We were not prepared to argue with our ranger. After all, he was the one with the rifle, and we were sitting in an open vehicle in the dark, staring at a toothsome leopard within pouncing distance.

Still, it's hard to believe what he told us. Katlego Maduse recalled that this 19-month-old female had been an unusually skittish cub in a notoriously skittish species. If so, Sabi Sabi's intensive programme to acclimatise this leopard cub - and other young predators - to the presence of vehicles had worked.

For 22 minutes, we and two other Land Rover- loads of fortunate visitors followed her as she went about her evening routine. There were various itches to be tended to, spotted fur needing a tongue bath, bushes to be scent-marked and plenty of pauses to rest up for a busy night ahead. All the while, she completely ignored the rumble of engines, the cracking of twigs under tyres and the excited whispers of tourists.

"I remember the first time her mother took her out," mused Maduse, "she was very wary of vehicles." But for us she handled the glare of the spotlight with more poise than any Hollywood starlet.

Her behaviour raised an interesting question: What is natural? Is it for wild animals to fear humans, as they have since the first Africans learned to make spears? Or is it more natural for a predator to learn to ignore man and his 4x4s, seeing us as "some kind of moving tree," in Maduse's words.

It is one of many question that has rattled in the back of my brain ever since we began saucing our staple diet of Kruger National Park trips with occasional breaks at luxury private game reserves.

Is a 30-second chance encounter with a Kruger cheetah, found by your own diligent searching, more precious than 30 minutes with a cheetah "found" by a ranger with a walkie-talkie?

Is it better to deduce that the bird on the branch is a little bee-eater by paging slowly through Newman's, or by asking your guide? More relaxing to braai under the stars at Satara to the accompaniment of a scops owl, or to sit back and let the chef worry about whether the coals are hot enough?

We invited American friends to join us for two days at Sabi Sabi followed by two more at Kruger's Biyamithi bush camp while we pondered these questions. Two carnivore sightings - our young Sabi Sabi leopard and a very different beast in Kruger National Park - would help us find an answer.

There could be no question that Sabi Sabi won highest marks for predator face time.

This was important to our visiting friends, because on their previous self-drive safari in South Africa they did not see a single cat other than the two that live in our house.

The feline frenzy began on our first drive, with a male cheetah so bloated from gorging on kudu that he seemed incapable of standing. His gory buffet, a headless kudu cow, lay a few metres away from his resting place. Within an hour, we had seen two more cats: a young female leopard and also her mother, unsuccessfully stalk a herd of impala.

The next day we enjoyed a long posing session with a male leopard, while lion, buffalo, elephant and white rhino rounded out the Big Five for us within 30 hours of our arrival. Only one major predator eluded us at Sabi Sabi: the spotted hyena.

Most of these sighting were discovered on the two-way radio and shared with two other Sabi Sabi vehicles. When time was critical, we rushed toward our next rendezvous on what Maduse called a "Ferrari safari." It all lent some credence to Kruger purists who consider private safaris too scripted. But since the big-cat encounters took place after dusk and off-road, they would have been simply impossible for self-drive visitors in a national park.

One sighting was totally serendipitous, however.

On our final morning drive, one of the Americans spotted two wild dogs prancing down the road toward us, their faces rosy with blood.

Suddenly, the Land Rover was surrounded by a yelping pack of six adults and eight pups only five months old. The adults regurgitated entire steaks of fresh meat for the excited pups, who played tug-of-war with the flesh and chased down any sibling carrying a morsel.

Then they tumbled on top of one another in mass wrestling matches, with heads, legs and tails poking out in all directions from a blurry pile of spotted pelts.

The feasting and celebration carried on for nearly half-an-hour, and most of that time we had the spectacle to ourselves, before yielding to a queue of other vehicles that had been lured in by the call of the walkie talkie. Unlike our other predator encounters, this one seemed to be the product of a pure dumb luck that could have happened just as easily next door in Kruger Park. But I must admit that in 14 years of Kruger visits, I have never come across anything like it.

One distinct difference that came with the extra expense of Sabi Sabi was the opportunity to share in the bush lore stored in Maduse's brain.

