Luxury stay in Maasai Mara, Kenya: This may be Africa's best wildlife safari

There's a troop of 10, 20 … no … about 30 baboons playing on a heavily wooded riverbank. The young ones run, fall down, bounce back, scramble up the trees, swing along and roll over each other in mock battles, while their parents look on wearily.

Then, at some secret signal, the youngsters gather round and the mums gently pick up tiny babies hidden in the undergrowth and cradle them to their chests. The males nod in satisfaction and stride away on a ledge over the water, hurriedly followed by everyone else, their reflections glittering in its surface below.

As the determined little procession advances, a curiosity of banded mongooses who'd been lounging on a termite nest suddenly look up, wide-eyed and alarmed. They seem uncertain what to do but, seconds later, the decision is made for them.

A lone spotted hyena bursts out of the bushes and  everyone – baboons, mongooses and their human watchers in a game vehicle alike – shriek in terror. The animals scatter; the visitors laugh in embarrassment. Just another morning out on the plains in Kenya's renowned Maasai Mara, where it's all about the animals … and the people who've come to see them in all their glory in the most magnificent of their natural habitats.

"I've been coming here for 10 years now," says Donald Graeme, who's here from Scotland to stay in arguably the Mara's most beautiful accommodation, the Mara Plains Camp with its huge, luxurious tents, complete with brass and leather fittings, and a spacious wooden verandah from which you can watch the wildlife trudge pass. "You can see everything here, and it's just so beautiful."

There's a reason Maasai Mara has a reputation as one of the best places to view wildlife in Africa. First, there's just so much of it, and second, the wide-open plains of dried golden grasses, spindly acacia trees and shady rivers make seeing it so easy.

Guide Duncan Lenjirr has travelled widely but rates the Mara as the best.

"There is a huge amount of wildlife here and it's in spectacular scenery with rolling hills against the backdrop of the escarpment," he says. "There's also so much grass here for the animals. I think it's the best place there is."

Certainly, by the end of my first day, staying at Mara Plains, I'd seen nearly everything I'd hoped to. A herd of elephants had passed within a couple of metres of our vehicle, including cute babies, copying their mothers who would stop to dig into the ground in search of a favourite root. There were lions aplenty, sunbaking on rocks or under shady trees, lazily raising their heads as we approached, and then looking away disdainfully. There were vast numbers of wildebeest marching off into the distance in search of who knows what, while zebra often joined them for want, it seems, of nothing better to do.

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Warthogs scurried after their piglets, giraffes munched at the top of trees, dozens of Bambi-like impala bounded around, the chestnut-coloured topi nuzzled their calves and Thompson's gazelle minced gracefully, while on the horizon Maasai warriors herded their cattle in long, orderly lines. As the sun set, a den of hyenas came to life, the cubs all climbing over each other.

Downtime here is full of surprises, too. One morning we set out early, being told there would be a breakfast packed for us. It turned out to be a crisp white-clothed table under a tree, with another table set up nearby, laden with food and complete with a chef to cook us pancakes and eggs, bacon and sausages to order.

Mara Plains is extremely comfortable, too, with some of the best food I've ever eaten in Africa; a library with big sofas and a great range of reading material; and a central elevated lodge with a candelabra, dining areas and loungeroom.  It also lends top-of-the-range binoculars and cameras to its guests, and burns the results on to a USB drive to take home. .

Yet of course, it's not all pretty-as-a-picture out here. Nature can be seen in all its glory, but it can also be cruel. One afternoon we saw a big male baboon snatch a baby gazelle and sit munching on it. The next day, a bloody-faced hyena tore into its own prey – a little topi calf.

"They have to eat," our guide, Duncan, says, calmly. "It's just their table manners might not be so good." Beautiful one minute, a veritable jungle the next ...

Sue Williams travelled as a guest of The Classic Safari Company and South African Airways.

TRIP NOTES

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Traveller.com.au/kenya

classicsafaricompany.com.au

FLY

South African Airways flies to Nairobi via Perth and Johannesburg, and Safari Air flies from Nairobi to the Maasai Mara.

STAY

Mara Plains Camp is on the northern border of the Maasai Mara National Reserve, with seven luxury rooms under canvas with raised decks – that's one room for every 280 hectares!  – all with wonderful views of the plains. Daily sundowners are a highlight and there are game drives at all times of the day and night, balloon safaris and Maasai village visits. See greatplainsconservation.com/mara-plains-camp

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