve, are Ebony, Boulders and Castleton, a private house recommended for groups. While offering levels of luxury and service comparable to those at Tswalu, the Singita properties are more geared towards the visitor who wants to get close to the predator action. I see all the big five (chosen for the difficulty associated with hunting them) - lion, rhinoceros, leopard, elephant and buffalo - in less than 90 minutes here, and each of them at close quarters.
Singita Lebombo Lodge feels marginally less exclusive than Tswalu but is visually the more outstanding of the two. Built on the edge of a river valley, the expansive individual rooms - more like Modernist villas - provide striking views and are kitted out with everything from alfresco showers to Wi-fi technology. The food, served in less intimate but still impressive surroundings, is on a par with that of Tswalu, and the South African wine selection (overseen by a sommelier) is superb. It's all very stylish and probably best suited to young to middle-aged couples. (Ebony Lodge at Sabi Sand is the place for traditionalists, offering a colonially themed layout evocative of a private club with English-style furniture and animal heads on the wall.)
Lebombo's rangers and trackers are in closer radio contact with each other than those at Tswalu - and there are more of them. The sighting of a disembowelled springbok halfway up a tree occasions a photo call for two other vehicles in the vicinity, and the leopard that placed it there is soon found lurking nearby, under cover of darkness but no match for the trackers' spotlights.
Excitement of this calibre calls for drinks and light snacks, which are duly arranged on a foldout table attached to the front of our Land Rover. An admirable selection of miniatures is swiftly examined and unscrewed by torchlight while twigs snap and eerie (at least to us city folk) cries emanate from the encroaching darkness. A similar event was arranged at Tswalu but on a grander scale, with dry martinis stirred and director chairs assembled before sunset. As at Tswalu, the guide switches to astronomy as the main topic of discussion, pointing out a couple of planets and a few useful stars while the listeners combat the vertiginous effects of alcohol, darkness and extended skyward glances.
Both Tswalu and Singita charge about HK$8,500 per person per night for accommodation. These prices, however, include at least two game drives a day in an open Land Rover, three gourmet meals - plus horse-riding at Tswalu - and free-flowing alcohol (including a well-stocked minibar and wine cellar). The only extra expenses are for spa treatments. Light aircraft flights (an adventure in themselves) cost about HK$5,150 for a round trip between Johannesburg and Tswalu, and about HK$4,550 for return connections between the city and the Singita properties' private airstrips.
It's possible to visit both Tswalu and one or more of the Singita lodges in one trip to South Africa, and by doing so, sample two contrasting sides of the safari experience: the earthy, timeless atmosphere of the Kalahari and the greener, more immediately fecund environment of Kruger National Park. But both places make for memorable trips - both natural and man-made - on their own. And offer similarly extensive wildlife checklists.
Getting there: Qatar Airways (www.qatarairways.com) flies daily from Hong Kong to Johannesburg, from where flights to Singita and Tswalu can be arranged to suit your schedule. For flight connections, lodge reservations and further details, visit www.tswalu.com or www.singita.com.