How I tried to get the most out of Africa
We knew what we wanted from the Masai Mara: to see the Big Five in their own habitat
Necking: Giraffes get all romantic on the Masai Mara plains
'I'm afraid I can't land the plane," announced the pilot. "Because there are animals on the runway."
We had left Nairobi's Wilson airport 45 minutes earlier on a 13-seat Safari Link plane but no one minded the short delay circling the skies before touchdown at Kenya's Masai Mara because we were enjoying the floor show below.
The runway was a strip of mown field and we had a bird's eye view of the loitering zebras and giraffes who were being shooed away.
Landing was smooth and we were met by the drivers of the waiting trucks from our hosts from a tour company called &Beyond.
Somak Holidays offers two nights at Sankara Nairobi on a b&b basis, and three nights at &Beyond Bateleur Camp (full board basis plus soft drinks, house wines, local brand spirits teas and coffee and two game drives per full day) from £2,390 per person. This includes international flights with Kenya Airways from London Heathrow to Nairobi, and internal flights from Nairobi to the Masai Mara. www.somak.co.uk, 020 8423 3000
They plied us with champagne and nibbles before whisking us away on a 20-minute drive passing grazing impalas and curious buffalos to Kichwa Tembo lodge in the northwestern region of the Masai Mara National Reserve. The camp, hidden in foliage, looked so Out of Africa with its vintage furnishings and colonial setting that I expected to see Meryl Streep sipping iced-tea with Robert Redford. For those tickled by holidaying in film locations, the neighbouring Bateleur Camp is the location where the final scene was shot.
The manager, Stanley, and his team fussed over his new arrivals with more nibbles and drinks.
"Livingston" he delighted in calling me, "your butler is Joseph and he will take you to your home."
Joseph, a long narrow slip of a man wearing the red Masai blanket accessorised with beads and a spear, walked quickly, unhindred by the weight of my luggage, along the twisty path through the forest to my "tent".
I use the word with a wry smile, because, yes, the ceiling and the front were made of fabric and netting, but it had polished wood floors, walls of wood logs and the en-suite shower with a pizza sized shower power-head, was made of stone.
At night I would slip into a king size four poster bed pre-warmed by a fluffy hot water bottle and wake to a view through the netting over the Masai Mara and see gazelles and baboons frolicking on the horizon. In the afternoons I could have a quiet moment and sip tea on the terrace, invite a masseuse, or lounge by the pool.
But I was keen to explore and eagerly joined the early morning and late afternoon safari (which means journey in the Kiswahili language of East Africa) over the next few days.
"Jambo" was the Masai greeting that I woke up to every morning at 6.30am with a delivery of a cuppa and chocolate biscuits to ease me into the day. And each morning a pair of resident warthogs shuffled around a few yards away searching for morsels, while dinkey white-faced capuchin monkeys swung in the trees canopy above.
By 6.35am Benson, our safari guide, had ignited the engine of the open-sided truck into life and the search was on through the Masai Mara to indulge our inner Richard Attenbrough.
The area is named after the Masai people and their description of the area "Mara", which means "spotted". It refers to the circular acacia tree-tops and cloud shadows that mark the area when seen from above.
Benson would start by asking: "What animal would you like to see today?" We would take our pick from the Big Five: lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros. The Masai Mara, or maybe it was Benson's tracking skills, did not let us down.
We spotted leopards, the odd rhino, gazelles, wildebeest, lazy lions, buffallos, elephants and impalas in droves.
Baboons would oversee the plains from tree tops while caravans of elephants cowered over their infants as they walked with a mission to the next watering hole. A handful of crocodiles were almost motionless as they lazed in the warm river water.
But the highlights were those precious moments when we stumbled upon nature at its most intimate.
One day we "cooed" and "aahed" as a couple of canoodling giraffes entwined necks in the shade of an umbrella acacia tree. A dazzle of zebras loitered nearby and a lonesome wildebeest sauntered past, seemingly oblivious to the amour on display. For us though, it was a compelling love story.
Incidentally, giraffes spend a lot of time around the acacia trees because they feed on their leaves and twigs. And while they graze, chew and burp, the small oxpecker birds pick at the irritating insects in their fur. This inter-species coalition is a very comical scene.
On another day, though, we narrowly missed a kill, but watched as a lion devoured his antelope, noting the rise and fall of the horns through the grass with each pull and tear. Meanwhile , dozens of vultures hovered above till the lion moved on before swooping in to finish whatever meat was left.
The most thrilling moment was a lively fight between two bull elephants, made all the more dramatic by the dimmed light of the late evening sun. They locked tusks, shoved and pushed each other with ferocity while the earth filled the air with a powdery brown haze with each pounding.
"They are fighting over a female," said Benson blandly. The affray ended when the light faded with the sunset and the pair waddled off slowly and worse for wear into the darkening
Sometimes, a safari would end with a picnic breakfast under the shade of a large tree. At other times we ate at the lodge or enjoyed a candle lit bbq. Dinner was always a grand flourish of gastronomy served with a gusto of affectation accompanied with a detailed description of ingredients and method of cooking.
Yet six safaris is a lot to digest and there are other community-based activities on offer that reflect the company's conservation ethics.
The Kichwa Tembo football match was great fun. Locals took their seats in nearby trees or on the sidelines while the team (the staff at our lodge) played the final league game. By now we were referring to them as "our team" and we were elated that they won.
Visits to nearby villages were particularly fascinating. We met &Beyond-funded Masai bee-keeping farmers, vegetable gardeners and a chicken farming business run entirely by Masai women. They were proud of their achievement and talked of expansion. When not farming chickens, these women moonlight by making jewellery which they sell to tourists at an alfresco supermarket.
The food produced by the villagers is bought by the lodge to provide freshly grown organic food to their guests who, in turn, come for this all- encompassing experience providing the money to preserve Masai wildlife.
For me, this safari was a indeed a journey that affirmed the beauty of symbiosis in the animal kingdom.