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Talking to the animals

Pauline McLean | 15:40 UK time, Wednesday, 7 October 2009

It's hard to believe anything could upstage an African opera premiere in a tiny converted garage with the rain pounding on the tin roof.

But a few hours ago, I spent my final evening on Botswana in the truly spectacular setting of the game reserve at Mokoldi.

And as the sun set and the moon rose, I joined the author Alexander McCall Smith and his friends and family in the little rest camp he himself established here a year ago.

It's a simple affair, just six thatched huts with oil lamps and basic shower and toilet facilities - but it gives a real sense of being part of the natural landscape, which offers the perfect ending to an extraordinary trip.

The reserve is only a few kilometres from the country's capital Gaborone. But its spectacular scale - 10,000 acres in all - means it feels remote.

Our guide Tshepo takes us into the park, which safeguards many animals, not least the white rhino, which is being hunted into extinction.

Head Ranger, Neil Wilson later tells us he fears for the safety of the nine rhino they now have, so great is the value of their horns.

Attempts to divert the hunters by dehorning the beasts elsewhere, haven't brought good results so Neil's hope is to be able to buy a microlite to be able to survey the reserve and keep an eye out for potential hunters.

The big draw of the reserve - at least for locals - is the cheetah enclosure. Duma and Lletoso were rescued as cubs when their mother was shot by a farmer.

They've been in captivity so long, they'll happily allow humans to stroke them, as if they're giant purring domestic toms.

It's useful to be wary though. They have been known to take an irritated swipe - they're 14 years old now so the cheetah equivalent of grumpy old men - and one of Bill Clinton's bodyguards came a cropper a few years back.

Sandy McCall Smith admits he too sustained a cheetah injury himself. "t was just a scratch but I was able to send my agent a telegram saying 'ustained cheetah injury, but still in one piece'," he said.

Not that anyone can afford to be complacent. Last year, two Sri Lankan keepers were killed when a bull elephant turned against them.

The park has since struggled with bad publicity although the male elephant was destroyed and Sri Lankan guides continue to apply for work there.

McCall Smith set up the rest camp a year ago but this is the first time he's stayed here himself, along with his wife Elizabeth and the close friends who've helped him establish the opera house.

It's a philanthropic project, with all profits ploughed back into the conservation work of the park. Almost an hour's drive from the park gates, it's as close as you'll get to communing with nature, in the kind of atmosphere Sandy's character Mma Ramotswe might have experienced growing up in rural Botswana.

Working with park authorities, he's also keen to establish a star gazing facility, since the roof of the little restaurant offers unparalleled views of that section of the African skies.

After an evening braai - the southern African equivalent of a barbecue - it's the most obvious thing to do. And that's followed by a spell of storytelling around the campfire.

A suitably African end to the whole adventure.

For those who are interested, you can hear the whole documentary - The Number One Ladies Opera House - on Radio Four next Tuesday at 1330 BST.

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