As a boy camping with my father on safaris deep in the African bush, there were no tents involved; we just slept by the fire like cowboys in the open under the constellations. Supper was sweet tea and biltong and we used a tin bucket for a shower. When it rained we simply moved underneath our parked Land Rover. One morning we woke to find tracks circling us, where a big lion had come close enough to blow on our toes as we slept.
That old Africa rubbed off on me and I still like safaris to be the real thing — under canvas, by the campfire, gin, tall tales, fresh air, and carpet-creeping between tents. Safari is an art and it’s for real people, not celebrities climbing Kilimanjaro. For me, watching a dung beetle at his Sisyphean task; the scent of wait-a-bit thorn blossoms, which some Africans say is a medicine for heartache; the squawk of a go-away bird in the heat of the day — these are encounters I’d swap for a herd of elephants (although I like elephants too).
If you agree with me, then go on a proper safari — not a canned safari. Head to Botswana, which is 98 per cent mellow, the Africa of Alexander McCall Smith, democratic, well-run, just two million people, galumphing with wildlife and, best of all, free of Ebola.
Luckily Ebola has scared most of the oligarchs and grockles away and so you will have the bundu and the lions to yourself. This is probably the best time to visit Africa in decades. The parks and reserves are empty and the landscapes are yours. In my opinion, a safari to the Maasai Mara, or to my home district of Laikipia. is probably still the ne plus ultra — this is the place where Karen Blixen was moved to write, ‘There is something about safari life that makes you forget all your sorrows and feel as if you had drunk half a bottle of champagne — bubbling over with heartfelt gratitude for being alive.’
You can also do true adventures — for example with my friends Simon Belcher and Peter Silvester at Royal African Safaris — along Botswana’s Okavango by boat. Simon and Peter are the kind of expert guides Ernest Hemingway would have had on his hunts around Africa. They will take you to Chobe, Savuti, Khwai, Moremi… all the lovely places, with intelligent company. Simon and Peter are what used to be called GOAHs — Good Old Africa Hands.
Kenya has the rush hour of ungulates, the gang bang of predators — but Botswana offers consistently superb encounters with wildlife. You can easily see a leopard each day, lots of African wild dog and, of course, elephant and the rest of the crowd. It’s not about seeing animals, which you can do at a zoo. It’s about the art of safari, and that very much depends on whether you are with the right people.