A long journey to South Africa
We're on the road, about 50 kilometres north-west of Johannesburg, when my driver, Joe Motsogi, points out the Cradle of Humankind as it looms ahead. It's a UNESCO World Heritage site, home to nearly half of the world's human ancestor fossils.
"Life itself began in Africa," he says. "So you have come back home. Welcome home." Joe's words are so simple they take my breath away.
Africa, they say, has a way of getting under your skin.And, it is in this moment, I realise it's not just a cliche. After all, I am on my way to a safari park, which has long been at the top of my travel bucket list.
Just how I had ended up in Joe's shiny late-model black Mercedes, being driven five hours north-west of Johannesburg towards Madikwe game reserve, is a whole other story.
News reporting, my normal guise back home, can take you places: think of the trial of a disabled Olympic athlete, his model girlfriend, and a deadly and tragic night in his Pretoria home.
But as I relax into the surrounds, all that is pushed to the back of my mind as Joe begins to peel back the layers of his country.
It's one he knows, loves and which has seen exponential change during his eventful lifetime.
On April 27 this year, South Africans celebrated 20 years of freedom - two decades since citizens of all races voted in the country's first free elections, ushering in democracy under the leadership of the late Nelson Mandela, and effectively burying the hated system of apartheid forever.
The South Africans celebrated how far they have come, and noted how far they still have to go. The path to democracy was a torrid one and Joe, like so many who had a hand in pursuing the cause for freedom, has his own stories. He explains that he is a former political activist and he tells me about his friendship with Mandela in the turbulent 1970s.
Of course, I can't help but ask what the great man, South Africa's first black president and hero to millions, was really like. Joe doesn't say much - "quietly spoken" and "very intelligent" are his answers - perhaps recalling their friendships, their tough times, or even retreating into his private grief.
After all, it's less than a year since Mandela died, leaving a hole in a nation's heart.As the South African countryside slips by, Joe admits that his passions through the turbulent period came at a cost. He spent months in jail during the violent protests and uprisings that ultimately forced the hand of the ruling white government that would lead to the free elections.
In 1997, Joe left the protesting behind - although not his social conscience - starting the tourism business he runs with his wife from their home in Soweto.
"Politics and tourism, they don't mix," Joe says, now the chairman of the Gauteng region's tour operators.
I tell him about my visit to Johannesburg's Apartheid Museum - an experience that can inadequately be described as humbling. I haven't felt so moved by another country's history since attending a "war remnants" museum in Ho Chi Minh City almost 15 years ago.
From the moment you arrive, you are transported to the apartheid era, with your entry ticket instructing you (at random) to use either the "blacks" or "whites" entry.
Both confronting passageways force you to see life in South Africa from the perspective of the side you are given through archival pictures, newspaper clippings and audio recording.
Once inside, permanent and temporary exhibitions chart South Africa's history, with specific focus on Nelson Mandela's life. A replica of his cell that you can sit in, makes his extraordinary plight all the more powerful.
The familiar horror stories that surround South Africa and its cities threatened to cast a dreadful pall over my trip before I left; so much so, that I barely left my hotel for the first few days after I arrived in South Africa.
But buoyed by my sense of adventure and the shared enthusiasm of my international media colleagues and friends, I began to explore. What I found was that Johannesburg's reputation is far from what I expected.
Aside from an array of great restaurants, wine and shopping, there are emerging pockets of ingenuity, such as the Arts on Main precinct in up-and-coming Braamfontein, which is described on its website as a place created "for the people of Joburg, by the people of Joburg".
Each Sunday, it becomes a food, art and design mecca. Wandering into the huge converted warehouse we are greeted by tempting aromas from more than 25 food stalls run by local producers. Elsewhere we browse the creative wares of young designers selling jewellery, clothing, home furnishings and art.
In order to get to Braamfontein, you have to travel through some decrepit and unsavoury-looking areas, half-finished construction works and frightening "ghettos".
