I'm trying to catch a glimpse of the hyena but Hollywood star Chris Rock's head is in the way.

I'm momentarily distracted by an overweight German stuck in the mud behind me as a herd of inquisitive giraffes watches on.

A strange feeling comes over me, beginning in the pit of my stomach. I'm unsure whether it's the result of raw excitement or of the barbecued crocodile I ate last night. This is Africa.

At least, this is the Africa I imagined before I arrived. It's savage and beautiful, dark and brooding, untamed and exciting, and there are flashes of ludicrous opulence and there is terrible poverty, and, above all, there's a sense that it's on the edge and anything might happen.

And, it seems, anything might indeed happen. How else to explain my proximity to a hyena and an American movie star?

I'm on safari at Thanda Game Reserve in northern KwaZulu-Natal (formerly Zululand) in South Africa.

It is one of dozens of reserves where a tracker will take you on safari and hunt down animals to look at. Some are private and others are government-owned and they cater for all price brackets from backpacker upwards.

Thanda, meaning love in Zulu, is at the luxury end of the market. We stay in our own lodge with a butler who wakes me at 4am for the safari.

While cruising round we see impala, warthog, kudu, wild dogs, a lizard, monkeys and giraffe.

But everyone knows when you're on safari you want to see as many of The Big Five as possible: lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhino. Our tracker Sakhila smiles as he tells us they are named The Big Five not because of their size, but because of how dangerous they are when hunted on foot.

The lion, Sakhila says, should not be interested in us because if a lion at Thanda eats someone and gets the taste for human flesh it will be shot to prevent it eating anyone else. This is not particularly reassuring.

When we find a lion, it is the beginning of one of the most remarkable sights I've seen in real life. At first, I believe the beast is sitting nonchalantly, the king of the jungle surveying his domain.

Actually, Sakhila reveals, it is staring at two enemy lions in the distance.

After some posturing and posing the three began getting closer, hackles raised. The first lion begins urinating, marking his territory and setting a challenge.

But it's pure bravado. The other two close in and he turns tail. It is a spectacular build-up and chase.

As we cruise through the 14,000ha park we are encouraged to spot animals. After a few hours, every gnarled tree stump becomes a buffalo, every discoloured patch of grass a big cat - but the spotting is half the fun.

Next, Sakhila wants to track an elephant. This takes almost an hour but is worth the wait. We find a herd and turn the engine off less than 5m away.

One of the larger elephants turns and begins to march towards us. It stops and braces for a charge.

Sakhila tells us he cannot back away. If he does, the elephants will know every time they see people on safari they can charge them. They need to know who is boss.

As the giant beast comes closer Sakhila promptly turns the engine on and backs away. I'm not sure now who is boss, but at least the sound of the engine is enough to turn the elephant back.

And so we head back towards the lodge - all this and it's not yet 8am. But on the way back, Sakhila spots a pack of wild dogs. Wild dogs seems fairly tame after what we've enjoyed so far, but apparently it's incredibly rare to see them, so Sakhila gives chase. While we are parked, hoping they will emerge from the jungle, a hyena meanders across our path.

It is then that two other safari groups turn up. One is a group of eight large German tourists, the other is Chris Rock and his family.

"You are very, very lucky," Sakhila tells us. "I have been here since it opened (in 2003). This is a very, very good day. I love this place - though it's not good for meeting women."

We leave Thanda to head to Durban. It's a three-hour drive through KwaZulu-Natal and everything seems to illustrate the changing times and the curious mix between the old and the new; the traditional and the aspirational.

Stalls selling pineapples and bananas appear at frequent intervals at the side of the highway. Further back from the road are traditional Zulu huts. Families here have owned the land for generations.

Every now and then a hut has a strange building next door. They are usually brick-built and painted in bright colours and stand out like the proverbial.

They are, our driver Stephen tells us, built using money sent home by young men and women from these families who have headed to the cities to make money. The families are delighted because the money and the new buildings are status symbols. But as more and more youngsters head away they are slowly killing the Zulu way of life. As we get closer to Durban, there are giant sugar cane plantations, but again they are dying in favour of progress. They are being sold off to developers and turned into shopping malls or large factories. One on the outskirts of town is a caravan park with old workers cottages converted into travellers' accommodation.

Durban itself is a city undergoing major regeneration and battling to change its image.

The Point is the road where this is most graphically displayed. This was the road every city has - bars have grilles on the windows and women openly offer themselves for sex.

It has now been renamed (controversially) Mahatma Gandhi Rd and millions are being ploughed into a makeover.

At one end there are still boarded-up stores, gangs of people sitting on the pavement. But the development, starting at one end, is slowly creeping the length of the road. There is suddenly a complete change with urban design, water features and sculptures.

"This is a symbol of what we are trying to do here," says Stephen. "There is a way to go, but we are getting there."

CHECKLIST
Getting there: Emirates flies four times daily from New Zealand to Dubai and onwards to South Africa, with three services a day to Johannesburg and one a day to both Cape Town and Durban.

Where to stay: When visiting Durban, where better than Umhlanga Rocks, where the All Blacks regularly stay when touring. There are plenty of options but if you're after luxury, try The Oyster Box.

Game viewing: See the Thanda Private Game Reserve website.

Further information: To find out more about visiting KwaZulu Natal and South Africa, see zulu.org.za and southafrica.net.

Stuart Dye travelled to South Africa courtesy of Emirates and the South African Tourism Board.