Richard Madden finds it impossible not to be moved by the sight of a pride of lions or a leopard and her cubs in Tanzania.
Whenever I bump into a research scientist in the bush and start talking about animal behaviour, I'm always told not to be anthropomorphic. Which means I really shouldn't be giving pet names to elephants with floppy ears, cartoonlike warthogs, or even the local lion pride.
But I'm only human, and all the bush guides I've met never tire of it. After all: "Wow! You guys are really in luck today, looks like the Hairy Bikers are in town," trips off the tongue with far greater panache than, say: "I think that's Pride 3B over there."
So although I'm fully aware how important a rigorous scientific understanding of animal behaviour is for the conservation of the world's most endangered species, there are occasions when the engagement of human emotions is impossible to resist.
Our visit to Lamai Camp in the far north of the Serengeti in Tanzania was a case in point. The camp, opened in 2012, has a near-unique location, hidden away among the giant boulders of a huge kopje (the Afrikaans word for a "rocky hill") overlooking the Serengeti's epic savannah grasslands.
The region is classic big-cat country and lions regularly frequent the higher reaches and prowl around the camp at night. Among the local population is a 20-strong pride - a coalition of two adult males, six females, and no fewer than 12 cubs. Watching their antics and their politics was like tuning in to a daily soap opera. Sorry, there I go again.
Even more irresistible were the female leopard and her two cubs on another nearby kopje. Some sightings - a lion kill from start to finish, giraffes neck-fighting, hippos mating, or even just the shortest glimpse of an aardvark or a pangolin - are very rare. During our year in the bush my wife, Sarah, and I have seen leopards mating twice, but we had never seen a mother with cubs just a few weeks old.
The kopje in question is the perfect location for a nursery. Its dense foliage and rock-climbing trees make it less likely for the cubs to be found by lions or hyenas when the female is hunting. We first spotted them during an afternoon game drive. The cubs were playing in the undergrowth, clambering over roots, falling down the gaps between the rocks and chasing each other's tails. One, in particular, had huge staring eyes, still in the first throes of wonder at his brave new world.
Next day we saw them again on the other side of the kopje where we had an unobscured view of this idyllic family scene. On this occasion mum was in full view, paws outstretched like the Sphinx, her huge head slowly turning in a 90-degree arc as she kept watch. Every few minutes she would reach out a giant paw to catch her wriggling offspring before covering them in huge slobbery licks with her enormous tongue. This was pussycat heaven and only the stoniest of hearts would not have melted.
Nomad, which owns and runs Lamai Camp, is a Tanzania specialist and has some of the best and most unusual camps in the country, including Greystoke Mahale, the chimpanzee wonderland on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. While style and creature comforts are high on the agenda, the quality of the guests' wildlife sightings is priority.
To this end, Serengeti Safari and Nduara Loliondo are mobile and temporary camps respectively to allow guests to shadow the unpredictable course of the wildebeest migration through the Serengeti. The herds follow the rains that provide their food source (surface water and phosphorus-rich grass), giving birth in vast numbers along the way at the beginning of the rainy season in February and March. The babies stagger to their feet within minutes of being born.
On the daylong journey between the camps, driving by jeep across the grassland plains, we were surrounded by these strange creatures, many with newborn calves and some still trailing the dark turquoise and purple of the afterbirth. Often they are described as looking as if they are designed by committee, with a braying call that sounds very much like the hooter on Mr Toad's car.
Most people associate the wildebeest migration with the crossing of the Mara River, typically from late July onwards. It is one of the most dramatic events in the world wildlife calendar and a magnet for game vehicles, making it expensive and something of a circus.
Joining the migration at other points in its annual cycle may be less dramatic without the crocodile-feeding frenzies, but it feels less voyeuristic and more authentic, especially if it's just you and your guide in one vehicle. In this heightened environment of huge concentrations of game, inspirational sightings are the norm. On one day we saw a cheetah and her two cubs close to large herds of zebra. The zebra seemed totally unconcerned, instinctively knowing that the predators had full bellies and were not in hunting mode.
One of our strangest sightings was of a bachelor herd of 10 bull elephants heading towards us across this vast plain. "They're looking for food," Philip, our guide, told us.
"They'll have done this many times and know there are trees and waterholes to the south. They can also communicate over long distances using infrasound beyond the range of human hearing."
Along the way we stopped to examine the antics of one of the bush's smaller inhabitants, the surprisingly charismatic dung beetle. These industrious creatures spend their lives rolling dung into a ball to attract a mate before digging it into a shallow hole so the female can lay her eggs. Sometimes another male muscles in and after a short tussle separates his adversary from the all-important dung ball. The female immediately changes allegiance. "Not so different from humans!" observed Philip.
While at Loliondo, we also had one of the rarest sightings. The aardvark is nocturnal and notoriously difficult to see.
As it snuffled along in the beam of our guide's torch, its long hypersensitive nose sniffing out the termites that are its food source, we decided it must surely have been the inspiration for the puppets in Oliver Postgate's moon-dwelling Clangers. Not even a hint of anthropomorphism there.
Getting there: Emirates has daily flights from Auckland to Dar es Salaam via Dubai.
Further information: United Travel has a 16-day tour of Kenya and Tanzania, priced from $6449, pp.