Big cats are a highlight of bushwalking in South Africa, and there are plenty of other beasts to stalk too, writes Rachael Oakes-Ash
In the savage bush of South Africa one is either predator or prey. From sundown to sun-up the daytime beauty of red earth, white sands, lush green forests and burnt grey scrub turns into the killing fields - literally.
These are the fast-food hours of the bush, when lions stalk wildebeest, leopards take on young zebras and jackals and vultures wait for leftovers. The rest just hide and hope for the best.
It's a harsh place to be taking a walk and I'm glad I have a ranger with a gun: Mark Shaw is guiding me and four others through the bushland of the Sabi Sands region on the border of the Kruger National Park. We're hunting for any sign of rhinoceroses or elephants, two critters too big to hide - or so I thought. I've been awake since 5am, when we were roused from our slumbers with hot coffee and fresh biscuits baked on an open fire by Elneck, our resident chef. What this man can do with an open flame would make the devil envious.
A leopard has left clear imprints around our canvas tents - with their flush toilets and private bucket showers filled with warm water heated on Elneck's fire and filled by Kenneth, our resident security guard. I am told Kenneth's job is to keep the leopards at bay.
He may want to consider his career options because it's clear a cat has been through camp and I am thrilled - although disappointed I slept through it. My fellow campers tell me I even slept through the lions roaring from the other side of the river bed our tents overlook. I blame the plush beds, more suited to a five-star hotel than a canvas canopy.
There is an art to bushwalking here and one simple rule: stay alive. One wrong turn and you could run into a pride of lions or encounter the animal that kills more humans annually than any other: the hippopotamus. If that's not enough to keep us following the footsteps of Shaw and his local tracker, Andrew, then the idea we may stumble upon an angry buffalo is. Solo buffalos are not to be taken lightly because they're usually old, usually grumpy and almost always aggressive.
The four-day, three-night, safari quickly develops a rhythm. Rise early for a three-course breakfast and four-hour walk, lounge in hammocks in the heat of the day, animal-watch from the main camp with binoculars, take a high tea of savoury and sweet delights, and then a three-hour game drive with gin and tonic at sunset before a four-course meal and wine.
Tracking wild rhinoceroses is trickier, however. The male rhino is territorial and will scratch the earth with its back feet to mark its terrain. It's possible to estimate how long ago the marks were made by checking the moisture in the mud.
The beasts also leave dung middens to ward off other male rhinos. To find out how long since the rhino was last there, sink your hand into one to feel the warmth. On second thoughts, it's best to leave the dung prodding to Shaw.
It's possible to see rhino tracks around waterholes and on the sandy ground in the scrub and to find mud samples on bush leaves, left when the mud-bathed rhino makes its tracks. Finding wet leaves means a rhino is not far away.
We're thrilled when we finally spot the animal we've been following. Not one, but two - mother and baby, who come running from our right, spooked by a sudden movement one of our party made without thinking. Thankfully for us, the running rhinos miss us, being more eager to escape than to charge.
Time stands still in the bush. After tracking elephants one morning for more than an hour we are far from camp and frustrated that the 5-tonne beasts are eluding us when we look up to discover two bull elephants grazing 100 metres away.
The next two hours we spend tip-toeing around, following the giant beasts and staying upwind so they can't smell us. They can turn, charge and trample us to the ground in an instant, or they can simply disappear from sight. They do on many occasions, which is why they're called 'grey ghosts', presumably because they have the uncanny ability to disappear despite their enormous size.
But not everything is impressive because of its sheer size. As we meander in the mornings, Shaw shows us millipedes, dung beetles and scorpions. We wander into herds of zebra and hear impala calling to their mates to let them know we're here. Their calls also let lions and leopards know the impala have seen them and the predators usually abandon the hunt.
Game drives are equally exciting: we see lions fat from a fresh buffalo kill, vultures circling overhead and leopard cubs practising their tree-climbing skills, all from the safety of our open-topped safari vehicle before a night game-drive by spotlight as we return to camp for dinner.
There is no electricity and no mobile phone reception at Ngala Walking Safari camp. Firelight, lanterns and candles provide a haunting after-dark beauty and the call of wildlife is an unforgettable soundtrack.
Although we don't stumble on any lions on foot, we do run into a solo buffalo. We hide, telling ourselves it can't see us behind the leafless bush that constitutes our flimsy protection. Time moves on and eventually so does the buffalo. Shaw laughs and we move on. That's life in the bush.
For details of Conservation Corporation Africa's Ngala Walking Safari see ccafrica.com. Cathay Pacific (cathaypacific.com) flies from Hong Kong to Johannesburg. Ngala can arrange flights to the corporation's private air strip from Johannesburg.