The teeming plains of Kenya

No matter how often you have seen big game in a zoo, nothing comes anywhere close to an eyeball-eye-ball encounter with a cheetah, lion or leopard in its natural environment.

It is just a short hop with Air Kenya to get from Wilson Airport in Nairobi to the airstrip of one of the camps or hotels on the Masai Mara game reserve on the border of Kenya and Tanzania. That was the way we chose to arrive at Governor's Il Moran Camp on this trip, but five years ago we drove from Nairobi.

Driving was more of an adventure. It is only 170 miles (270 kilometres) from Nairobi to Masai Mara but you need to allow yourself a good five hours and a real off-road vehicle is an absolute must. That's not just because the final leg of the journey is on rough tracks. The main roads on the earlier part of the journey are quite a severe trial too.

Masai Mara Cheetah
Eyeball-to-eyball with the fastest animal - the cheetah, capable of running at 70 mph

Nominally they are tarmac. But the tarmac has seen much better days, goodness knows when... but a long time ago. When you hit potholed tarmac you really hit it. For long sections of road you feel like your fillings are about to fall out and the suspension is going to fall off the car. Correction. What was that crash? You mean it has fallen off the car?

The final part of the drive was along unsurfaced tracks which, for the most part, were a joy and felt - by contrast - as smooth as a motorway. We would pass little villages, schools where the locals would wave as we drove by.

It is amazing how populaced seemingly empty countryside turns out to be in Africa. Stop for a picnic with not a soul around and, within minutes you are surrounded by curious faces that have appeared as if by magic.

Masai Mara elephant
Young elephant sizing each other up with a play fight

Our first trip was to Little Governor's Camp, transferring to Governor's Camp. Il Moran is the more exclusive and, yes, the tent is more palatial and the beds are more fantastic (the legs and bed head are fantastically created from sections of tree). But call me easily satisfied, or whatever, but Little Governor's with its setting round a water hole is my favourite. The fact that you have a river crossing to get there just adds to the adventure.

Let's be clear when we talk about camps. The Governor's Camps are under canvas, but that is where comparison with your scouting days ends. They all have concrete floors and a proper bath or shower-room out the back. At Il Moran there is electrical power from the generator for part of the day, but there are also oil lamps which add to the camp atmosphere. The good news, or bad depending on your attitude, is that there is good mobile phone coverage. So you can send those texts to amaze your friends and relatives back home.

The camps are open to the animals so, after dark, you flash a torch at the door and a guard (or ascari in Swahili) will come an escort you to the bar, the dining area or your Land Rover.

We had a very early realisation that you live with the wildlife when - drinking a bottle of Tusker in the open air bar at the Little Governor's Camp - a hippopotamus appeared out of the water hole just in front of us. Later that first night a hippo walked between the tents, braying (it sounded a little like a demented donkey) just a few feet from our heads through the canvas.

On this trip I was awoken in the middle of the night by a loud crack. The light of dawn revealed that an elephant had taken a dislike to a tree a few feet from the tent and decided to snap it in two!

The normal pattern is that you have three drives a day with the camps' experienced drivers. A good guide not only has an uncanny way of finding the game, but can also tell you all about the animals - probably telling you their names and their parents' names too.

Masai Mara baby elephant
The 'aaaaaah' factor. Baby elephants on the Mara.

Take a good camera with you. A telephoto will be a big advantage, but you don't need one of these huge professional lenses. You really do get remarkably close to the animals.

In fact that is the most surprising thing about the Mara. At home wildlife will often run away as soon as we appear, even if we are in a vehicle. On the Mara, they get disturbed by seeing a human outside the vehicle, but when you are sat in an open-sided Land Rover, it seems to trouble them little - as long as you keep reasonably quiet and don't make sudden movements.

Lions, cheetahs, elephants and giraffes will pose quite happily as you snap picture after picture. So make sure you have plenty of space on your memory card or tapes for your video camera. You will just want to keep shooting! Then, in the comfort when you get home, you can delete the shots that haven't worked and keep the good ones.

On your daily drives you see not just the magnificence of the animals in their natural environment, you see drama and you see comedy.

Masai Mara elephant sunrise
Some of the best wildlife watching is at sunrise, so you get up really early on the Mara

One warm lunchtime by the Mara River four zebra sauntered up towards the crossing point where the wildebeest take their lives into their hands to cross the river on the migration. On the banks, silently waiting were the crocodiles.

The zebra walked slowly, but hesitantly towards the river as if each was encouraging the other. One zebra hesitantly headed to the waterline for a drink, becoming more bold as the others followed.There was a mixture of horror and anticipation as the crocs slithered silently into the river and headed for the rock where the zebra were drinking. With four pairs of croc eyes glaring from the water just two or three metres away the zebra drank their fill as the crocs waited for the slightest mistake.

Later we watched at sundown as a leopard slinked out of the tall grass obviously having designs on an antelope for dinner. It managed to avoid being seen by the sentries - topi strategically standing guard on termite mounds looking out in all directions - and stalked up towards the edge of the herd.

Mara river giraffe
Watch out that rock has eyes... it's a crocodile!

The suspense came to nothing when the leopard spotted three hyenas waiting for a free dinner. Leopards, our guide told us, will not hunt when there are hyenas around because they know the kill will be stolen from them.

Or there was the crippled antelope that could walk only sideways due to an injury to its back leg. It was trying to follow the herd, but while they went ahead, the young impala was walking sideways further and further out on its own... towards a waiting lion pride.

Just as it seemed it was almost going to walk into the open mouths of the waiting lions, one of the lionesses gave chase. Why she went on her own when normally the females hunt together, I cannot imagine. The lions looked hungry and the lame impala looked like a gift. But given the chances of success her chase was a half-hearted attempt.

Masai Mara lion
Buffalo stirs up the dust giving chase to the lion

There is even comedy on the Mara. On one of the runs we came across a pride of lions eyeing up a lone buffalo.

Three lionesses took a cub and started stalking the buffalo. Whether they would seriously have contemplated trying to bring down a buffalo, or whether it was just an exercise to help the cub learn how to hunt, we don't know.

Anyway the the buffalo eventually spotted the lions and glowered back at them. The stand-off continued as the buffalo grazed on, followed by the stalking lions. Eventually the buffalo had enough of being stalked and turned to chase one of the lionesses.

Just at the wrong moment a male lion awoke from his slumbers (male lions don't hunt they wait for their food to be brought to them... quite like some humans) and sauntered into the line of fire. He then became the focus of the buffalo's anger.

Masai Mara crowned cranes
The beautiful crowned cranes

A comic chase ensued with the lion just ahead of the buffalo and a trail of dust following the charging duo. Eventually the lion dived into the cover of low undergrowth to escape and nurse its injured pride. The King of the Jungle had met its match.

But there are also amazing examples of how the animals work together. Like the topi who dutifully stand guard on their termite mounts watching out for mixed herds of antelope. Or the zebra who migrate with the wildebeest and help them because of their better eyesight. Or the birds that send out alarm calls when predators are on the prowl. Or the baboons that gather the fruits from the topmost branches and throw them down to the elephants waiting below.

Masai Mara lion yawn
Even when I let the ladies do all the hunting, a lion's life is tiring
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