Published: 1st July 2007
If I had to survive in the bush, I'd kill a buffalo," announces my son, Michael, aged 19.
"I'd get a huge stone and crash it on his head."
The young Masai warrior who is with us begins to laugh, long and deep. This is clearly the funniest thing he's heard in a while. It's like a Masai telling us he would survive in London by asking a passer-by for £100.
"The buffalo weighs two tons," our guide chortles. He turns the idea over in his head. "Hit a buffalo on the head with a stone..." he repeats delightedly.
Some trips are holidays and some are much more than that - voyages into another way of thinking and feeling. A journey into the Tanzanian bush is a journey into another dimension. From the threadbare airport at Arusha, our small plane wafted Michael and me to Manyara airstrip; from there, we were driven to the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge. The first glimpse takes your breath away. Ngorongoro is an 11-mile-wide volcanic caldera with a lake shimmering in the middle. Its 1,600ft walls turn the crater into an amphitheatre, a savage playpen for the animals that gather there to feed, drink - and be eaten.
The lodge is a hobbitlike community of thatched cottages, right on the rim. Step inside, though, and operatic silk curtains sweep down beside french windows overlooking the crater. There are immense beds, opulent in purple; the tissue box is made of porcupine quills; crystal beads hang from a chandelier. And when we returned from our first game drive, my "butler" had run an aromatic bath drenched in rose petals. I sank blissfully into the bubbles.
Down in the crater, the animals are so used to vehicles it was as though we were entirely invisible. Magical, bizarre, deeply luxurious, this is an astounding place. There are hippos, black rhinos, elephants and many thousand zebras, wildebeests and gazelles. We watched two young lions chase each other across the open plain, giving their deep, vibrant, almost comforting roar.
In the evening, after a dinner to make the gods jealous, we sat in leather chairs by an open fire, drank sherry and played poker - easy to feel like a god here. In the early morning I watched a cloud drift over the crater, while all around our cottage the buffaloes grazed.
The next leg of our safari was a searing contrast. We took a tiny plane out into the Serengeti, 120 miles from the nearest town, to a tented settlement without running water. This is Tanzania Under Canvas, and it moves every few months to chase the great migration of wildebeests and zebras.
My tent was right on the margins of the camp, and it made me uneasy, especially when I was told nobody had a gun. My whistle and torch didn't feel like much protection from the lions. Not that staying there is a hardship. Like Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, it is run by CC Africa, and the mischievous camp manager, Bruce, welcomed us into the canvas "living room" erected just a week or two before our arrival, with its crystal glasses, leather-bound books and khaki sofas.
But there really are lions in the camp at night. I would have felt safer sharing a tent with Michael, and Bruce conceded that was perfectly reasonable - because then I would be only half as likely to be attacked. "It isn't that he'd save you - it's that while the predators munch on one, the other can escape. It's the principle behind large herds."
Later, I read from Out of Africa as I tried to sleep. "The views were immensely wide," Karen Blixen writes. "Everything you saw made for greatness and freedom. Up in this high air you breathed easily, drawing in a vital assurance and lightness of heart." On any trip, the best literature of the place intensifies and enlarges your experience. But for all Blixen's delicacy of language, I still couldn't sleep.
Early next morning we stepped out into the gentle danger of Africa. A red dawn stained the skies, and I felt the space of a whole continent - at once exhilarated and relaxed by the rising murmur of insects, the famous light. That first day we saw a cheetah, a leopard and a pride of lions with their cubs. Most impressive, though, was the thunder of the wildebeests as they stampeded over a hill, carried by dust clouds like an apocalyptic vision. Watching them, I found myself thinking like a lion: here was a banquet it would be impossible ever to finish. Later we witnessed the fear and despair of baby wildebeests parted from their mothers, as vultures went jauntily about their business nearby.
"Where there's death there's life," said Ivan the ranger, matter-of-factly - yet he helped us to save one youngster by encouraging it to follow our vehicle.
But fear is part of the deal here, as I came to understand. Here you are not gods, as you are at the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, and the experience offers a different kind of intensity. Spending all day watching the predators, and most of the night listening to them hunt outside your canvas wall, you soon begin to identify with the primal stimuli of the bush. You forget your wearisome human pride, and lose that sense of difference between man and other animals. I'd expected the worst thing about Tanzania Under Canvas to be the strip of tent separating me and the bush. It turned out to be the best.
Need to Know
Sally Emerson travelled as a guest of CC Africa.
Travel details: Africa Travel Centre (0845 450 1535, www.africatravel.co.uk) can arrange a tailor-made, six-night itinerary combining the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge (www.ngorongorocrater.com) with CC Africa's Tanzania Under Canvas (www.ccafrica.com) from £3,095pp.
The price includes flights from Heathrow to Dar es Salaam with British Airways, three nights at Under Canvas and two at Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, including all meals and safari activities, and internal flights and transfers. Or try Expert Africa (020 8232 9777, www.expertafrica.com), Aardvark Safaris (01980 849160, www.aardvarksafaris.com) or Safari Consultants (01787 888590, www.safari-consultants.co.uk).