It is a promising start to a safari trip. Barely has the Twin Otter touched down near the Masai Mara National Reserve, the fabled 1500 square kilometre game park in Kenya, than the wildlife sightings begin.
Next to a soccer goal by the airstrip, two zebras line up like Juventus central defenders. Grazing nearby are herds of graceful deer-like creatures that I learn over the next week to differentiate as eland, topi, impala and Thompson's gazelle.
There are wart-hogs, too – belovedly comical, nuzzling around in the grass. Graceful giraffes nibble on foliage like supermodels lunching on celery sticks as our open Landcruiser heads to camp. Then there are what safari guide Akatch calls "a welcoming committee" of cape buffalo, deadly serious looking beasts who seem anything but welcoming.
On the short drive to &Beyond's Bataleur Camp, we stop to meet four Masai women, beautifully dressed in colourful tribal costumes, making bead necklaces under a tree outside a craft centre. And we wave to schoolboys trailing home in small groups – walking up to eight kilometres in the morning then back after school – who are amusing themselves practising ocarina-like whistles through their fingers.
What a brilliant shock to the senses the Masai Mara is. Stunning wildlife and saturated colours amid the dirt. A hundred creatures you never see in Australia outside a zoo, populating the forest and savannah grassland.
The camp, just re-opened after renovation, is also an eye-opener. It has nine "tented suites" that are really luxurious canvas apartments under a wooden roof in a secluded patch of forest, fitted out with leather and timber features inspired by that classic movie Out of Africa.
The suites have a view of the plain so you can watch a herd of elephants walking past a few hundred metres away. And, waking to a distant noise just before dawn the next morning, there is a surreally beautiful sight: a shimmering shape-shifting orb, lighting up and going dark, which eventually reveals itself to be a hot air balloon carrying tourists across the plain.
Animal noises – they could be baboons, hyena, lions or who knows what else – drift into your safari dreams every night.
The camp is more than five hours drive from Nairobi but it has as many luxuries as a top hotel in the Kenyan capital: three excellent meals a day, with every alcoholic and non-alcoholic drink you can imagine. Food and most alcohol come with the room rate. There is a butler for every two suites who can wake you for a dawn safari with a pot of hot coffee and a plate of biscuits.
Behind a stone wall, everything in the room is designed for comfort and privacy: a huge bed, writing desk, two leather armchairs next to a tray of decanted sherry and two glasses etched with an elephant design, a "gym in a basket" (yoga mat, hand weights, skipping rope and resistance band) and a mini-bar that includes a decanter of gin, a lime, fresh ice and more beautifully etched glasses.
Under a glass conservatory roof is a freestanding bath (which might be mysteriously filled for you without asking while you're out on a game drive), both indoor and outdoor showers, two marble vanities, a deck through sliding doors and, further out, a sunken pit for a relaxed drink and ground-level game viewing. On a cool night, a hot water bottle is tucked into your bed. If you stash dirty clothes in a cloth bag in the morning, they'll be back – washed and neatly folded – by night.
It's an exclusive place: guests are looked after by 48 staff in the northern camp of a larger &Beyond resort that was re-opened by Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta the week before we arrive.
Although the compound is surrounded by an electric fence, it is compulsory for a Masai security guard to walk you to and from your room after dark. Most carry a rifle in case of confrontation with a wild animal but one warrior prefers his traditional bow and arrow.
Despite this level of privilege, being out on safari is a genuine adventure. Early next morning, a little patience on a game drive pays off. Back in the Landcruiser, Akatch has heard about a pride of lions on the two-way radio. By the time we arrive, two magnificent males are lying on a dirty road, with what could be a female – and maybe a cub – just visible in the grass nearby. None of them are in any hurry to do anything other than rest in the morning heat. Ten minutes, 15 minutes, 20 minutes pass. Other safari vehicles arrive then leave.
Then a magical scene unfolds: the lioness rises from the grass, yawns and ambles towards our vehicle. Another lioness joins her. Then out from the grass come four, five, six then seven cubs. While the humans in the vehicle hold their breath, the two lionesses stroll right up to us. They are barely a metre away – stay quiet, don't move – when the leader casually bares her teeth, saunters around the vehicle then heads down a dirt track. The cubs take a more direct route and join her. It's a feline family postcard shot. Two lionesses and seven offspring – black tips at the back of their ears and tails as they turn away – settle on the track. "Cubs look skinny," Akatch observes. "They need some food."
Suddenly there is a screech in the distance. "Baboon," Akatch says quietly. And as he describes it, a small everyday wildlife drama begins playing out. In a nearby clump of trees, the baboon has seen the pride on the move and barked a warning to the rest of the troop.
