Kenny brings the car to a halt, raising his arm to point at a tree. "Remember," he warns, turning in his seat, "I'm not a wildlife guide. But that bird there is my favourite bird, a crimson-breasted shrike." It's beautiful, the shrike, bright red and black. It fixes us with a beady eye, twists its head, then drops from the tree branch and flits away.
Kenny smiles and makes to restart the engine, but suddenly stops. "Now look at that," he says, pointing out of the windscreen at a grey mass that's suddenly filled our field of view. An elephant, a bull, has appeared out of nowhere and is standing on the dirt road in front of us. The huge pachyderm regards us calmly, trunk swaying, tusks gleaming, before it slowly turns and goes on its way. Kenny laughs as he revs the engine.
"I'm not a guide," he says, "but that was an elephant." Kenny's not a guide, he's a driver, an odd-jobs man. He picked me up an hour ago on the boundary line of Hwange National Park, a reserve in northern Zimbabwe, and it's his job to get me to Somalisa Camp, where I'll start my safari proper. Only, a few things have held us up.
Already the two of us have seen about 60 elephants. We've also spotted a herd of what must be about 200 buffalos, plus kudus, warthogs, impalas, zebras, crocodiles and a giraffe. I'm about ready to ask him to turn around and take me home, because surely nothing else at Somalisa will top this drive in.
But I'm wrong. The best, most incredible sight is still to come. After two hours of driving through the African wilderness, passing not a single vehicle but plenty of animals, Kenny pulls the 4WD over a rise and there's Somalisa, a tiny encampment in front of an acacia-ringed waterhole. We roll down to the entrance and are greeted by Sabrina, the camp host, who looks flustered.
"I'm sorry," she says, puffing, "I just got charged by an elephant. I was running to meet you and completely forgot about the elephants." She looks down at her feet and smiles. "And I lost one of my shoes."
Right. It turns out Sabrina was charged by a well-known troublemaker in this area: Max, a grumpy old bull elephant who thinks of Somalisa as his own. Pretty much every day, Sabrina says, Max will come trundling into the campsite to have a look around. There are no fences here, nothing to deter him, so he makes his way untroubled.
Max's mock charges are rare. Most of the time he just walks through camp, has a little sniff around, and he's on his way. It's not until my last day at Somalisa that I have my own run-in with the local grump. I'm all packed and ready to leave my tent when I hear movement outside, the rustle of something huge. I slowly unzip the fly, stick my head out and find myself about a metre away from Max's huge, beady eye.
He makes no move, just stands and stares. It's like being stalked by a double-decker bus. There's a few seconds as the two of us eyeball each other, a Zimbabwean stand-off, before I slowly zip the fly back up and decide to sit on my bed until Max moves on.
Back to day one, there's a troupe of about 60 baboons swinging and screeching their way through the campsite, tearing bark off the trees, leaping on top of each other. A couple drop from branches and slide down the canvas walls of Somalisa's luxurious permanent tents. It must look like fun because others immediately give it a whirl.
Somalisa is a group of just six permanent tents set in the heart of the national park, each abode with hardwood floors, real beds, and adjoining bathrooms with flush toilets and bucket showers. The canvas walls and zippered doors are about the only concessions to camping proper.
Like any African safari camp, there are game drives at Somalisa. We see lions on our first drive. We see herds of sable antelope, kudus, vervet monkeys, jackals, giraffes, and a huge array of birdlife. We even get out of the vehicle to take a short walk, crouching behind a tree to watch an elephant brush softly past.
And yet, this still isn't the highlight. It only takes a few hours at Somalisa to realise that you needn't worry about game drives if you don't want to: the real show happens right here in camp, out the front of my tent, and by the dining area and wooden deck.
I'm sitting by the camp's pool on that first evening, staring at the nearby waterhole, when the first procession arrives, trunks swaying, tails flicking, huge feet padding along in harmony. Small puffs of dust rise below them, mingling with the setting sun.
A herd of elephants is making gentle progress towards the waterhole, where they congregate each day to drink and bath, rolling in the mud, sucking water into their trunks and blowing jets of it into their mouths. Across the plain they come now, making stately progress through golden grass, before they pause and make an unexpected detour. Towards me.
I'm sitting on a deckchair by the pool, holding my breath as 10 elephants lope up the hill and finally stop a few metres in front of me, regarding me with wise old eyes like tennis balls set in wrinkled skin, before daintily stretching 10 trunks out and dunking them into the pool.
Slurp, slurp. They're drinking. From the swimming pool. And this happens all of the time. It will even happen again today. Twenty, then 30, then 40 elephants wander across the plains, lumbering in from the bush in single file, hoping for a taste of the sweet, clean water that lies in the Somalisa pool. The guests just sit there in awe.
The writer travelled as a guest of the Classic Safari Company.
GETTING THERE South African Airways, see flysaa.com.au.
STAYING THERE The Classic Safari Company has three-night packages at Somalisa from about $1476, twin share.
MORE INFORMATION classicsafaricompany.com.
- FFX Aus