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Dancing with the Maasai

20/02/2015 15:34 GMT | Updated 21/04/2015 10:59 BST

We stare at the carcass. We can see its rib cage and half of its skull.

R is excited.

'What is it?' he asks, peering out of the window of our 4×4. 'An antelope?'

'No,' says Leshan, a Maasai warrior. 'It is a cow.'

'Oh,' I say.

A cow.

'Killed in an attack?' wonders R.

Leshan shakes his head.

'It died of natural causes.'

How he can tell is a mystery to us. But Leshan knows many things. He knows where to find lions and has killed two before, the first when he was 16-years-old and the other at 26. The Maasai and the lion are traditional foes and it is considered a rite of passage for a young warrior to take on his greatest adversary. This practice, understandably, does not sit well with conservationists and animal rights groups. So the Maasai have begun to re-think some of their traditions and have tried to find ways of existing within today's ideas and limitations. Warriors still head for the bush when they come of age but now act out the hunt and the kill instead.

In something of a reversal, their tracking skills are being used in the protection of lions. Nobody knows them better than the Maasai. Although they do not take kindly to the lion that kills one of their cattle.

We have come to the Maasai Mara for my 30th birthday. A party in England that my mum and I had semi-planned a year ago wasn't possible. I'd have been absent from my own party. So R and I are here, in one of my favourite places.

The Mara has long been the image of Africa. It is hauntingly beautiful, wild and largely untamed land with vast, open plains that roll on for hundreds of square miles. I was struck when I first came here by the way the Maasai seem to glide across each blade of grass, their feet barely touching the ground.

We are staying in a camp in the bush on the edge of the park. It is run by a warm and welcoming husband and wife team; Ken is from Ireland and Marie is from my old town in England. They used to be professional photographers, then retired, came out to Kenya and decided to set up a simple, basic camp in the Mara. Eight-foot tents, including the one they live in, have stunning views of the reserve. Lights go out at 10 o'clock each night and there is nothing else except a larger tent with long wooden tables and benches, covered in red and white check, where guests can eat breakfast and dinner or grab a cold Tusker.

There is nothing between you and the animals, either. The camp is unfenced so they can - and do - wonder in at night. We are woken on our second night by the laughing cackle of hyenas. It is for those who want to fully immerse themselves in the wild, to have a special experience and who are travelling on a small budget. A safari in the Mara need not cost the earth.

Leshan is our guide. He drives our car round the reserve while R and I relax in the back, toasting my birthday. An early highlight is when we stumble upon a cheetah teaching her young cub to hunt a Thomson's Gazelle. We watch as she lies in waiting, hidden in the tall, yellow grass. Leshan tells us that she sensed her prey because of the way the wind was blowing. The three Thomson's Gazelles stop occasionally to look up in her direction but, seeing nothing, continue munching their way through the grass.

Suddenly, while R is preparing his camera, they are sent scattering in all directions as the cheetah leaps into view and makes her move. She is scrawny but fast, bounding towards the nearest one, her cub running in her wake. But Leshan doesn't think she will catch it. She is thin and weak, he says, having not fed properly in recent days. In a heart-stopping moment, we want her both to catch her prey and to not catch it, willing both animals to somehow live.

Leshan's words hold true. She is too weak to finish her chase and eventually loses her pace, turns and retreats slowly back the way she had come, eyeing the safari trucks in-front and stooping towards the lone tree on the hill.

After a morning of zebras, giraffes, elephants and ostriches which, at a distance, I mistake for more elephants ('Let me try and understand this,' says R, 'one has feathers and spindly legs, and the other doesn't?!'), we stop for lunch under an Acacia tree before heading off in search of leopards.

Leopards are among the most elusive of animals and high on R's list. They are usually found in tree tops. We find everything but leopards, including a pride of lions stretched out under a canopy of trees, shielding themselves from the heat of the sun, their tails twitching and twirling. They watch us, the watchers.

Later we sit outside our tent as the sky changes colour and the light starts to fade. Sparks fly from the campfire that crackles nearby. Our hosts have organised a BBQ bush dinner.

As we finish our food and reflect on our day, trying to avoid what we both know is a difficult week ahead, a deep humming, not unlike a didgeridoo, reverberates through the nighttime air, getting closer and closer.

I look at R.

R smiles.

A group of Maasai warriors, led by Leshan, step out of the darkness and skip and hum their way towards me. The next thing I know, I am in the middle of them, jumping to the rhythm of their voices, dancing with the Maasai.

Visit Fisi Camp in the Maasai Mara to find out more. 'Fisi' is the Swahili word for 'hyena'.

Taken from the blog Sunset Under the Baobab Tree: My African Life