Even though Joburg has come a long way, it would be foolish to ignore the social realities. One regular visitor told me that when he drives through some parts of the city at night he adopts the common strategy of locals, which involves not stopping at red lights, slowing only to avoid any other vehicles. Car-jackings, after all, remain common.
But contrast that with the lively, dynamic - and well-guarded - upscale suburbs and precincts such as Melville, Parkhurst and Rosebank and there is a sense that this city is going through a reformation.
Homes are still surrounded by high walls, barbed wire fences, and guarded by dogs, alarm systems or 24-hour security patrols (sometimes all of the above). But if crime rates fall as consistently as the number of creative new projects rise, then there's a sense "Jozi", as the locals like to call it, could eventually transform itself.
Back on the road, on the five-or-so hour drive to Madikwe, Joe isn't just full of history, he also keenly discusses South Africa's social challenges, a nagging legacy of apartheid - for example, its unemployment of 25 per cent and its shocking 28 per cent illiteracy rate.
Eventually we reach Madikwe Safari Lodge, in a game reserve of about 75,000 hectares of vast, open bush and desert landscape.
The northern fenceline sits on the South Africa-Botswana border. There are 32 lodges on the reserve, but from the intimate Madikwe Safari Lodge you can't see them, so discreetly are they camouflaged into the surrounding bush.
In fact, from the back of the safari truck I barely glimpse half a dozen rooftops belonging to other lodges during my entire stay. The cabins fit naturally within their surrounds, each carefully designed with simple, stylish but traditional furnishings.
There's a sitting area, an open fire, a huge stand-alone bathtub, and a deck complete with plunge pool and outdoor shower.
It isn't quite warm enough for me to swim in April, but it was certainly warm enough to lie out in the sun and be lulled into an afternoon nap by the soothing sounds of the African bush.
Of course, I am here to see the "Big Five": the elephant, rhino, buffalo, leopard and lion. But I also learn that South Africa boasts a "Little Five": the elephant shrew, a small insect-eating mammal with a long nose; the buffalo weaver, a bird; a leopard tortoise; a lion ant; and the rhino beetle. And there's even the "Ugly Five": the wildebeest, warthog, hyena, vulture, and marabou stalk.
The animals, of course are a highlight, but so are the interesting facts provided by the humans.
Our ranger and guide, Martin Harris, says that a lion can eat the equivalent of about 16½ chickens in one sitting.
Martin came to Madikwe from another five-star safari park and his wife, Elaine, is the lodge manager. He explains that "Madikwe" is an African word that means "place of blood".
While it was originally named as a testament to the fighting in the area during the 1899 Anglo-Boer War, it is still poignant today as the plague of illegal poachers continues to kill to meet the international demand for black rhino tusks.
Poachers cross borders and risk jail - and their lives - to kill animals for their ivory tusks, which Martin explains is the most expensive commodity in the world. At more than $100,000 a kilogram, it's worth more than gold, although, of course, the poachers get next to nothing for bringing in the "prize". The safari park rangers work with environmentalists and specialists in the field to track and monitor the notoriously shy rhinos.
While Madikwe has 200-300 of the animals, there are no more than 5000 left in the world and Martin and his fellow rangers across South Africa fear it won't be long before they are extinct.
Martin and Elaine and their colleagues are clearly passionate about what they do though. In another lesson about post-apartheid South Africa, I learn the wages and conditions for those working in this huge tourism industry are extraordinarily small compared with the standards of the west, with 15 or 16-hour days, six days a week, doing little to buoy bank balances.
On the second day, we spend half an hour sitting quietly alongside a dam where a group of elephants play happily in the water, bathing and swimming. It is magical, but the playful spectacle is eclipsed hours later on the evening safari.
It is nearing dusk, and as we travel along one road with the sun almost disappearing below the horizon, we spot a creature ambling along the side of the road, like a hitchhiker on a lonely highway. Initially, Martin thinks it is a kudu, a species of antelope, but as we get a fraction closer, we can see it is a large male lion.