He taught us that leopard urine smells like buttered popcorn. ("And what does it taste like?" quipped my 13-year-old son.) Soon we were picking up the scent trail of leopards like old San trackers.

On one veld walk, Maduse even showed us how to use our binoculars backwards as a sort of bush microscope to examine harvester termites busily digesting a lump of elephant dung.Our own stomachs were also kept busy. With mussels on the half-shell and loin of kudu, grenadilla cake and ginger pudding, we feasted five meals a day at Sabi Sabi Bush Camp, including the pre-dawn coffee with pastries and the afternoon tea.

By the time we left, we knew how that bloated cheetah must have felt.

As the hosts of our American visitors, we headed off to the land of braaied boerewors and Ouma rusks with some trepidation. We had originally tried to organise the trip to Kruger first, before Sabi Sabi, to avoid any letdown.

We needn't have worried. As we crossed through Paul Kruger Gate, multiple pairs of eyes sprang into action. In lieu of a ranger, tracker and two-way radio, the children devised a competition among themselves, offering one point to anyone who spotted an impala, 10 for an elephant, 15 for a rhino and so on.

My wife and I had always sensed that the Sabi Sands and Timbavati reserves, home to the region's most famous private safari lodges, were rather sparsely populated with general game compared with southern Kruger. Our afternoon drive to Biyamithi proved it.

The children were shouting out animal IDs with barely a pause and their scorecard showed more than 100 sightings of antelope, far more than we had seen in two days at Sabi Sabi.

All of our elephants in the Sabi Sands had been solitary bulls, but along Kruger's H4-1 tar road toward Lower Sabie we encountered breeding herds of 50 or more, with floppy-trunked calves sticking close to their mothers. Even our lion sightings were impressive: a mating pair and a pride devouring a kill.

But the lions actually made us pine for Sabi Sabi.

The pair were at binocular distance, and we were jammed among 15 cars watching them.

The kill was close, but in a deep, bushy ravine. Through gaps in the twigs we could barely discern elements of the scene - a flicking tail, a patch of bloody flesh - but never the whole picture.

How we longed for Maduse to drive us off-road for a better view. And still, we could not find a hyena.

As we settled into Biyamithi, our favourite camp in Kruger, everyone made a pointed effort to avoid comparisons with the accommodation at Sabi Sabi Bush Camp.

We had traded sophisticated dark-mahogany décor and crisp linens for creaky screen doors and avocado-green bathroom tiles.

Yet, homely as these chalets were, they felt homey, too. Free from wake-up calls and schedules, we slept in as late as the Natal francolins would allow and lounged for much of the next day on our patio. A pair of purple-crested turacos flashed their scarlet wings in the trees next to our chalet to revive our energy.

And the wildlife highlight of the day stretched across the Biyamithi River in full view of the camp.

A breeding herd of more than 200 buffalo were grazing, drinking and wallowing in as little hurry as we ourselves. A late-afternoon game drive yielded a white rhino with a sabre-like horn as long as any I have seen, and a pride of lions sleeping in a dry river bed. After catching a glimpse of the lions, we opted to leave the pack of cars jockeying for a view and headed home on the open road.

Dusk was approaching; gate-closing time loomed.

Then two dark shapes on the gravel road caught our attention. As we approached, their outlines gradually came into focus in the half light. These were the very beasts we had been searching for: spotted hyena.

Would this sleepy pair allow us to approach within a metre? Never. They had not spent their youth constantly exposed to vehicles.

They had seen cars before, to be certain, but four-wheeled animals were not a normal part of the environment. So we turned off the engine and watched from a distance, enjoying their mid-road nap almost as much as they did.

Several minutes passed and no other visitors arrived to share our view. The gate beckoned, so we crept forward. The hyenas raised their heads, pulled slowly onto their feet, scratched an itch, and finally loped into the bush.

We would not be pursuing them off-road, spotlights flaring. Instead, they melted into the bush and disappeared. But for those brief minutes, they belonged to us and us alone.

The leopard and the hyena. Sabi Sabi and Kruger.

If we had to make a choice, would we exchange a lingering close-up with that spotted cat for our chance encounter on the road? I choose not to choose. We would like to have our Sabi grenadilla cake and eat the Kruger braaivleis too. They were both the best of times. And we would not have traded a single spot.

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