But the attention of the lions and their hungry cubs is focussed elsewhere: a small herd of topi are skittering away in a wide arc with one eye and ear on their predator. A herd of more distant antelopes are also discreetly making themselves scarce. No-one is running. It seems that running in the Masai Mara makes you prey.
The two male lions – one magnificently maned – lazily bide their time on the road. They know if the topi and zebra are aware of their presence, there is no point chasing them. There will be easier prey to come. In a slow-motion swirl involving scores of animals over hundreds of metres, the pride is dominating the landscape.
Nine lions in magnificent close-up is an absolute highlight of the morning but there are others.
Four elephants taking an early morning drink and wallowing in a river just 200 metres from the camp gate – a mother and three daughters.
"Just a small family," Akatch says. "They're very intelligent. Sixty per cent they behave like us. If one elephant dies, other elephants scream, wave bushes and pick up small branches like they're burying the dead then they visit the grave, just like we do. They remember."
But they don't remember to get off the road so Akatch sits patiently until the pachyderm traffic jam clears. Ten metres away, the mother looks suspiciously at the intruders as they pass.
We learn about the eco-systems within eco-systems in the Masai Mara. Guides avoid driving over fresh elephant dung because it will be populated by dung beatles, a food source for other creatures.
As we round a corner, the camp staff have set up a bush breakfast by a river – complete with tables, cutlery, a buffet, a small kitchen that can knock out an omelette on request and, behind a tree, a toilet in a tent.
As we eat, four hippos bob in the water – surfacing for a breath, descending for a few minutes, then surfacing nearby for another breath. They are staying out of the sun until the cool of the evening, when they emerge to feed on grass.
"Hippos mate, give birth and suckle in the water," Akatch says.
But if the safari sounds too G-rated, guests also get to see the carnal brutality of the savannah. After a drive into the Serengeti across the border into Tanzania, there is a cheetah dismantling a dead gazelle in a grass hollow.
Elsewhere, a young lion guards the half-eaten carcass of a buffalo near a more-than-interested hyena and an acacia tree full of vultures – sitting like macabre Christmas decorations – while the rest of the pride seek shade. And while crossing a river – with the water above the Landcruiser's wheel rims – a crocodile slips beneath the surface just 10 metres away.
At another turn, there is a stunning sight – 18 giraffes spread across the roadway and nearby plain, in an unusual grouping called "a journey".
And just as stunning is seeing one of the 14 surviving black rhino in the Masai Mara, feeding quietly by himself, except for a white bird perched nonchalantly on his back.
One day finishes with a "sundowner" by the Mara River - a bar unpacked from the Landcruiser boot for a cooling gin and tonic, glass of wine or beer - watching the hippos become more active in the river then, when a sudden monsoonal downpour hits, driving back to camp under blankets.
The next night, the sundowner is on a ridge that featured in Out Of Africa with a chorus of Masai warriors dancing and jumping ("The higher you jump, the more girlfriends you impress") before an even more fierce downpour that requires Akatch to lower plastic screens around the Landcruiser.
To get the most out of the trip, visiting a Masai village is recommended. Enkang Esoit, Maa for "village rock", is a series of mud huts that is a stark contrast to the Bataleur camp. These are rugged people still living largely traditional lives – men taking multiple wives, women building huts and milking cows.
Visiting a local school, partly supported by &Beyond's contributions to the Africa Foundation, is another insight into the culture. As eager as the students are to learn, their classrooms, facilities and playgrounds are so basic that it takes philanthropic efforts from around the world to help them get a decent education.
And for one extra experience, take that dawn balloon flight and ghost silently over the landscape as the wildlife wakes up, rising hundreds of metres then descending to skim the grass, followed by another handsome outdoor breakfast
Garry Maddox travelled as a guest of Travel Associates.
Emirates flies daily to Nairobi via Dubai. See emirates.com
Fairmont The Norfolk in Nairobi is a luxury hotel with 170 rooms set around a lush garden. Rooms from $US229 per night. See fairmont.com/norfolk-hotel-nairobi
Hemingways, also in Nairobi, is a 45-suite luxury boutique hotel on a plantation-style property. Rooms from $US325 a night. See hemingways-collection.com/nairobi
In the Masai Mara, &Beyond's newly renovated Bataleur Camp provides secluded luxury tent suites. Rooms from $US680 a night in low season to $US1235 in high season. See andbeyond.com
SkyShip Company runs balloon flights over the Masai Mara for $US430 plus a $US50 conservation fee – with children half price – including breakfast. See skyshipcompany.com