The jeep pulls up alongside him as Mr Lion pauses and looks at us, as if to say, "Yeah? What?" before continuing his evening stroll. We follow for a while, in awe of his poise, completely oblivious to the jeep despite its proximity. Then he stops to urinate - marking his territory, Martin explains, and then stuns us all as he stands, in the scrub on the side of the road, and roars.
An African lion's roar is not something you just hear - you feel it too, in your chest. Martin explains that Mr Lion was calling to a brother-lion from their pride, which rangers believed had been injured recently.
The call was designed in part to tell his pal he was heading his way, but also to send a warning about the size and scope of their territory. Prey: beware. We let him continue on, and return to camp, exhilarated.
The rest of the safari drives could have been dull by comparison, but there was plenty more still to see: a herd of buffalos, a brown hyena, two sleeping white rhinos, ostrich, vultures, and the "painted wolves" - the wild dogs for which Madikwe is famous.
At one stage Martin stops the truck to point out a dung beetle, hard at work rolling a piece of dung three times the size of its own body weight.
There are about 7000 species of dung beetle in South Africa alone, he says. Leopards and cheetahs, however, remain elusive during my stay. But, after what I've seen and experienced of this fascinating country, I don't mind.
I have, after all, an excellent excuse to return, and not just to report on that controversial disabled Olympic athlete.
The writer travelled with the assistance of South African Tourism.
Five more South African freedom sights
DISTRICT SIX MUSEUM, CAPE TOWN On February 11, 1966, Cape Town's multicultural District Six was declared a white area and by 1982, more than 60,000 people had been forcibly removed. The District Six Museum, established in 1994, features moving mementoes and photos from the area's heyday and beyond. See districtsix.co.za.
NELSON MANDELA STATUE, BLOEMFONTEIN There are countless statues of Nelson Mandela across South Africa, with few more imposing than the one that overlooks from Naval Hill the Free State city of Bloemfontein, considered the birthplace of the African National Congress (ANC). The monument is eight metres high and was unveiled in 2012. See freestatetourism.org.
CAPE TOWN CITY HALL It was from the balcony of this imposing Edwardian building that Nelson Mandela delivered his first public speech following his release from nearly three decades in prison. Stand back and imagine what it was like to be one of the 250,000 people who gathered outside to see and listen to their future president. See capetown.travel.
HECTOR PIETERSON MEMORIAL AND MUSEUM, SOWETO
Hector Pieterson, at age 13, was one of the first students to be killed during an anti-apartheid student uprising in Soweto in 1976. An affecting memorial to Pieterson, a symbol of black resistance, was erected in the early 1990s on Khumalo Street, a few hundred metres from where he was shot, with a museum nearby. See soweto.co.za.
ROBBEN ISLAND, CAPE TOWN The erstwhile "home" of South Africa's apartheid-era political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, the island, nine kilometres offshore from Cape Town, has understandably become one of South Africa's most visited tourist attractions. Mandela spent about three-quarters of his total 27 years of imprisonment on the island. See robben-island.org.za.
GETTING THERE Qantas flies direct to Johannesburg from Sydney daily. Australian passport holders can travel to South Africa without a visa, for stays of three months or less. See qantas.com.au.
STAYING THERE Just a short stroll from Rosebank shopping centre and adjacent to Gautrain station, which provides a fast service to the airport, 54 on Bath, 4 Bath Avenue, Johannesburg, is a serene base. Rooms start from ZAR2650 (NZ$295) for two adults. See tsogosunhotels.com; gautrain.co.za.
Doubles at Madikwe Safari Lodge, North West Province, start from R640 a person sharing. See madikwesafarilodge.co.za.
Lisa Davies is a deputy news director at Fairfax Media. Earlier this year she covered the Oscar Pistorius murder trial in Pretoria during which time she was also able to tick off "African Safari" from her travel bucket list.
- Sydney Morning Herald