My daughter Meghan spotted the cat first. Her vision had been heightened when she heard the word "cheetah" crackling over the radio of the open vehicle. Despite annual trips to Kruger for most of her 14 years, she had never seen one.

It was at the top of her wish list on this, her first trip to a private game reserve, CC Africa's Ngala.

The lithe predator slipped into a thicket before the rest of us had seen it. Our ranger, Megan Cock, patiently pulled over along the dirt track and turned off her engine to wait for its reappearance. Suddenly, the bushveld silence was pierced by a rush of breaking twigs and what sounded like a bleating lamb.

"She's got something!" Megan pointed her vehicle in the direction of the panicked cries and came to a halt 25 metres later. "Where? Where?," I begged, eager to point my lens in the direction of the action.

A cloud of dust-kicked up by the hooves of an antelope in its death throes-clouded the site of the battle, 10 metres away. As the dust settled, we saw a mother cheetah with her jaws firmly clamped around the throat of a common duiker, and her paws holding down the buck's hindquarters.

The duiker gave a few final kicks with its rear hooves, as its forelegs rested on the cheetah's shoulders. It looked like a macabre embrace.

I turned around to see if Meghan, my 10-year-old daughter Grace, or my sister and niece from America were upset by the gruesome spectacle. No one had shed a tear. They were too thrilled to have witnessed the raw drama of nature.

For the next 40 minutes, we watched in the dawn light as a daughter joined her mother at the kill, and the two of them feasted.

By the time we left, the cats were nearly sated, and Meghan's wish to see a cheetah had been satisfied beyond her wildest expectations.

It was like that for the entirety of our 24 hours at Ngala. No request was too small or too large. All of our wishes were granted.

The smallest request probably came from my sister, a preschool teacher who had described chameleons to four-year-olds year after year without ever having seen one.

Fifteen minutes into our afternoon game drive our tracker, John Marimane, who sat on a seat protruding from the front of the Land Rover, found her a flap-necked chameleon.

The speckled brown lizard walked along a dry branch, his bulging eyes rotating in opposite directions.

For the rest of our visit, we discussed among ourselves whether John could possibly have seen that 15cm-long reptile camouflaged deep in the bush as we drove along at 25km/h, or whether he knew it was there in advance.

The younger members of our entourage had wished for five-star pampering and were never disappointed. My wife and I had visited several other private lodges and knew that the thatched duplex chalets of Ngala's Safari Lodge were a little too architecturally ordinary and closely-spaced to compare with the most innovative and intimate camps we had seen. But no detail was lost on the children.

Meghan kept a list of each luxury: glass of lemonade and moist towel on arrival at reception, tray of meringues, fudge and dried fruit in room, mosquito-net canopy on bed, bottled water on table, jars of yummy-smelling body scrub and bath crystals in bathroom, blankets warmed and bedcovers turned down at night.

Certainly no one could have wished for a greater quantity or quality of food. From the first bite of asparagus salad and venison roast at lunch to the last bran muffin at breakfast, we were never allowed even a hint of hunger. A delectable tea with cake and crunchies before each game drive assured that we were unprepared for the next meal. I would not be able to name a restaurant in Joburg where we have enjoyed such inventive and well-prepared food.Or such interesting dining partners. As we ate our lunch, a family of warthogs knelt comically just beyond the wall of the dining boma and did their best to tear up the well-maintained lawn.

Before the meal ended, a male nyala, wearing mustard-yellow socks and a corkscrew rack of horns, emerged around the corner to munch on a nearby bush. For our afternoon game drive, my wife wished for a leopard, partly because it's her favourite animal, and partly because she regretted my sister had never seen one on her first visit six years before.

A leopard was so important to my wife that before choosing a private reserve for this trip, she had persuaded me to phone Ngala to ask what our chances would be of finding this most elusive cat. A ranger told me that anyone staying a week could easily expect three or four sightings.

At R2 400 per person per night, a week was out of the question on our budget. We had just 24 hours to find that cat. A few hours would have sufficed. Though the numbers of general game seemed low within Ngala, on the Kruger border, the reserve's rangers know how to find the specials.

As the sun neared the horizon on our first drive, we encountered a gallant young male leopard resting on an old termite mound, catching the last golden rays. After posing for 10 minutes, he then put on a show for us, stalking a herd of impala upwind.

His belly dusted the ground as his paws flexed forward in liquid motion. To us, he was the essence of stealth, but Megan had watched this leopard growing up. She told us that impala were ambitious quarry for such a young predator, which still relied on his mother for most of his meals.

The impala seemed to agree, and vacated the area with deliberate speed.

That night, we dined under the stars, surrounded by kerosene lanterns, candles and a wood fire to take the edge off the evening chill.

Grace was given her own children's menu, and tried to gloat during dessert as she savoured the Bar-One-and-marshmallow kebab she had just toasted over the fire. But the rest of us struggled to muster any jealousy, since we were equally captivated by the lace biscuits we were scooping into little pots of hot-and-sticky chocolate pudding.

After supper, a guard escorted us to our chalets - the camp is unfenced-where we collapsed under fluffy down duvets. Our sleep was disturbed by our overextended stomachs, the impending 5:30am wake-up call, and anticipation of the morning game drive. It would be hard to imagine a more tranquil place or more comfortable bed in which to lie awake.

The next morning flew past like a charging cheetah. After watching our spotted friends eating their duiker and bush-bashing our way to a sleepy pride of lions, it was already time to pack up. We had to drop any thoughts of lounging by the pool, perusing the gift shop, or taking advantage of the Wi-Fi network on the patio to catch up on email.

Still, Ngala's staff weren't finished finding ways to give us a few final good impressions. The workshop didn't want me driving on rough roads with a plastic piece of the undercarriage dangling under my bumper, so they fixed it into place.

And Megan took time off from her mid-day rest to escort us over an unmarked route to a gate on the far side of the 14 700 hectare reserve - since that exit was much closer to our destination.

On the dusty road out of the reserve, we wished we had remembered to pack water bottles for the long drive ahead. Then we opened the paper packets left for us on the front seat. They contained freshly baked crunchies ... and bottles of water.

As we waved goodbye to the guard at the gate, each of us had the same wish: To one day find our way back to the cats, the chameleons and the crunchies of Ngala Private Game Reserve.

  • CC Africa reservations: Tel: 011-809-4447; email: [email protected] or www.ccafrica.com