On the South African veld visitors swiftly learn self-preservation, writes Pamela Wade.

In the end, it was only the monkeys that gave us any bother. Going on safari in South Africa involves unusual warnings: "There was a 2.5m black mamba here a few days ago, but we think we've chased it off. Better keep your tent zipped, though."

"Watch out for hyena. There's nothing attracts them quicker than the smell of a braai."

"Rhino have terrible eyesight, but sharp ears. If they hear you, climb a tree."

And, perhaps, most alarming: "You must check your groin for ticks."


Happily, none of these horrors eventuated, except for the vervet monkeys at Cape Vidal, which staked out the cabin veranda, poised to dash inside to snatch any food lying about.

Ironically, the reassurance about leopards - "They're so rare, you won't see one" - was equally erroneous. A huge, splendid male casually crossed the road right in front of our van on the third night, raising his tail to mark the camp reception building as his territory.

So nothing bad happened on our two-week tour of game reserves near Durban, in Kwazulu-Natal province.

Instead, we saw wonderful things. Travelling in a hired van, shopping in local supermarkets and cooking most nights on the braai cost less than the more usual guided option, and was schedule-free - although that didn't mean leisurely lie-ins. Six-thirty starts were the norm, for good reason: safaris are all about the animals, and mornings and evenings are when they're most active.

Getting up in the grey pre-dawn was well worth it, and cruising slowly through the open bush on our game drives, we were delighted to see a huge variety of animals and birds, often astonishingly close up.

Zebra, some with foals, were such regular sights on the road that we (almost) got tired of chorusing "Zebra crossing!"

A hyena crunched on a buffalo carcass, dainty little red duiker flitted past, we learned to differentiate waterbuck from bushbuck from reedbuck from kudu, busy little warthogs made us laugh and baboons with babies squabbled in the long grass.

At our first reserve, iSimangaliso Wetland Park, the 32km from the gate to our rustic log cabin in the woods at Cape Vidal regularly took a good three hours to drive, there were so many stops for the wildlife. Some of it was unexpected: rhino in the foreground, yes, but behind were humpback whales spouting in the Indian Ocean.

Zebra crossings became a common sight. Photo / Pamela Wade

The afternoon drive traditionally has the sundowner as its climax, and it was a magical experience to stand in a hide overlooking Catalina Bay, listening to hippo guffawing in the water as the sun set in sepia glory beyond the lake, and the ice clinked in my gin and tonic.

Afterwards, a braai over an open fire, heavy on the steak and boerewors, with a Tafel lager or glass of Meerlust red, was a sociable end to the day, with the added thrill of a visit from a beautiful, long-tailed genet, like a mini-leopard.

It was at our next location, a tented camp in Somkhanda Game Reserve, that we might have met the black mamba, but with 12 of us plus a baby, discretion prevailed on the snake's part, leaving us to concentrate on our rhino walk.

A Zulu girl has smeared sticky clay on her face as a sunscreen. Photo / Pamela Wade

We counted ourselves very fortunate on this trip to see many rhino, white and black (although both actually are dark grey in colour) because this extraordinary animal is under grave threat.

Huge demand in China and Vietnam has boosted the value of its horn, an ingredient of traditional medicine and, pathetically, also a hangover cure, eclipsing the price of gold or cocaine. It's literally a life-or-death risk for poachers, and inevitably fatal for the rhino, shot, drugged and sometimes still alive when their horns are hacked off with axes.

It's one thing to hear about this pointless tragedy (horn is composed of keratin, like fingernails, and has no proven medicinal benefits) and quite another to stand, breathless, in the African bush, just 50m from a wild rhino bull, cow and calf.

We are looking at a sight that's prehistoric. Massive, up to 2500kg, armour-plated and lumbering, the rhino seems absurdly over-engineered for an inoffensive existence eating grass or leaves, however, it's a design that's succeeded for 50 million years. Until now.

We left convinced more than ever that this stupid slaughter must stop.

Mpila Camp in iMfolozi Game Reserve brought us lion and elephant, completing our Big Five tally; and our reward was Rock Lodge at &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve. One of six lodges in the park, its luxury suites cling to an outcrop with views over the bushy veld, even from the shower and bath.

Next morning we crept up on a black rhino bull dozing in a patch of wildfire ash. Fitted with a transmitter in his horn, we'd found him thanks to telemetry equipment made in New Zealand, following rhino monitor Sipho on foot as he conducted his daily check.

A black rhino is an unforgettable sight. Photo / Pamela Wade

It was a thrilling outing, but our pleasure was diluted by learning that the morning game drive we'd swapped it for had witnessed a lion kill.

"Never mind," Matt reassured us, "we're focusing on cheetah this afternoon."

Knowledgeable and irrepressibly enthusiastic, he and tracker Joel rattled us through the bush in the open Land Cruiser, in radio contact with other vehicles. Briefly pausing for a couple of crocodiles, a herd of buffalo, a hippo and duelling giraffe, they soon found us four cheetah on a hill.

The three cubs playfully batted at balls of dung, wrestling and tree-climbing; but we felt for their mother, gaunt and hungry, hampered in her hunting by her unskilled sons.

Minutes later, though, the chase was on and, bouncing wildly off-track, we were right behind, Matt whooping excitedly as the cheetahs powered ahead, running down a young nyala antelope. It was brutal.

"This is Africa at its cruellest," said Matt. "This is Africa."

Getting there: Qantas flies from Sydney to Johannesburg, South African Airways to Durban.

Where to go: Cape Vidal and Mpila, Somkhanda and Phinda Rock Lodge.

Want to save the rhino? Imake a difference is a NZ-registered charity which pledges to use 100 per cent of donations to help prevent rhino poaching.

Pamela Wade was a guest of Imakeadifference and Phinda Rock Lodge.