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LUXURY TRAVEL: Kenya, Africa

A pair of huge green eyes bore into mine and a prickle of shock runs down my spine. I cannot move. White knuckled and barely drawing breath I am mesmerised by the intensity of his gaze. He moves again, his muscular shoulders rippling with intensity. With a jolt my brain kicks into gear and I duck my head back through the roof of the truck. My heart booms so loud I wonder if he can hear it. The lion stares at me through the glass window for a few seconds more before giving a lazy yawn and rolling over. I'm a visitor in his kingdom, and I've just been warned not to forget it.

lion
lion
cubs
leleshwa
cheetah
breakfast on the plain
zebras

I didn't plan to visit Kenya, it just kind of happened. My friend Fran, who I met in Spain, grew up there, and when she suggested that I visit her and her parents in Nairobi, I jumped at the chance. What better way to see a country than in the company of locals?

Although they're originally from England, Fran's family have lived in Kenya for more than 30 years and they seem to know just about everyone worth knowing in Nairobi, including the owners of Leleshwa, a luxury safari camp on the edge of the Masai Mara National Reserve.

Located on the Siana Conservancy overlooking rolling African plains, the tented camp has a distinctly colonial atmosphere. The staff greet us with a smile and a freshly made gin and tonic, and I half expect Karen Blixen and Denys Finch-Hutton to be sitting in the tented lounge listening to Mozart on the gramophone. The tragic lovers are nowhere in sight however, and I suspect that despite its indulgent colonial feel, I will discover luxuries here that could not even be imagined in early 20th century safari life.

A narrow path leads to my tent. It's richly furnished with a hot shower and a sumptuous bed so big I can easily lie sideways across it. Though there are 12 other tents just like it at Leleshwa, I can't see a single one of them. Nor can I hear the other guests, only the sounds of the bush - rustling leaves and chirping insects - and the watery tinkle of cattle bells in the distance as the Masai warriors drive their herds to richer feeding grounds.

We arrive on a hot and steamy afternoon, and the scent of rain hangs in the air. Over lunch, there is a heavy downpour and we decide to delay our first safari until dusk. The Masai Mara has a curfew and guests must return to their lodgings before dark, but guests at Leleshwa, which is located just outside the Mara on the equally plentiful Siana Conservancy, have no such restrictions.

As the sun dips toward the horizon, we set out on a game drive with our guide David and our eagle-eyed Masai game spotter, Samwell. Passing swarms of placidly feeding Zebra and Wilderbeest, and even the odd loping giraffe, we slow to a stop under a lone tree and I discover that the bar has come with us. It's time for sundowners. As we sit around a fire, drinking G&T and watching the red sun disappear in reverential silence, hyenas howl in the distance - an eyrie soundtrack for the cooling night.

Back at Leleshwa, a cosy three-course meal has me yawning for my bed in no time and I am escorted to my tent by a young Masai warrior. We've been told not to wander around the camp at night without a guard, and I notice he is armed with a spear. I turn and strain my eyes into the darkness, a terrifying thrill welling up inside me. What adventures will tomorrow hold, when we venture into the Masai Mara, one of the most plentiful game reserves in the world.

It is in the Masai Mara that I am eyeballed by the lion. He is on his back now, paws spread skyward, without a care in the world. When you're the top of the food chain, I guess you don't have much cause to feel vulnerable.

Our radio crackles, and David, our guide and driver, announces that Elephants have been spotted close by. We leave the lions behind and follow the trail of destruction left by the lumbering pachyderms.
 
...we slow to a stop under a lone tree and I discover that the bar has come with us. It's time for sundowners.
 
It's been like this all day. The three of us were woken before dawn by a polite knock on our tent and a pot of hot tea. Since then, I've barely had time to think, my senses have been so overloaded with new sights and sounds.

From the second we entered the park, our heads floating above the truck as we clung on tight over the bumpy track, we've been inundated with new sights and smells. Herds of gazelle, zebra and antelope watch in unison as we pass them by. It's the big cats we want to see today and the Mara does not disappoint.

A cheetah lounges in the shade of a tree, unconcerned by our presence as the truck slowly circles around him. Earlier we spent a long time watching a leopard haul a dead antelope up a tree to keep it safe from other predators.

And then there are the lions sleeping with cat-like contentment in the shade of a tree, languorous and confident in the knowledge that they are the undisputed kings of the African wild.
 
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Words and Photos by Nella Scott 5/6/11
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